Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Everyday chemicals may affect brain development, including foetal IQ

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Disruption of the thyroid hormones can prevent tadpoles from becoming frogs.

All vertebrates – from frogs and birds to human beings – require the same thyroid hormone to thrive. Every stage of brain development is modulated by thyroid hormone and, over millions of years, the structure of this critical hormone has remained unchanged.

But, increasingly, the trappings of modern life are preventing it from playing its critical role in human brain development. Thyroid hormone signalling is very vulnerable to interference by chemicals that can scramble the endocrine communication routes between cells.

These endocrine disruptors, as they are called, include ubiquitous chemicals such as pesticides, plastifiers, flame retardants and surfactants, all of which are found in our food, non-stick pans, furniture, cleaning products, clothes and cosmetics. They are even found in the air we breath and the water we drink.

This is bad news for our brains, and children’s brains in particular. Thyroid hormone serves multiple functions in orchestrating the production and differentiation of the 100 billion cells that make up the human brain. Without the right amount of thyroid hormone at the right time, human babies will suffer severe intellectual disabilities, developing an IQ of only about 35.

In a recent experiment, conducted on tadpoles, we tested the hypothesis that common chemicals in the environment, singly and as a mixture, can interfere with brain development in humans.

Tadpoles help scientists understand how human brains develop, as we share similar thyroid hormones.
Benny Mazur/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Previous work had showed that tadpoles with endocrine disorders couldn’t metamorphose, that is, they never become frogs. Our paper, published on March 7 in Scientific Reports, shows that young tadpoles exposed to a mixture of common chemicals at concentrations routinely found in human amniotic fluid not only modified thyroid hormone signalling but also reduced the total number and size of neurons and inhibited tadpole movement.

Even with limited exposure of three days, we observed significant effects on the tadpoles’ brain development. Tadpoles have long been used to study human developmental processes, including in the first cloning experiments back in the late 1950s because they offer important insights into how brains develop.

The autism debate

These findings raise a number of concerns.

Global chemical production has increased 300 times over the last 50 years, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Given that all of the common molecules we used in our experiment are found at similar concentrations in human amniotic fluid, one must be concerned about the potential effects of this mixture on foetal brain development.

In recent years, we have learned that small variations in a woman’s thyroid hormone levels during early pregnancy significantly impact her child’s IQ and brain structure, including the ratio of grey matter (neurons) to white matter (glia cells).

Similarly, it has been repeatedly shown in longitudinal epidemiological studies that children born to mothers with high levels of certain thyroid disrupting chemicals, such as PCBs or flame-retardants, have lower IQs. Children born to mothers exposed to pesticides or other chemicals can also display more neurodevelopmental problems.

Clean, perhaps, but not so safe.
Siyavula Education/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Might intra-uterine exposure to thyroid-disrupting chemicals, then, be linked to the apparent rise in neurodevelopmental diseases, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

Different data sets from Asia, Europe and North America have shown increases in autism spectrum disorders and ADHD. Today in the United States, one in 42 boys is diagnosed as on the autism spectrum.

The incidence of autism in the US increased significantly between the data sets published in 2000 and 2014. The human genome did not change during this time, nor can changed diagnosis criteria or increased awareness entirely account for the increase.

Research emphasises the genetic bases of autism spectrum disorders, but it is highly plausible that environmental factors could exacerbate genetic susceptibilities. In studies conducted on gestating rats, autism-like behaviour in offspring has been linked to disruptions in thyroid-hormone signalling, specifically hypothyroidism.

Dropping IQs

Endocrine disruption may also tell us something about the IQ decreases observed in certain populations.

Comparing IQ in different populations at different time points is, of course, not scientifically rigorous. But measuring IQ at a given time point in a given population exposed to different levels of chemicals can be meaningful.

Several data sets from around the world have shown IQ scores dropping over time. Military recruitment boards in Finland and Denmark demonstrate this decrease, and similar losses are seen in other populations, including adults in France and children in the United Kingdom.

Other data shows that reaction time in young people is slowing. This is surprising, perhaps, given that many young people today play screen games that require rapid responses.

But the speed of neuronal transmission is dependent on myelination, the formation of the lipid sheath around the neurons, which requires thyroid hormone. Thus, reaction time is vulnerable to interruption by the endocrine disruptors present in our everyday lives.

The mechanisms that may link chemical thyroid-hormone disruption with increased brain disorders and decreasing IQ are further explored in my 2017 book, Toxic Cocktail: How chemical pollution is poisoning our brains.

The takeaway

Today, chemical contamination is such that we are all exposed to hundreds of chemicals, few of which have been fully tested for their toxic effects. Little is known about their potential effects on our hormonal systems, and even less about how they act together as mixtures to have a “cocktail effect”.

Our findings showing adverse effects on tadpoles’ thyroid-hormone signalling, including reduced neuronal number and mobility, indicate the urgent need to revisit the way chemicals are tested before they hit the market.

As a cautionary tale, recall that paracetamol, the main ingredient in many painkillers, which was previously considered safe during pregnancy, is now linked to behavioural problems in children. Doctors now suggest that pregnant women avoid all medications, acknowledging the acute susceptibility of fetuses to drugs and chemicals. The concept is scientifically grounded in the developmental origin of adult disease: prenatal factors, we now know, can cause disease later in life.

In modern life, every pregnant woman is exposed to hundreds of chemicals. Not only are these chemicals found in her bloodstream but also in the amniotic fluid that surrounds her developing child.

The ConversationOur tadpole experiments show that this exposure compromises the hormonal regulation that underlies brain development. Processes honed through millions of years of evolution are now very much endangered.

Barbara Demeneix, Professeur en endocrinologie, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN) – Sorbonne Universités

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

What game theory says about dealing with North Korea

North Korea fired its third missile in three weeks on May 29, once again drawing protests from South Korea and Japan. Tensions have been rising in the region since the start of the year when Kim Jong-Un’s regime started a series of tests, of which this is the ninth.

National leaders attending the recent G7 meeting in Italy agreed that deterring North Korea should be a top priority, according to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but given the reclusive nation’s belligerence, options are scarce.

One way to try to choose the best way forward is by applying game theory to the situation on the Korean peninsula.

Roll of the dice

Game theory applies to conflict and cooperation within competitive situations. It posits that a cooperative outcome is possible when the game is repeated infinitely, the number of players is small and information about the game is known to all the players.

A positive outcome is when there’s reciprocalism; when there’s the option of retaliating against cheating behaviour because the game repeats infinitely. Players have little incentive to cheat if retaliation is an option and the result is cooperation.

But if the game is one-off or repeated a finite number of times, has a large number of players, and each player doesn’t know the other players’ strategy, then each will choose a “self-oriented” outcome. In this scenario, each player chooses the best solution individually rather than cooperating. The result is second-best for all.

What’s happening on the Korean peninsula is more like the latter scenario. Dealing with North Korea’s missile development and nuclear program with a pre-emptive attack would be neither easy nor desirable, and the main players will likely pursue their own self-interest.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that North Korea has announced that it intends to retaliate against any military action.

This could result in a humanitarian catastrophe as South Korea’s capital Seoul is only 60 kilometres from the border. And the 28,500 US troops based in South Korea might also bear the brunt of the North’s retaliation.

Any counter-attack by North Korea would invoke retaliation from the South, in turn, and could result in war on the Korean peninsula. Or humiliation for both the US and South Korea if they don’t react. The exact locations of North Korea’s missiles are largely unknown anyway.

A better option for constraining North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles may be to tighten current economic sanctions and impose new ones if necessary.

For this, China is pivotal. The country is North Korea’s number one trading partner. China supplies it with petroleum and imports coal, which allows North Korea to obtain foreign currency. More than 90% of the petroleum consumed in North Korea is imported from China.

North Korea’s dependence on China has increased since the UN imposed economic sanctions on the former in 2016; Japan terminated its trade relationship with the reclusive regime in 2006; and South Korea did the same on May 24 2010.

But China has been hesitant about enforcing economic sanctions and has done so half-heartedly.

China is conflicted because it doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons as the country could then become a direct threat and provide an excuse for Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

But it also doesn’t want the North Korean regime to collapse. This would create a refugee crisis at its border and a unified Korean peninsula would likely fall under US influence. North Korea also provides the perfect buffer for avoiding direct confrontation with the US.

Shrinking range of options

Thus far, Kim Jong-Un is the only winner in this game. Apart from ongoing missile tests, his regime successfully completed its fifth nuclear test in September 2016, following others in 2006, 2009, 2013 and January 2016. This situation illustrates one of the major tensions in strategic settings: the clash between individual and group interests.

To avoid war and foster cooperation, China will need to share responsibility for a diplomatic campaign seeking a peaceful solution. Currently, it is effectively providing an umbrella for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

Stepping up requires China to join the US, South Korea, Japan and the United Nations to deliver a credible and strengthened deterrence to North Korea against any further nuclear development.

But this option is only becoming more complex for all involved except North Korea. As its nuclear development advances, North Korea will have less and less incentive to give it up, which, in turns, limits the range of action for the other side.

What game theory tells us is that self-interested individuals derive a greater payoff for opportunism. China may not want to lose its strategic partnership with North Korea or the economic benefits it derives from trade with it; under its new liberal president, South Korea may want to continue the rapprochement policy of former president Kim Dae-Jung; and the US may opt for the easy path of military action.

The ConversationBut it’s important to remember that these are all second-best results for the players. The better choice is cooperation among the players including China. A collectively applied and consistent non-military strategy is the best option to alleviate the tension engendered by North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs.

Byung-Seong Min, Senior Lecturer, Department of International Business and Asian Studies, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Two years after the earthquake, why has Nepal failed to recover?

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Workers rebuild a temple damaged during the 2015 earthquake, in Bhaktapur.
Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Two years after the devastating earthquakes that struck Nepal, the country is struggling to bounce back. Nearly 70% of the affected people still live in temporary shelters, and it is common to see damaged houses, temples without roofs, and earthquake debris lying around, even in the capital Kathmandu.

The recovery is painfully slow, and many families who lost their loved ones continue to live in traumatic conditions.

Over the past two years, working with CARE Nepal and the Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies, we have talked to local communities in the Gorkha, Kathmandu and Kavre districts, and helped to organise a national workshop involving senior government officials, researchers and civil society actors.


The twin earthquakes that struck on April 26 and May 12, 2015 caused around 9,000 deaths, and around half a million families in the central region of the country lost their homes. As well as houses, dozens of Kathmandu’s heritage buildings were destroyed, including the iconic Dharahara tower.

In the quakes’ immediate aftermath, relief and rescue work began swiftly, with local volunteers working with the army and international aid workers. However, over the past two years the recovery effort has slowed to a crawl.

Political bickering, a lack of accountability and poor management of funds have all hampered efforts to rebuild. After two years, Nepali media have branded the situation a “failure”.

What went wrong? Our fieldwork and interviews identified four underlying problems.

1. Partisan squabbling

Immediately after the disaster, the government and opposition parties agreed to create a new public body, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), to oversee rebuilding.

However, despite pressure from international donors and humanitarian agencies, protracted political wrangling meant it took almost nine months to appoint someone to lead the new body. The chief executive has changed three times in little over a year.

Donors pledged more than US$4 billion to the NRA, but little of the aid money has found its way into the work of rebuilding. As a result, fewer than 10% of the roughly 500,000 damaged homes have been rebuilt with support from the government and donors.

The earthquake hit at a time when Nepal was embroiled in debate over its new constitution, which became a matter of controversy. For about ten years, the disaster response agenda had been neglected by the contentious politics of state restructuring, following the decade-long violent Maoist revolt.

Disaster response has thus been sidelined by protracted political instability, characterised by constitutional transition, ideological and ethnic tension, and frequent changes of government.

2. Absence of local government

Although national parliament elections have been held in Nepal on more or less on a regular basis, there has been no local election or effective local government for 16 years.

Local elections have finally been announced for May 14 and June 14, 2017, but the damage caused by more than a decade of political vacuum is huge. The loss of political accountability to local people is one of the key factors of the failure of disaster recovery in Nepal.

In several locations, we found unaffected local elites included in the lists of victims receiving financial support. Without local democratic leadership, people cannot voice their concerns, mobilise community resources, or scrutinise projects.

Despite this, Nepalese people enjoy strong local social capital, which has helped them in times of distress and difficulty. Community leaders in Gorkha told us: “we work together at the community level to rebuild damaged houses one by one even when there is no support from the government or donors”.

Some local leaders have worked with their communities to build infrastructure, small roads, schools and hospitals. Nevertheless, these individual efforts are no substitute for strong and democratic local government.

3. Ineffective international aid

In the aftermath of the earthquakes, Nepal’s National Planning Commission estimated that the country needed more than US$7 billion for recovery. The billions of dollars committed by international donors was not translated into a clear plan to direct the money, which meant it has had little impact in rebuilding.

The NRA, which should have led the major state response to the disaster, has been hampered by cumbersome administration. A proposal to allow the NRA to bypass the standard procedures failed to eventuate, and a senior official told us their work is slowed by inefficient and lethargic regulations.

The head of the NRA recently publicly criticised the slow pace of rebuilding, blaming overly inflexible procedures and a lack of strong political will.

Donors have therefore preferred to give to international NGOs instead of state options; in Gorkha alone there were 300 different NGOs operating immediately after the earthquake.

The effectiveness of these organisations has been questioned by independent commentators and academic researchers, some even describing the post-disaster aid industry as “disaster capitalism”. However, despite challenges, several NGOs have delivered vital relief in times of need.

Nepal still lacks effective and enforceable mechanisms to monitor the use of humanitarian support. Having the money is not enough; it must reach the projects that truly help people.

4. Regional tensions

Nepal exists in a delicate balance between India and China, and a few months after the earthquakes a blockade between India and Nepal disrupted supplies. Nepal blamed India for the blockade, while India said the disruption of supplies was due to internal political problems in Nepal.

As a landlocked country, Nepal has historically relied on India for its basic supplies. India’s blockade led to almost total paralysis of not only the recovery work, but the entire economy. At the same time, in recent years China’s interest in Nepal has grown.

During the blockade, China provided free oil, but such one-off assistance did not address recovery needs. The competition between China and India for influence in Nepal has not resulted in any substantial benefit for those affected by the disaster.

Given the persistent seismic risks in the Himalayas, there is a need to create a coherent regional structure for disaster recovery. Yet internal tensions appear to have prevented the Nepal government from promoting serious international cooperation.

Since the entire Himalayas is prone to multiple forms of disaster, a region-wide research and recovery initiative, involving both China and India, is crucial.

The ConversationNepal is just one case of poor disaster recovery management. The questions we need to ask, two years on, are: how can we improve national and local government responses? How can international aid work with government efforts? And how can we foster regional cooperation?

Hemant Ojha, Lecturer, UNSW; Eileen Baldry, Professor of Criminology, UNSW, and Krishna K. Shrestha, Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Three things could happen to Lebanon as Syrian refugees rush in — two are worrisome

Syria’s humanitarian crisis is the greatest yet seen in the 21st century. Over the country’s seven-year civil war, almost half the population has fled: 6.6 million city dwellers have moved to the countryside and 4.9 million citizens have crossed borders, mainly into neighbouring countries.

Nearby Lebanon is the primary destination. Since 2011 this small, religiously diverse country of 4.5 million people has officially welcomed over a million refugees (and likely many more unregistered Syrians).

The massive influx into Lebanon has destabilised the country’s health and education systems. Proportionally, it’s as if France had received 15 million or the United States 80 million (these countries actually committed to take in, respectively, 30,000 and 10,000 Syrians in 2017).

Migration also threatens to upend the country’s delicate balancing act of religion and politics. Just over half of Lebanon’s population is Shia or Sunni Muslim, while Christian denominations represent about 40%. These communities have lived in peace for years, despite tensions.

A Lebanese renaissance?

In a recent project, we examined how the Syrian arrivals, who are largely Sunni Muslim, might impact Lebanon’s political future.

Projecting forward to the year 2030, we envisioned contrasting futures for a changing Lebanon: one of them positive (we called it Phoenixia) and two somewhat darker (Sarajevo Beach and Boot Camp).

Phoenixia assumes that the refugee flow will slow (as many Syrians are facing forced removal) and that Lebanon’s strong central power remains dominant. In this scenario, the country is progressively secularised and developed under the impetus of international donors, who condition their financial assistance on a greater integration of Syrian refugees.

We consider this the most desirable direction for a changing Lebanon but, in truth, the appeal of each scenario varies from stakeholder to stakeholder. And in Lebanon, there are many.

Political power in the country is distributed among its 17 religious communities according to the 1943 National Pact, a non-written agreement traditionally recognised as the country’s constitutive charter. It allocates political and administrative posts according to the demographic breakdown defined in the 1932 census, among other criteria.

To Maronite Christians goes the powerful presidency of the Republic and command of the army. Sunni Muslims get the presidency of the council of ministers, while the Shiites control the presidency of the parliament and the Greek Orthodox its vice-presidency.

Despite changes in the population over the past 80 years (due, in particular, to higher fertility among Muslim groups), Lebanese authorities have chosen not to conduct a new census.

This safeguards the National Pact, but the situation is arguably fragile. Integrating hundreds of thousands of Sunni Syrians (not to mention 400,000 Sunni Palestinian refugees already there), could debunk the myth of a sustained religious balance.

Phoenixia holds that secularisation is the key to neutralising the threat of religious upheaval. If the religious identity of Syria’s refugees were not at issue, they would not pose a political problem (although caring for and accommodating the new arrivals would still present a social and economic challenge).

Increased tensions

But it is not that simple. Lebanese politicians derive their mandates from the country’s community-based social organisations, which also have exclusive jurisdiction over any matter falling under the law of personal status, such as marriage, ancestral lineage and inheritance.

These organisations will inevitably oppose – probably successfully – ending the current system.

The Sarajevo Beach scenario is the opposite of Phoenixia. Its central hypothesis is that the number of refugees increases, overpowering a weakened central government. This would lead to a sharp deterioration of Lebanon’s socioeconomic conditions, and both migrants and natives could face shortages of water, electricity and housing.

Such a scenario would exacerbate existing tensions in regions such as the Bekaa Plain, where an increasing number of Syrian refugees have been the targets of violence.

The refugees would thus migrate to more welcoming Sunni Muslim areas in northern Lebanon. But far from solving the country’s socioeconomic problems, the mass migration could amplify them in these Sunni zones.

This would delight local warlords. Since the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), militias have routinely drawn their troops from the most fragile segments of society. An influx of potential recruits may encourage some parties to seek out confrontation between Sunni and Shia.

Beirut’s Martyr Square in 1982, during Lebanon’s civil war.
James Case/Flickr, CC BY-SA

To prevent this conflict from spurring a new exodus of refugees to Europe and the Gulf, Sarajevo Beach envisages that the international community would find itself compelled to intervene, converting Lebanon into a Bosnia and Herzegovina-like international protectorate.

For our last scenario, Boot Camp, we queried what would happen if Lebanon’s current migratory situation continues unchanged. We assumed that business would proceed as usual – the number of refugees would decline, and the country’s fragile central power remains little inclined to act.

Over time, inertia would cause Lebanon’s situation to deteriorate profoundly. We determined that it would enter into economic recession, multiplying crime and violence and creating a security crisis. All of this would compound the political crisis now brewing as Sunni Muslims flood into a system that favours Christians.

To avoid chaos, the Boot Camp scenario has Lebanon’s economic elites support a military coup. This route would preserve the country and save their personal affairs, and the international community – more concerned with stability than democracy – would assist the elite-backed military in addressing the situation.

What does it mean?

As these scenarios show, Lebanon’s main problem is not actually the new refugees per se but rather the pressure they put on the country’s dysfunctional and obsolete power-sharing system.

Not only does it incentivise leveraging the new population to serve specific political agendas, but, as we came to realise in outlining these scenarios, the legendary resilience of Lebanon’s institutions is a myth.

They are not capable of dealing with all manner of crises. Far from it: no matter what future we imagine for Lebanon, the current political system shatters – for different reasons.

Today, international donors are providing the country with just enough economic aid to hold on, but not enough to develop, let alone plan.

The ConversationLebanon’s situation should concern the world. If this peaceful Middle Eastern country collapses, a new wave of refugees – both Syrian and Lebanese – would head into neighbouring Turkey and Greece, then onward into Europe.

Abdel-Maoula Chaar, Head of Research and Development, ESA Business School and Karim Medjad, Professor, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Toxic leaders affect companies, and governments. How to deal with them

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Toxic leadership is characterised by a number of familiar traits: unwillingness to take feedback, lying or inconsistency, cliquishness, autocracy, manipulation, intimidation, bullying, and narcissism. The toxic leader can - if allowed to run rampant for long enough – destroy organisational structures over time and bring down an entire organisation. This applies to countries too.

There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is that a toxic leader can influence organisational culture through aversive action. This can include flouting organisational processes, rewarding loyalty over competence, normalising socially unacceptable behaviours like infighting, and by breaking down trust and eroding clear lines of authority.

A toxic leader’s other, more insidious, influence is through what they do to the relationships between people around them.

Psychologists, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, describe how two factions typically develop in an organisation once the deviant leader’s ascent has begun. One faction consists of supporters, pawns and patrons. The other is made out of people who remain true to their principles, realising they have been used and abused, or that the organisation whose ultimate goals they still support is in danger.

If it sounds familiar it’s because South Africans are spectators to exactly this kind of factionalism. In recent months pro and anti President Jacob Zuma factions have been involved in increasingly energetic mudslinging matches.

For many, Zuma represents the quintessential toxic leader. Whether one is for or against the president, it remains that he’s at very least a controversial figure, and criticism of him has been known to lead to reprisals.

The good news is that toxic leadership can be overcome. When it’s understood and challenged, it can be dismantled or reformed.

The toxic environment

Where there is toxic leadership, the ethics of the working environment are compromised. Typical behaviours are abuse of privileges, theft, violence and verbal abuse. Any number of these can be recognised from news reports around South African politics.

Scandals over the awarding of government tenders, the mismanagement of taxpayer funds and the maintenance of corrupt relationships are now an all too familiar reality in South Africa.

But a toxic leader does not absolve employees who choose to engage in deviant conduct. Ministers and private sector supporters who choose personal gain or corrupt relationships remain responsible for their own choices. Of course, it’s much easier to make the wrong decision if it’s the dominant way of doing things in a particular environment.

Such behaviour may be rooted in financial gain, or lie within the culture of an organisation. The motivation to achieve results may spark greater numbers of people to either actively harm, or passively ignore, the welfare of others to achieve their desired end.

This is why the removal of a psychopathic leader doesn’t guarantee the eradication of toxicity as it’s likely to be entrenched at lower levels of organisational leadership by the leader’s sycophants.

Fighting from the bottom up

The responsibility to move against toxic leadership doesn’t lie with an individual, but concerns the organisation as a whole.

In the public sphere, this responsibility extends to society as a whole.

Crucial to overcoming the toxic leader’s negative impact is for other members of the organisation to remain firm and loyal to their principles, and to take a united stand.

If people are able to stand together against toxic leadership, the leader may leave of their own accord. Once this happens individuals in the rest of the organisation need to cleanse the organisation by distancing themselves from the leader’s negative actions.

Another way of tackling toxic leadership is to find out who they answer to, if it’s not immediately apparent, and appeal to this authority. Bullies are not always swayed by open dialogue or whistleblowing, but may answer to a higher law if this is done formally and armed with the facts. In the case of an errant public servant, this may be achieved through, for example, the judiciary and institutions like the Public Protector.

If all these fail, there are ways to manage the situation with the toxic leader in position. It’s necessary to understand the leader’s history to analyse how they got to this point. Share this with key decision makers. This is vital because a core aspect of the solution is to establish a coalition of like-minded individuals who understand the leader’s negative impact.

The coalition should not take a punitive, antagonistic approach, but rather a supportive one, using appropriate benchmarks and timelines that reflect the goals of all key stakeholders.

Much of what’s observed in the corporate world applies to leadership in the public sector. With proper interventions, a valuable level of accountability can be brought into the workplace and to service delivery.

The accountability of leaders can be increased through forums like townhall meetings to force them to think deeply about their behaviour and decisions. Where politics is concerned, visible performance management like this can do wonders for the well-being of citizens.

It’s also critical to establish mechanisms to protect people speaking up against leaders – the whistleblowers – as their actions should be free of fear, such as loss of income.

The ConversationWith protection mechanisms in place, employees and citizens alike should be able to freely raise issues and protect both themselves and their ideals, whether their concerns relate to a private company or a government department.

Linda Ronnie, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and People Management, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

South Africa needs help

State capture, corruption, treason, racketeering, and more, all happening in this beautiful country, South Africa. The people need help, we need to be set free from greedy leaders who have no consideration for the poor people but only fill their pockets.  

 It is a fact, today, there are more people in South Africa who do not have a job, a home, or even food to eat.  Yet wasteful expenditure by government and their allies continues, and soon the situation will explode into a civil war. How much more can ordinary people endure?  Mmusi Miamane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, is calling on people to help stop this abuse.   Here is his letter and if you want to help, you will be saving a country from doom.


30 May 2017 
Fellow South African,

Today I laid serious criminal charges of treason, corruption and racketeering against Jacob Zuma, members of the Gupta family and several cabinet ministers.

This comes after a string of emails were leaked over the weekend that show the extent to which Zuma and his ANC cronies have given over control of our state to the Guptas.

These are most serious crimes against the people of South Africa.

  The outcome of the ANC’s NEC meeting once again illustrates that the ANC cannot self-correct. 

Your donation will help us pursue court action against Zuma, the Guptas and all those involved with violating the integrity of South Africa.

Our only hope is in the DA. Help us realise a new beginning for South Africa.

Mmusi Maimane,
DA Leader

Rubbish dump is a hazard for some but a lifeline for others

“I know that the discarded food could be dangerous to the health of me and my child, but I don’t have an option.”

By Joseph Chirume
30 May 2017
Photo of two men
Isaac Gabriel and Hilton Goliath make an income from a garbage dumpin Paterson. Photo: Joseph Chirume.
In the small farming town of Paterson, 70 kilometres from Port Elizabeth, residents say a poorly managed dumping site poses a health hazard. However, other members of the community scratch a living out of the rubbish.

Concerned residents say construction companies, including municipal vehicles, dump not only garbage but soil and gravel close to their houses on the road that leads to the site.

Maria, who would not give her surname, wants the site fenced off. She says, “It is very shocking that big companies are openly violating the municipal by-laws. They are not dumping in the designated area. The trucks just dump their rubbish close to our houses … The road is filled with rubbish… The whole area has an unbearable smell.”

She says dogs and animals come to scavenge and people also collected rotten food from the site. “There is always fire at the dumping site … It pollutes the environment,” she says. She also complains of stagnant water that has turned black at the dump.

But 40-year-old Hilton Goliath, who lives alone in a shack in Moreson, says, “The dumping site is a source of income for many unemployed residents here. There are very few job opportunities in this town. I spend most of my time on the dumping place where I collect valuable things, like metal cans, wooden pallets and food.” He says he resells these, but the local scrapyard “offers very little money compared to those in Port Elizabeth”.

Elmarie Gouza says she collects food at the site. “The money that I get from the informal jobs [she does domestic work] is not enough for the upkeep of my child. This is the reason I am looking for valuables that includes food from this rubbish. I know that the food could be dangerous to the health of me and my child, but I don’t have an option. These restaurants throw away raw meat and tinned food here. I first clean the meat and boil it. I put some spices to make it smell good. It is helping me very much, because the food is free and tastes very good.”

Isaac Gabriel, who collects old shoes and clothing at the site, says, “Many people despise me because they say I am scavenging and scrambling for food with animals. There are many dogs, wild pigs and cats that also look for food on this dump site.”

Spokesperson for the Sundays River Municipality Vuyiseka Mboxela said, “The dumping site is amongst the key priorities that our residents have raised during the public road show meetings. They raised that the dumping site should be secured and fenced. So it is an area that we are to act on soon after the budget has been adopted.”

“Even with the highest economic disparities that our country at large faces, a dumping site cannot be what we condone as a way of survival for our communities,” Mboxela said.

Published originally on GroundUp .

Monday, May 29, 2017

It's 30 years since Cuito Cuanavale. How the battle redefined southern Africa

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Rebel UNITA troops walk through a field twenty miles from the front line at Munhango, Angola April 29, 1986.
Reuters/Wendy Schwegmann

Thirty years ago in southern Angola, four military forces were mobilising for the largest conventional battle in Africa since the Second World War. It was a battle that would have huge consequences for Angola, Namibia and South Africa. Indeed it has been referred to as a turning point in southern African history. The Conversation

On the one side was the Angolan army backed by Cuban forces and Soviet advisers. On the other was the South African backed Angolan rebel movement fighting to overthrow the government.

The rebel Union for the Total Independence of Angola, better known by their Portuguese acronym Unita, had been one of the three liberation groups fighting Portuguese colonialism. But it is the pro-socialist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) which won power in 1975 and formed the government.

With western support and arms supplies from South Africa and the Reagan administration, Unita’s campaign to topple the government turned Angola into a Cold War battleground. The climax of this was the battle at Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola that lasted from March 1987 until the end of June 1988.

There are still fierce arguments about how important the battle was, who won and whether the South African army was really defeated.

That those who fought in the battle should have wildly different interpretations of its importance is not surprising. This is brought out strikingly in a new edition of Fred Bridgland’s book The War for Africa: Twelve Months that Transformed a Continent. Originally published in 1990, it’s an account, primarily from the South African side, of the military campaign that reached its climax at Cuito Cuanavale.

Contesting narratives

The ANC and it’s leader Nelson Mandela, the Cubans and the Angolan government claim the South African army was decisively defeated. The veteran ANC military intelligence chief Ronnie Kasrils, described it as

a historic turning point in the struggle for the total liberation of the region from racist rule and aggression.

But many South African who fought in Angola swear that they were never defeated, as South African author and academic Leopold Scholtz noted in his book on the battle.

Objective observers declared the end to have been a tactical military stalemate between the allied forces on either side. But it was a stalemate that led to major strategic realignments with huge consequences for the whole region, leading to the independence of Namibia, the withdrawal of South African and Cuban forces from Angola and the eventual dismantling of apartheid.

Nelson Mandela lauded the result of the battle during a visit to Cuba in 1991 to thank Fidel Castro for supporting liberation struggles in southern Africa. The future president of South Africa said in his keynote speech:

The decisive defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for all Africa. This victory in Cuito Cuanavale is what made it possible for Angola to enjoy peace and establish its own sovereignty. The defeat of the racist army made it possible for the people of Namibia to achieve their independence. The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor.

Stalemate in Cuito Cuanavale

At the time of the campaign and the key siege of Cuito Cuanavale, Bridgland was a journalist with unrivalled access to the rebels. Through the rebels, he also got access to South African Defence Force (SADF) in southern Angola. He says that the chief of the SADF, General Jannie Geldenhuys, gave him unfettered access to his officers and men on the frontline.

His account of the Cuito Cuanavale campaign is detailed and fascinating, but clearly written from one side. It was impossible for him to report from the Angolan government and Cuban side. The South Africans had been in Angola almost continuously since their unsuccessful bid in 1975 to put UNITA in power.

Their present objective was to weaken the socialist-oriented Angolan government, stop it from supporting the ANC and the Namibian Swapo movement. The aim was then to create a buffer to stop Swapo guerrillas entering South Africa-occupied Namibia.

The fighting lasted from initial skirmishes in March 1987, through the smashing of the Angolan army advance at the Lomba river in September-October 1987. Then followed the siege of Cuito Cuanavale by the South Africans and Unita from January to the end of March 1988. It ended with the Cuban bombing of the Calueque dam on 27 June 1988.

The battle for Cuito Cuanavale ended in stalemate with the SADF and Unita unable to overrun the Angolan positions and the Angolan-Cuban force unable to continue the offensive. The South Africans admitted to losing 79 dead, with two Mirage fighters and one Bosbok spotter plane shot down, plus three Olifant tanks and four Ratel armoured vehicles destroyed, as Bridgland describes in his very detailed book.

Politics by other means

The combination of being fought to a stalemate in the battle, and the heavy loss of life and material that couldn’t be replaced, was something South Africa couldn’t ignore. On top of that was the attack on the Calueque dam which demonstrated Angolan and Cuban air superiority.

Taken in the context of the domestic political violence, the growing economic crisis and international pressure, the results of the Cuito Cuanavale campaign were crucial in persuading the leaders of South Africa’s National Party to cut their losses. They did so following talks with the Soviet Union, Angola, Cuba, Britain and the United States.

This led directly to a ceasefire agreement on the total withdrawal of South African and Cuban forces from Angola. Also agreed was a timetable for UN-supervised elections in Namibia, leading to independence in March 1990. By this time, the ANC had been unbanned and Mandela released.

Cuito Cuanavale was not a military victory for any of the combatants. One must view it in the light of the maxim of the 19th century military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz that war is the “continuation of politics by other means”. There was never going to be a decisive military victory in southern Angola.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale was a turning point, but one that needs to be taken in context.

Keith Somerville, Visiting Professor, University of Kent

This article was originally published on The Conversation.