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Foreign Reporting

This piece was written for my International Reporting class in Prague, in
December 2010.

 

PRAGUE – Jiri Rathousky led me through a building which appeared to be frozen in time from the Soviet-era 80’s—tattered brown leather chairs encircling glass tables for a sitting room, kitschy plastic plants lining tired beige walls, an old man leafing through a typewritten directory at the front desk. The Department of Structure and Dynamics, an institute under the umbrella of the Czech Academy of Sciences, hadn’t changed much at all.

“These elevators are really terrible, sometimes they break down, so we’re hoping for new ones soon,” Rathousky said as the metal doors clamped shut on us in the 4 by 4 ft elevator box.

But on the 6th floor of this 30-year old building constructed under communist rule, Rathousky and a small staff of about 10 are laboring on breakthroughs in nanotechnology research, a sector which many believe may be the science of the future due to its huge potential to improve the environment, preserve monuments, and create efficiencies in the use of batteries and solar energy.

Rathousky’s Department of Structure and Dynamics in Catalysis is only one of the several small laboratories and initiatives that have cropped up in the Czech Republic in recent years. This country of only 10 million has become the only post-communist country to make it to the top of Western nanotechnology research, ranking alongside highly reputable labs in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Spain in the past 20 years.

“From an independent overview, given the relatively low input of funds from the government, the Czech Republic’s output in the nanotechnology sector is comparable to that of the Western countries,” said Dr. Martin Pumera, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “The quantity of funds and labs are limited, but the quality of work is remarkable.”

Nanotechnology is the study of materials less than 100 nanometers on the metric scale—about 80 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Although a broad topic consisting of a wide array of technologies, it involves the assembling of new materials from the bottom up, on a molecular scale, resulting in the creation of materials that often are not naturally or biologically possible. It is the manipulation and modeling of matter at this tiny level that allows scientists to achieve remarkable advancements in medicine and energy, such as the ability to repair tissue or destroy cancer cells on the nano level.

Rathousky’s 6th floor lab, recently renovated through an EU grant, is working on creating a new self-cleaning surface made of nano-materials that, when spread over old statues, can scour years of accumulated dirt without damaging the original surface. In this way, Rathousky plans to use nanotechnology to preserve the old monuments of Prague. Only nano particles are small enough to slip into surface pores and convert the original surface into a more durable facade.

“We are doing this because some preservation detergents are poisonous not only to the statue surfaces, but also to people and the environment,” Rathousky said. With nanotechnology, tiny particles called micells are able to dissolve the dirt upon contact without damage.

But why has this modest country become a star on the nanotechnology stage? The Czech Republic lags behind when it comes to scientific funding—countries such as France, Germany and the U.S. have all increased their scientific funding during the past year despite economic hardship, while small labs here are struggling and scientists are leaving the country to find better pay. Not to mention the economic climate has discouraged young Czechs from entering the scientific scene—while in the countries mentioned above, there is more of an emphasis on keeping the young people involved.

Czech scientists like Rathousky, though paid a low salary (about a fifth of the salary of a scientist in the U.S. — not much more than minimum wage), believe the Czechs have been successful in the sciences simply because there is more drive to do well.

“When you have a small country with small lab staffs, you have to work extra hard and be even more
motivated,” he said.

Another cause stems from decent improvement in domestic funding from the Czech government in the past ten years. According to the 2009 guidebook for State Supported Research & Development in the Czech Republic, CZK 9.67 billion in 1999 has increased to the current CZK 23 billion during the last 10 years–an increase of 238% in funds for development of sciences.

But the biggest factor is perhaps a matter of learning from others — something the little country has gotten the hang of — especially scientific success giants like Japan or the U.S.

“Through European outreaching and collaborations and access to EU money, we have really made huge leaps forward,” Rathousky said. “You still have to work hard to apply to EU grants, but it increases our competitiveness on the international scene.”

The most recent indicator of the Czech Republic’s success in attracting EU funding for nanotechnology research lies in the development of a tiny chip that can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Along with 18 other Western European countries, the Czech Republic will receive 9 million Euros from the EU Commission. The Czech Republic is the only post-communist country on the list of leading participants.

Foreign investment has also played an enormous role in Czech science since the fall of communism. Vladimir Matolin, a physics professor at Charles University, calls it a “transfer of knowledge”—after 1989, foreign countries began to move their technologies and companies to the Czech Republic.

Although they continued to flourish there, Matolin says these “technologies were not created and developed here, but rather imported from other countries so they are not really our own.” In other words, in many of the sciences, the Czechs did not start their own research from scratch, but rather took advantage of the foreign companies who continued to do their own work on Czech soil.

The cheerleaders of the Czech nano scene, however, are limited. Others involved in scientific research believe that the nanotechnology scene is popular not because of its actual results, but because those who lobby for its funds are often skilled at making it seem more important than the other sciences, such as physics or chemistry.

“Many heads of nanotechnology research get involved in politics,” Matolin said. “They can influence the distribution of money from the ministry to certain science sectors by saying how important nanotechnology is. The average person doesn’t always understand what nanotechnology means, although it sounds new and exciting, and so those doing nanotechnology research get access to the money.”

Matolin, who worked as a scientist under Soviet rule, said that in order to have a sector funded during the regime, the head of the department or research project had to be in good political standing with the communist party. “It is similar” to the politics of funding sciences today, in which nanotechnology center heads often talk and sell their way into securing the funds, he said. And the ministry uses the “sexiness” of nanotechnology in the hopes of luring foreign investment.

While access to European money has improved science funding in the past two decades, many of the sciences continue to be underfunded, Matolin said. And although nanotechnology may be the most popular science in the Czech Republic, Jiri Rathousky’s 6th floor nano center still has a long way to go, to complete lab construction, organize equipment, and hire more scientists.

“One of the reasons why I left the Czech Republic for Singapore is because I couldn’t support my family there working as a scientist — I couldn’t pay rent,” Pumera said.  What the Czechs are lacking in funds, however, they are making up in hard work and quality of research.

“You really have to love science to work in the Czech Republic as a scientist,” Pumera said. “If you don’t love it, you don’t do it.”

This piece was published in the November 2010 issue of The New Presence magazine in Prague, Czech Republic.

 

PRAGUE – On September 21st, more than 30,000 public service workers took to the streets to protest
government austerity plans to reform the Labor Code and cut public service salaries by 10 percent. The center-right coalition plans budget cuts to reduce the current 4.6 percent public deficit to 3.0 percent by 2013. Teachers, firemen, and policemen joined the demonstration, some angry enough to claim that the right-wing government’s measures were the biggest infringement on employees’ and human rights since the fall of communism in 1989.

Worldwide crisis and gaping deficits have prompted sweeping austerity measures—and labor protests— across Europe. In the Czech Republic, the austerity measures affect society both domestically and
abroad, causing public discontent over unwelcome change to their daily lives. While Czech labor unions struggle to strengthen their role in a modern economy to influence this center right wing policy, Czech workers threaten to strike or even leave the country if their salaries are reduced. Despite good intentions to cut back spending, austerity measures have negative side effects that may outweigh the good, and there may be other solutions to balance the budget.

Deficit all over Europe

Other European countries facing similar deficits include Greece, France, Slovakia, and Spain, whose
governments are cracking down with even tougher austerity bills. In Spain, for example, public sector
wages were cut by 15 percent, and those earning higher than 175,000 euros per year would receive a 2
percent tax rate increase. Similarly in Greece, public sector wages were cut by 15 percent and the
retirement age raised to 65; pensions in both the private and public sector were cut by 10 percent.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ so-called “government of budget responsibility” plans to decrease the country’s deficit by more than just salary cuts. The austerity measures will foster cuts in military and welfare spending, tax exemptions, as well as the closing of several Czech consulates around the globe.

Nečas argued that the budget cuts are necessary if the Czech Republic is going to avoid becoming one of the “countries known for not being able to solve their own problems and threatened with painful correction measures not fully under their control.”

Negative Side Effects on Ordinary Lives

The two most important and media-publicized measures are the 10% salary cuts of public workers and the zonal remuneration system. If the measures are passed, public sector workers, ranging from
bureaucrats, police, nurses, firefighters, teachers, museum workers to orchestra members, would receive a 10 percent salary decrease in the next year. The zonal remuneration system would allow those managing individual public institutions to increase wages based on merit rather than seniority.

In other words, instead of automatically increasing the salary of older workers, management would have the freedom to indiscriminately raise wages, based on subjective judgment alone. This functions as a cost savings since all experience groups receive salary cuts, but also does not require senior workers to be paid more. In theory, management would not be legally obligated to increase anyone’s wages.hose with experience who have spent long years working for the same institution will no longer have the security they may have expected at retirement age, since in addition to general cuts, zonal
remuneration also implies future layoffs.

“The solution of how to reach the cut of 10 percent is up to the different institutions, whether they decide to take the path of salary cuts or employee dismissals,” government spokesman Martin Kupka told The Prague Post. “In most cases, it is going to be a mixture of both.”

“What is stupid about these cuts is it’s a one-size fits all; they take the same amount from everyone,”
said Jan Macháček, an economics reporter for Respekt magazine. “And these people, although in
qualified jobs, were already paid poorly.”

Trade Union of Health and Social Care Workers (OSZSP) Dagmar Žitníková believes that in particular, “social workers are those with the worst salary conditions” and that if the proposed measures are passed, the salary of these people would reach minimum wage.

Overall, the average salary of public sector workers is a little more than 20,000Kc a month. Teachers
get paid less, around 15,000Kc a month, and physicians are generally paid around 35,000Kc a month.
The average salary of public sector workers is about the same as the median salary in the Czech Republic, which is about 21,000Kc a month, but will soon drop if the 10% cuts are passed.

One of the most affected public sector areas is healthcare, and many predict that Czech doctors will flee the Czech system en masse in the next year. According to Reuters, a Czech head physician is already paid only about 250 to 300Kc an hour, which is equivalent to about $10-$12 an hour. Some 3,500 Czech doctors have threatened to leave the country to find higher wages in Germany or other Western European countries, which pay nearly four or five times as much.

While the September 21 protest and continuous public complaints brought attention mostly to these 10% salary cuts and zonal remuneration, the effects of the proposed austerity measures are even more
widespread. On the domestic front, retired soldiers and policemen would no longer have the perks of tax exemptions. Selected welfare benefits, subsidies for disabled people to hire assistants, and subsidies given to political parties and movements for their activities would all be reduced or completely cut.

They would also affect the Czech Republic’s influence abroad by closing several foreign bureaus,
including those in the Congo, Venezuela, Kenya, Yemen, and Costa Rica by January 2011. Czech
general consulates in Bombay, India and Sydney, Australia will also be closed. Military spending is to
be reduced while the ministry of foreign affairs is firing 10% of its staff—leaving even ambassadors
anxious for their jobs. Some have complained that the country would lose “diplomatic muscle” because of these cuts and the closing of embassies around the globe.

The Role of Czech Labor Unions

Amidst the turmoil over the austerity measures, the Czech labor unions are experiencing their own
growing pains, and must re-evaluate their roles in both government and economy in order to properly
function in a free market economy as influential institutions.

“Right now the Czech Republic is unsure of what society it will form or who to model after,” Macháček said. “Should we model after Austria, where the position of unions is stronger, or do we want to be able fight unions and overrule them? Do we want to be like Germany, or perhaps Scandinavia where unions have a lot of power?”

Prime Minister Nečas has remained firm in his stance to carry out the austerity plans, but the unions have, through media and publicity, managed to deter the government from at least a few measures.

Czech labor unions are not there just for show; they certainly have exhibited power in mobilizing media, and can indirectly affect policy. However, protests by Czech labor unions do not have as much influence over government policy as do the well-oiled, familiar strike scenes in France or Spain. This may be caused by the fact that the Czech public simply does not take part in labor protests or strikes to the same extent as they do in a country like France. On a deeper level, one can analyze the way Czech labor unions were accustomed to work under communism to better understand the current role of labor unions in the modern economy.

Zora Butorová, a Slovak sociologist and public opinion researcher, says that what differentiates the labor union scene in the Czech Republic and Slovakia from that in Western European countries is that “under communism, we didn’t get a chance to protest the government or learn how to do things collectively.”

Project Syndicate writes, “…[O]ld socialist functions have so distorted the notion of what a trade union is that many reformers fail to understand their role in a modern economy.”

In the West, unions are channels for information and power, which bridge the gap between workers and the government. Under communism, on the other hand, there was not much of a bridge between
workers and employers; “Communist era unions had a greater resemblance to human resource
departments of companies than true worker collectives and, as such, were controlled by management,”
Project Syndicate states.

Deciding the role of labor unions in the Czech Republic, as institutions that can directly affect the
economy, will be a major factor in Czech economic reform. The unions plan to hold a strike on December 8, 2010.

Negative Side Effects on a Broader Scale

While ordinary people will personally feel the immediate effects of the budget cuts, studies show that
austerity measures can have negative long-term effects that can stall the economy even more than it can help accelerate it.

Raiffeisenbank analysts calculate that austerity measures will slow the Czech economy’s growth by 0.8 percentage points. The small open economy’s growth, which is expected to increase by only 1.3 percent next year, will be largely driven by exports, VAT (value added tax) rate, and construction of solar power plants. This shows that the Czech Republic is more on par with its Western neighbors than it is with Slovakia or Poland, whose economies are expected to grow at higher rates. Unemployment is also expected to increase, according to Labor and Social Affairs Minister Jaromír Drábek.

“The examples of Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Latvia, Portugal, Greece and Spain all show one thing:
saving can be quite costly,” wrote journalist Petr Holub.

According to Eurostat, a detailed statistics database on the EU, these countries’ budget revenues were greatly reduced, but the expenses stayed the  same or even increased in some cases, in order to ease the effects of the global crisis. In The Financial Times, U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote, “A household that owes more money than it can easily  repay needs to cut back on spending. But when a government does that, output and incomes decline,  unemployment increases, and the ability to repay may actually decrease.” According to a recent poll in he Czech Republic, 58 percent of Czechs believe the austerity measures will lead to slower economic recovery.

Middle of the Road Solution

Those battling the center-right government over the cuts include Social Democrat and Parliament
Member Jan Hamáček, who considers the austerity debate one of the most controversial issues in
Parliament at the moment. “Although the Social Democrats will probably lose this battle, we want to
take a look at other solutions to the budget deficit,” which include corporate and income tax, sales tax,
which would cause the rich to be taxed more than the poor, he said during a meeting at Parliament. This, along with not-so-drastic budget cuts, would provide a more balanced solution.

“The current coalition government pledged during their campaign to not tax the rich, so they feel they
cannot fall through on this promise,” Hamáček said. “They are also more conservative, so they believe
that big companies actually need to be taxed less in order to flourish, especially in this economy. But we  need to focus on something that doesn’t put so much pressure on the middle class people.”

Those who oppose the center-right government’s austerity measures completely, such as the labor
unions, are more in favor of taxing the rich—but Macháček says this may not be any more effective.
“It’s a political symbol to tax the rich, but you can’t get much out of these taxes,” he said. “You have to
have a balance of cuts and tax increase. Here the coalition government says just cuts—and labor unions  are saying no cuts, only tax increases. But the best is when you have non-ideological experts, who offer  a middle-of-the-road solution.”

13 December 2011

NEW YORK, NY — South Africans are gathered at a bar in Times Square for a festive monthly reunion; they assemble as members of the Springbrook Club, which promotes the South African expatriate community in New York.  Everyone is wearing a nametag with his or her hometown on it—Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban—so they can bond with their fellow South African expats.  They reminisce about the food and beauty of their homeland, and recount nostalgic memories of a culture halfway across the world.  But Isaac Johnson, the only black South African present amongst these white Afrikaaners, lingers at the fringes of the mingling groups, alone.

“I hate going to the Springbrook Club,” Johnson said.  “I go there to give [the whites] the benefit of the doubt… but I feel so out of place.”

Johnson, who is originally from Cape Town, has been living in New York since 2003, when he moved here with his two daughters to give them a chance to attend college.  In South Africa, even with an engineering degree and his own business, Johnson wasn’t making enough money.  Now he participates in Springbrook events to network with the wealthier South Africans—the whites—in the hopes of starting a business here.  But in doing so, Johnson has discovered that racial divides so prominent in his home country have carried over to the NYC community as well.

“[South Africans] have facades that they put up,” Johnson said.  “On the surface a lot of the Springbrook members say, look, the whites and blacks are brothers.  You’re welcome here.  But that’s just to sugar-coat.  In reality, they look at me like, ‘What are you actually doing here?’”

17 years after the end of apartheid, racial divides remain among South Africans—rooted not only in their native country, but also in American communities nationwide.  These rifts, which were covered up during the transition period from apartheid to democracy, are reappearing as the ANC slips from its high ground as “Mandela’s party” and is redefined by a generation of younger leaders.  Corruption within the ANC and an undemocratic attempt to hide that corruption, along with a lingering tribal mentality, have prompted many to question whether Nelson Mandela’s vision of a “Rainbow Nation” had ever truly been established, or if it had merely been a dream.

South Africa has been a democratic nation since 1994, when a “non-racial” government—led by the African National Congress (ANC)—replaced apartheid in a non-violent transfer of power.  The leadership of Nelson Mandela and former apartheid leader FW de Klerk, as well as the ANC, transformed South Africa from an oppressive regime into a democratic nation, where whites and blacks could live together in peace.

“The majority of white South Africans who left South Africa probably left just when we obtained our freedom,” said Siphile Buthelezi, a Zulu lawyer who lived in NYC for four years.  “Obviously leaving the country under those circumstances, they still have those unresolved issues.  In a foreign country all the [expats] try and connect, but you cannot hide that there are unresolved issues.”

Johnson recalls a certain white member of the Springbrook Club who consistently taunts him with racist comments whenever he attends these New York events.   “He used to brag about how he killed black people in the South African Defense Force,” Johnson said.  “The first time I met him, I walked out of the place—I took it personally.  You cannot say those things, because another black person would really mess him up.”

Many white South Africans fled the country after apartheid ended in 1994, once their once privileged lives were threatened.  “After 1994, when things got dangerous for whites back in SA, a lot of the racist ones moved to the Southern parts of the States,” said Leon Naidoo, a South African diplomat currently living in NYC and working at the consulate.  “The South Africans who left after 1994 – there you will find pockets of racism.”

While black South Africans may endure racial harassment inside and outside of their homeland, other South Africans experience a different turmoil due to their mixed ancestry.  “Identity is a big issue for South Africa, and for guys like me, it’s even more complicated,” Naidoo said.  Naidoo’s great-great-grandfather on his father’s side came from India—while his mother is a mix of Dutch and Zulu.

“What is a South African?” Naidoo said.  “You could call it schizophrenia – from what we’ve gone through, we all have a disorder.”

ANC

The African National Congress (ANC) was the most influential party in leading the anti-apartheid movement.  With Mandela at its head, the ANC established itself as South Africa’s “moral beacon,” guiding the nation through its first tough years to become the “Golden Child”—the freedom-loving success story—of Africa.  Since Mandela’s retirement in 1999, the ANC has slipped into a darker phase riddled with corruption and racial wounds reopened by ANC youth leader Julius Malema’s commentary.  Furthermore, the ANC’s disconcerting inability to give up power has prompted many to question whether the legacy of Mandela’s freedom fight will be short-lived.

Malema, representing a party ruled by a black majority, is known for repeatedly singing “Shoot the Boer,” a violent song aimed at Afrikaaners, the white minority who ruled the country during apartheid.  South African Judge Colin Lamont ruled the song as hate speech, as an estimated 3,000 “Boers” or white farmers were murdered since 1994.  “The enemy has become the friend, the brother,” Lamont stated.  “This new approach to each other must be fostered.”  The ANC youth league argued that Lamont banned a song that conveyed “the struggle of the people of the Republic of South Africa.”

“The race issue was never dealt with, so now and then you’ll see it coming up,” said Buthelezi.  “People have pushed it aside and under the carpet.  They haven’t considered it a serious issue that needs to be resolved.”

Most recently, the government passed the Protection of Information Bill, which prohibits journalists from covering information that ANC deems “secret.”  The ruling reflects a step backward for democracy, and has been hotly debated both in South Africa and within the NYC community as an infringement on freedom of the press.

“I’m a little skeptical because the South African democracy hasn’t been tested yet,” said Larry Shore, a Film and Media Studies professor at Hunter College, who is originally from Johannesburg.  “We can get carried away by the miracle of democracy, but we have to be vigilant.”

Perhaps the ANC no longer maintains its moral high ground because the leadership that fought against apartheid—veterans like Mandela who had been exiled or jailed for freedom—are no longer in office and have been replaced by younger politicians such as Malema, who weren’t there during the apartheid fight.

“Mandela’s greatness has cast such an enormous glow over the post-apartheid transition that the next generation of ANC has gotten away with a lot of stuff,” Shore said.  “It’s been 20 years – the magic is over.”

Johnson also believes that it is time for the ANC to look beyond fighting apartheid, and to focus on the more pertinent issues threatening the young democracy, such as the Protection of Information Bill as a shield against inner-party corruption.  “We’re not fighting apartheid anymore,” Johnson said.  “We need to look to building South Africa as a whole.”

Identity crisis

With 11 national languages and a history of tribal conflict, South Africa is one of the most diverse African countries—unique also because of the historical influx of a large white population from Western countries such as the Netherlands and Britain.  Now that the “honeymoon” phase following the peaceful transition in 1994 — where the idea of a non-racial society seemed real – is just about over, the cracks along racial, tribal, and socioeconomic lines that were covered up are now reappearing in the ANC.

“Really, the ANC is a closet tribe that transcended all other tribes and came to power,” said Alan Brody, a South African expat living in NYC.  “It could conceivably be split over racial lines again if things go bad.  Originally, the ANC had the most power because it made an effort to transcend ‘tribalism’ – to overcome divides…  For Zulus, the tribe idea is really part of identity.  A lot of South Africa still has that [tribal] mentality, so the difference of identity is still there.”

But there are young South Africans living in New York who have a different, and perhaps fresher, view.  Lizeka Fitshane, 27, is a foreign exchange student who met another South African student, Geraldine, while they were both stuck at an airport in Senegal on their way to America.

“[Geraldine] is Afrikaans and I’m black, but she’s my best friend,” Fitshane said.  “Here in New York, as a South African, you find another South African and you just hit it off.  It’s really about your personality more than it is about race… That’s in New York of course – it’s a different case [in South Africa].”

Progress in the long run

Many South Africans contend that while their democracy is still nascent, it is more mature compared to other African nations.  South Africa’s peaceful transition from oppressive regime to democracy is a model for countries all over the world that are currently undergoing their own wars for freedom.  A violent racial revolution would have been likely had the black majority not grown tolerant instead of finding revenge, and had the transition not been aided by restorative justice measures like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  And in spite of cronyism, corruption and racial conflict, the democracy has remained intact for now.

“As a teenager, you wanted to test the limits,” Naidoo said.  “We’re a 17-year-old democracy so we’re brash.”

Buthelezi agrees that South Africa has made progress, and it’s also too soon for it to be at the same level as more established democracies.  “The U.S. still battles race issues after 200 years—we’re just kids,” he said.

Although it may be impossible to completely erase racial or identity differences, many still have hope that through a greater common cause, South Africans can overcome the disparities between them.  “One shouldn’t approach South Africa over its differences, but rather how tolerant the majority has become towards the minority,” Naidoo said.  “The differences that divide the tribes are smaller than the issues that concern them all.”

Fitshane is still able to find a common identity despite the diversity.  “I would say South Africans have ubuntu—which means humanity,” she said.  “We’re just happy souls.”

15 November 2011

NEW YORK, NY — A native South African clothed in tribal Zulu regalia, guitar in hand, stands on a tiny makeshift stage in a crowded restaurant.  What makes heads turn is not that he’s wearing a animal-skin headband or that he’s performing on tour in Brooklyn—but that he’s white.­­­

19-year-old David Jenkins is tall, thin and pale; he stands out among the wide spectrum of black, brown, and mixed-race Africans at Madiba restaurant.  He plays the first chords of a traditional Zulu song, proving that he has mastered the intricate double-fingered guitar picking known only to Zulu musicians.  A group of Zulus in the restaurant immediately recognize the tune; they break into cheers and dance in their seats.

Jenkins is known as the White Zulu, a young man who transcends racial boundaries through his deep connection to native black music.  In a country still racially divided 17 years after apartheid’s end, he performs amidst a myriad of contrasting cultures, languages and identities.

“As a young boy, I was fascinated by the Zulu warrior culture,” Jenkins says, “but it soon became more than [that]… I became interested in the whole history.  The Zulus have an extremely strong identity.”   The largest and most well-known tribe in South Africa, the Zulus became dominant under King Shaka Zulu in the early 1800s, when he revolutionized their military and transformed them into a warrior tribe.

Jenkins’ infatuation led him to discover their traditional music—maskandi—which struck an even deeper chord within him.  “You have to use both your forefinger and thumb when playing maskandi,” Jenkins says.  “It’s the way you play both the melody and bass at the same time.”  This unique guitar picking that enters the song after the intro, he says, gives him the goosebumps. “When I start playing it at Zulu celebrations, [the Zulus] go wild, even all the old guys.”

Although he was born and raised in eastern South Africa where the tribe is most prominent, Jenkins didn’t discover Zulu culture entirely on his own.  His journalist father, Chris Jenkins, had access to Zulu celebrations, festivals, and music competitions.  The elder Jenkins brought his son along on assignments, often into poor, rural areas—past the line that most sheltered South Africans would cross.

Jenkins soon discovered he had more in common with his Zulu friends than his white friends.  After his father died in 2008, he became the only white kid in his high school class to study Zulu language instead of Afrikaans, a South African form of Dutch.

“This differentiated David from other children,” his mother, Sue Jenkins, writes in an e-mail.  “He was in a strange position where there were no white children with the same interest … he was the only white child attending these [Zulu] events.”

Siphile Buthelezi, a South African attorney who lived and worked in New York City for a year, is one of the influential Zulus who came to Madiba to see Jenkins perform during his month-long U.S. tour.  Other Zulus at Madiba included diplomats from the South African consulate, some in town for the UN General Assembly.   Buthelezi first saw Jenkins perform on “South Africa’s Got Talent” in 2009.

“For a white person to sing Zulu music, that is eye-catching,” Buthelezi says.  “Of course [Jenkins] cannot be as Zulu as I am, but he has done very well in impressing us and embracing our culture.”

Isaac Johnson is a South African expatriate currently living in New York, whose father was a Xhosa—the second largest tribe next to the Zulu tribe.  Johnson believes that Jenkins is “just another white guy” trying to be something he’s not.  “Why doesn’t he portray his own culture?” Johnson says.  “We try to portray our own culture here with our accents and foods.  Look at the color of my skin—I’m black.  I’m from Cape Town.  I stick to that.”

Jenkins, however, doesn’t lose his cool.  He brushes off any racially charged attitudes.  “If you’re black, you’re black. If you’re white, you’re white. And if you’re coloured, well then you’re coloured—that’s all there is to it,” he shrugs.

“I respect what he’s doing—it’s not easy,” says Jemaine Diedricks, a server at Madiba restaurant, also from Cape Town.  “He’s definitely taken people by surprise.”

Jenkins doesn’t expect the same elated reaction from white audiences when he plays maskandi songs, so he has to maintain a fine balance between traditional Zulu and English lyrics.  But he has noticed that if anything, his white audiences respect him.  “[The whites] aren’t going to go wild at the song, but in the end I get a lot of compliments from them,” Jenkins says.  “They do appreciate it.”

“I believe a lot of white South Africans could learn something from him,” Sue Jenkins writes.  “He’s a wonderful example to many of us.  Sadly, ignorance and fear prevent people from branching out into the various cultures … Hopefully David, through his warmth and his music will be able to make a difference, even if only in some small way.”

20 September 2011

NEW YORK, NY — Jane Dai held up the last picture that was taken of her family together.  Her one-year-old daughter smiles in between her and her husband, who was arrested, tortured by electric shock and killed by Chinese authorities at age 34 for practicing the spiritual exercise known as falun gong.

Dozens of falun gong practitioners and persecution victims attended a press conference today in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the United Nations to urge South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to stop deporting falun gong asylum-seekers.  Since 1999, the Chinese Communist government has arrested and tortured hundreds of thousands of practitioners, and nearly 4,000 have been killed.

According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, the South Korean government has sent 10 falun gong refugees back to China, and denied asylum to the 56 who have applied.  “These people risk death by being deported,” Dai said.  “I don’t want more people to end up like my husband.”

Dai and her husband became practitioners after her father-in-law was cured from kidney failure through his falun gong exercises.  “My husband was arrested and killed in 2001 for handing a letter to the government that simply stated, ‘falun gong is good,’” she said. Two months later, Dai’s father-in-law who had been cured by the same practice, died from grief over the loss of his son.

Practitioners sat on mats in 3 long rows, cross-legged and holding their hands together, palms inward.  At times they closed their eyes while they listened to speakers, emanating a sense of peace.  Banners stretched above their bowed heads stated, “Stop genocide in China!”

Falun gong is an ancient spiritual practice that has been practiced privately in Chinese homes for a thousand years.  The exercise, which incorporates teachings of Buddhism and Taoism and helps energize the body and mind, was reborn in the 1990s when founder Li Hongzhi aimed to bring its teachings to the rest of the world.

“[B]efore the persecution, all mainstream society would take part in this exercise,” Dai said.  “Even communist officials would practice it – professional people all did it.  It was all over college campuses.”

The Chinese regime grew wary of falun gong’s growing popularity and its independence from government when, in 1999, it banned the practice.  “The Chinese government is fearful of falun gong because it upholds the principle of truth,” said practitioner Lucio Armellin.  “A regime like the Chinese government cannot exist if the truth is exposed.”

Asylum deportations fall under South Korean law, but many human-rights groups and falun gong practitioners say it is a violation of international law and basic human rights.

Dai was not the only widow present at the conference.  Muluan Luo, 60, and her husband had escaped to Thailand in 2005 after experiencing persecution.  “In 2006, the U.S. offered us refugee asylum,” Luo said.  “Very soon after, my husband was killed in a so-called ‘car accident’ that was plotted by the Chinese government, before we could move there.”

Nadia Ghattas, though not Chinese-born, has become involved with the New York falun gong community, which can be found in various parks throughout the city.  She explained that its focus is on truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.

“The more I hang around the Chinese, the more I feel I have a connection with them,” Ghattas said.  “If there’s harmony within yourself, there’s harmony around you, which ultimately leads to peace.”

In between speakers, the practitioners demonstrated the 8 round, slow movements that define this meditative exercise in unity.

New York Falun Dafa Association representative Dr. Wenyi Wang smiled as she recalled a time before persecution.  “In my hometown of Changchun, 5,000 people would come together in a big park to practice these movements,” she said.  “It was a beautiful sight.”

written in SEPTEMBER 2010, with Liz Dana

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – While the debate on Sarkozy’s decision to remove illegal foreign Romas from France continues abroad, the human rights department in the Czech Republic is not taking much of a stand at home. Prime minister Petr Necas officially removed Michael Kocab from human rights commission head on September 16, after weeks of fighting over when he will leave.

The resignation leaves many human rights and minority advocates questioning how much importance is being placed on human rights policy in the Czech Republic. Although Roma issues in the Czech Republic are not as visible as they are in neighboring Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary, some Roma advocates feel Czech politicians are placing human rights on the backburner, and Kocab’s resignation is another loss in a diminishing emphasis on human rights.

Jiri Pehe, Director of New York University in Prague and former Director of the Political Department of Czech President Vaclav Havel, says “This government is not particularly interested in human rights, and with Kocab stepping down it’s certainly just another downgrade in the human rights and minorities department.”

Kocab, a musician-turned-politician, was not as politically-savvy as some of his counterparts, Pehe said. “He never really behaved as a politician … He was, however, an important figure for human rights in general in the Czech Republic.”

Kocab’s advocation for the Roma include his battle at Chomutov, a town which forced its Roma population to move to the outskirts of the city, into what essentially became a ghetto. He was also a strong fighter against compulsory sterilization of Roma women.

Necas had asked Kocab to leave earlier in the month. “I expected the government to immediately appoint a new (human rights) commissioner if it dismissed me Wednesday,” Kocab told CTK. His request was not followed through, but Roman Joch has stepped up as human rights adviser to the prime minister.

Kocab previously held the position of Minister for Human Rights and Minorities.  The Green Party requested that he step down after they withdrew from the cabinet earlier this spring. Since then, Kocab had been serving as a representative for human rights in the human rights commission, which holds less power than his previous position as a cabinet minister.

Kumar Vishwanathan, an advocate for Roma rights, believed Kocab, unlike the current center-right government in power, was not afraid to take a stand on minority issues.  “He had a strong agenda and was not afraid to go against the grain,” Vishwanathan said in a phone interview.

Joch explained in a phone interview that his perception of “human rights” was different from that of Kocab. “It’s too early to say what the future of human rights in the Czech Republic will be, but there will be a shift from collective privileges to a focus on basic rights for everyone.”

Petr Mach, external economic adviser to President Vaclav Klaus and executive director of the Center for Economics and Politics, says Kocab and the left wing focus too much on affirmative action, or privileges, for certain minorities while Joch’s business-minded agenda focuses on taxpayers and the free market. He also went on to explain that it was completely normal for representatives and ministers to shift and step down from office if a new party came into power in the cabinet. “People were making fun of Kocab because he was so insistent on staying,” Mach said.

Joch also stated in the interview that some parts of the human rights commission were unnecessary and that certain small changes will be made, but there will be no dramatic difference in the emphasis on human rights in the Czech government. He was considering abolishing the human rights commission altogether on grounds that it was unnecessary, but has decided it will probably not be removed.

Kocab explained the commission’s agenda to Joch before he stepped down, but said they ran into ideological differences over the commission’s goals.

“What Roman Joch is emphasizing is a misunderstanding of the agenda of my office,” Kocab told The Prague Post. “Of course, the taxpayers and family rights are also very important, but there are many more, bigger government departments to manage these agendas. This is not a task for my office. We deal with minorities.”