Durban’s wharfies show way to their Govt

What a delight to see the people of southern Africa act decisively where their governments have failed.

Ten days ago, the Chinese ship, the An Yue Jiang, was left stranded outside the South African port of Durban after local workers refused to unload its cargo of arms bound for Zimbabwe’s Mugabe regime.

The cargo included 3080 cases comprising three million rounds of ammunition for AK-47 assault rifles and 69 rocket-propelled grenades, as well as mortar bombs and tubes. These are vital supplies for the campaign of state terror being waged by the mad, megalomaniac Mugabe, the Idi Amin of Zimbabwe.

The South African government had approved the arms transfer across its territory to the land-locked regime without a scruple. South Africa’s Defence Secretary January Masilela said it was a normal transaction between two sovereign states (China and Zimbabwe). “We are doing our legal part and we don’t have to interfere.”

The head of South African government communications Themba Maseko said the country could not stop the shipment from getting to its destination as it had to be seen to be “treading very carefully” in its relations with Zimbabwe as it was helping facilitate talks between the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF grouping. The same mealy-mouthed comments have been repeated ad nauseum over the years while Zimbabwe’s agony continues.

Compare that with the plain speaking of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU). Its general secretary, Randall Howard, said: “SATAWU does not agree with the position of the South African government not to intervene with this shipment of weapons. Our members employed at Durban Container Terminal will not unload this cargo and neither will any of our members in the truck-driving sector move this cargo by road.”

He said the ship should return to China. “South Africa cannot be seen to be facilitating the flow of weapons into Zimbabwe at a time when there is a political dispute and a volatile situation between the Zanu-PF and the MDC.” What a fresh breath of principled common sense.

Alongside the workers, the local Anglican bishop Rubin Phillips applied to the Durban High Court to prevent the arms reaching Zimbabwe. The court upheld the application as the required government permit had not yet been issued.

Banned from Durban, the ship first sailed north towards Mozambique and then back south around the cape and headed towards Namibia and Angola. It had numerous options, according to Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, because there are 32 ports in Africa south of the Equator where its $R9.88 million cargo could be unloaded. However, once the Durban port workers had highlighted the issue it rapidly became a rallying point for groups across Southern Africa deeply frustrated and embarrassed at the lack of action by their government to deal with their tyrant neighbour.

Angola and Mozambique both said the ship was not welcome in their ports and Zambia called on all countries to stop the arms reaching Zimbabwe. At the time of writing, it appeared the ship was returning to China friendless and isolated.

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party has prevented the country’s Electoral Commission releasing the results of the March 29 presidential election. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change won the majority of parliamentary seats and by all credible accounts also won the presidency. However, Mugabe has forced a recount in 23 constituencies, most of which were won by the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai.

And while the election result is officially stalled, the violent crackdown against opposition supporters has been reinvigorated.

Zimbabwe church leaders have issued a joint statement calling for international intervention to help end the country’s election crisis. They reported people being tortured, abducted and even murdered in the crackdown. Random and systematic acts of violence against MDC candidates, activists and supporters have resumed. It’s business as usual for Mugabe and his thugs.

This appeal falls on deaf ears in South Africa where blind loyalty is thicker than blood for South African President Thabo Mbeki. His government is wholly complicit in the crime against humanity being perpetrated in Zimbabwe. Just as South Africa’s own population suffers from a ruling ANC, which has become corporate and comfortable, so the suffering people of Zimbabwe find few friends in South Africa’s corridors of power.

What the South African workers did was probably illegal but it was the right and courageous thing to do. As the saying goes when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. Theirs was a principled act of international solidarity. Let’s give a big cheer for the wharfies in Durban.

Tongariro tragedy will bring many questions to the fore

In my first year teaching, I took a mixed group of Form 3 and 4 students for a five-day tramp around Lake Waikaremoana. Another first year teacher and his wife made up the three adults. It was part of what the school called wider living week at the end of every second year when students had a choice of outdoor activities.

It was the first of many great experiences and whenever I come across former students, the things they remember the best are not the hours in the classroom but the experiences they had on tramps and camps. These trips can deeply enrich and extend their world dramatically in just a few days.

Nowadays, teachers must complete detailed risk assessments before any significant outdoor activity but there was no special training for teachers at the time of my first tramp. The fact I’d done the particular tramp before was seen as a bonus rather than a requirement. Common sense was seen as the best guard against tragedy and it remains so today.

Thankfully, I’ve only had one real scare taking students into the bush. I was with a group tramping up to Lake Waikareiti to stay the night before tramping out the next day. We found a lone possum trapper in the hut whose heart must have sunk into his boots when 20 teenagers and assorted adults descended upon his peace and quiet deep in the Urewera bush.

The following morning, we gathered for a final briefing and counting-off before setting off. At the front was a recently arrived Afghani boy who it turned out had not understood the instructions. He didn’t want to be constrained by the slower pace of the group and took off from the front and disappeared along the track. The first rule with an incident like this is to secure the group before dealing with the problem. We did so and the main group waited while myself and a couple of students dropped our packs and set off at pace to catch up with him. We didn’t. After five minutes it was clear he was still well ahead so we returned and got the main group moving again. The next four hours tramping out were possibly the worst of my time teaching. He could easily have missed the track at any number of places and become lost. It was a mixture of relief and anger to see his grinning face at the road end. He was probably more in danger from me than the bush. I could have throttled him.

Back at school, it became another thing to go on the checklist for future camps but despite the best planning and attention to detail there will be times when combinations of circumstances put students in danger in the outdoors. We can minimise the risks but we will never eliminate them. No matter what we learn from last week’s tragedy where six students and a teacher drowned in a flash flood at Tongariro, we need to remember this. But besides more attention to safety these days. there have been changes which are reducing opportunities for the bulk of students to enjoy the outdoors.

There is now a strong tendency for outdoor education to focus on high-energy, high-adrenalin events rather than the outdoor experience in its own right. Students tackle high ropes courses, canoeing, rock climbing, abseiling, canyoning, white water rafting etc. There is a feeling that unless the experience is seen as exciting and adrenalin pumping it won’t appeal to students used to the instant gratification of video-games, cellphones or digital movies.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these activities but they require specialist staff which pushes up the cost and they are out of reach of many. Needless to say schools are not funded to provide comprehensive outdoor education and at many schools it is an opportunity restricted to a few senior students.

In coming weeks, there will be many questions asked about the Tongariro tragedy which will focus on the skills of the teachers and supervisory staff, the quality of the equipment and the safety procedures. This is fine to ensure we keep outdoor activities as safe as we can but its likely to bypass the wider issue of why most New Zealand teenagers don’t get these opportunities.

There is a lot of talk about the outdoors being a birthright for every New Zealand student. This is true, but we need to rethink the types of outdoor activities and their funding so that all students get the chance to benefit. Outdoor education doesn’t have to imitate a movie. The best outdoor experiences speak for themselves.

Tertiary student debt a $10b boil that must be lanced

It is $10 billion and growing by the day. Like a big boil on the backside of the community, it is painful for the victims, worrying to most of us and embarrassing for the Government. It is the millstone of shame our politicians have put around the necks of young New Zealanders. It is student debt and a story of intergenerational theft.

My parents grew up in the 1930s depression and neither had the opportunity for tertiary study. However, their generation voted consistently for governments which made tertiary education free for 50 years. They ensured their children would receive the educational opportunities they were denied. Disaster followed in 1984 as political power transferred from the generation of Prime Minister Rob Muldoon to the post-war generation of Dave Lange, Roger Douglas, Helen Clark and Phil Goff. These Labour politicians set about looting the legacy of their parents and denying free tertiary education to their children.

In their excited neo-liberal rush to user pays, they raised tertiary fees. These were small increases at first, but once governments had forward momentum, they were ramped up to the point where students needed to borrow for polytech or university courses.

The student loan scheme was born, and here we are today with half a million New Zealanders $10 billion in debt. This ignominious milestone was passed last week.

Governments claim they cannot afford to fully fund tertiary education because lots more young people study beyond school these days and it would cost the Government too much. The first part is true but the second is not. It is simply a matter of priorities.

New Zealand can easily afford free tertiary education for everyone. The Government has been running budgets of several billion in surpluses for several years now. These alone could pay tertiary fees and a whole lot more besides.

As if to prove it, Labour and National have lined up for a tax-cut showdown in election year. Each is proposing several billion dollars in election bribes masquerading as tax cuts.

Another practical way to pay for free tertiary education would be to renationalise Telecom. The massive profits from this single company alone would have covered the student fees for everyone these past 20 years had it not been sold by the same politicians who brought us student debt. Somehow, it is more important to the Government for wealthy shareholders to share Telecom’s spoils among themselves rather than return them to the community.

Labour says it has done a lot in recent years to ease the burden on students, most notably by removing interest from student loans. However, in practice, it has allowed tertiary fees to rise at well above the rate of inflation – 5 per cent yearly increases are standard.

At Tangaroa College, in Otara, in 2005, we estimated the tertiary fees for our seventh formers leaving for study at $240,000 for their first year. These were students from low-income areas and the very people needed to receive the opportunities my generation’s parents provided for us.

Its a tragedy that the strongest supporters of tertiary fees still hold sway despite most of the public being on the side of students. These are the likes of the Business Roundtable, which has argued for tertiary fees to treble in size as the Government winds back its contribution from about 75% of the cost to just 25%. They suggest tertiary education is no different to buying a car. Just as we have a choice between a Lada and a BMW, we should enjoy the same choice in education.

But like all choices, how much choice you get depends on how much you can pay. For the wealthy, it is a BMW education for a professional career, while for the poor it is a McEducation for a McJob. There is already ample evidence that young people from low-income communities are turning away from higher-quality tertiary education because of the cost.

It is heartening to see the level of disquiet in the community continuing as it has from the outset. This means each political party will pull some new policy from the bag before the election. Labour will probably write off some debt if students remain in New Zealand and work in their first few years after study, while National proposes to give discounts on debt to students who pay the debts off more quickly. Other parties are suggesting writing off debt for those who have skills which are in short supply.

But none of these policies will do the job. It is reassuring that at least the Green Party and the Maori Party recognise the importance of free tertiary education. The boil must be lanced.

China trade deal a blunder

It is difficult to quantify the size of Helen Clark’s blunder when she signs the free-trade agreement with China today because although we don’t know the precise details, it is abundantly clear the agreement will be bad for New Zealand workers, bad for Chinese workers and a slap in the face for Tibetans struggling under China’s yoke.

The Government claims New Zealand will benefit from millions of dollars in extra trade which will grow our economy and make us richer. We are told we should be thrilled to be the first developed country to sign such a deal with China.

However, while trade will increase and, on paper, the economy will grow, it will not improve the standard of living of New Zealanders. In fact, for many of the most vulnerable it will be disastrous.

Back in the late 1980s New Zealand enjoyed a trade surplus with China. We exported more than we imported. This reversed dramatically when import tariffs were removed or phased out.

There was a flood of cheap imports from China which turned the trade surplus into a billion-dollar deficit. When the Government began negotiations for the free-trade agreement in December 2004 the deficit with China was $1.5 billion. A year later it had grown to over $2b. Our exports stagnated while China flooded the country with sweated imports.

Tens of thousands of jobs were lost from our manufacturing sector as New Zealand companies went to the wall. Some survived only by shifting their manufacturing base to China. Others transformed into importing companies and helped fill the shelves of The Warehouse with cheap junk we think we need.

But these bargain goods carry a very high price. The Ministry of Economic Development has estimated 16 jobs are lost for every $1 million of imported products we could make here.

A simple calculation shows about 50,000 jobs lost to Chinese imports alone. As more tariffs are phased out under the free-trade agreement we can expect as many as 20,000 more New Zealand workers to lose their jobs, with many more families driven below the poverty line.

None of this seems to concern the Government. To our politicians this is free trade on one of those fictitious level playing fields. The Chinese economy is built on long hours, child labour, forced labour and poverty wages. Is it free trade when New Zealand workers are expected to compete with workers paid less than $1 an hour for 16-hour days? Is it free trade when China operates prison labour camps where as many as seven million inmates work without pay and nothing in the way of health and safety standards, to produce goods to compete with New Zealand products? China has repeatedly refused to sign up to even the most basic of labour standards under the International Labour Organisation, such as bans on forced labour and the right to organise independent trade unions. Those Chinese who dare to speak out are silenced.

Why would New Zealand give preferential trade status to a regime like this?

Helen Clark had a different view back in November 1998. She decried National leader Jenny Shipley putting trade ahead of human rights and said we have had this pitiful simpering about there being a distinction between business issues and issues of human rights and democracy. If that value had been applied in 19th century England and North America, then we would still have slavery, because the representatives of those who employed slaves would claim that there was no connection between that issue and their business values.

A year later, in the speech from the throne, the newly elected Labour Government told us that legitimate issues of labour standards and environmental concerns need to be integrated better with trade agreements.

But all this has gone out the window. They were just pious platitudes. The Clark Government is dealing with these 21st century slave-owners, buying their products at reduced rates and helping the regime bolster its stranglehold on democracy and human rights.

And what about the Tibetans? The Government said it was very concerned at the reports of repression and violence in Tibet. Helen Clark said she was waiting for more information. It was a way of buying time and praying the Chinese army would crush the Tibetan struggle quickly so the story would drop from the headlines long enough for her to arrive in Beijing with her 150-strong delegation for her performance as the deal-making queen of international trade.

She may as well sign in the blood of Chinese workers and Tibetan freedom fighters.