Nuclear relationships

Commuters from Connecticut to Cape Town have usually gained impromptu insights into different cultures by reading books written by brilliant wordsmiths. For example, the Russian writer, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, was masterful at translating everyday life in the Ukraine in a manner understood beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. His work was also used as a literary device by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, in her novel, The Namesake—a tale that focused on identity and the complexities of cultural assimilation into America.

Gogol’s childhood, filled with the Cossack traditions and rich folklore of his Ukrainian home, provided creative impetus for short stories that would form “the foundations of the great 19th-century tradition of Russian realism.” Using humor and a beekeeper as a narrator, Gogol introduced the reader to Ukrainian customs and folklore in Evenings on a Farm Near Dykanka. In another book,Diary of a Madman, the hero is an office drudge who ultimately ends up in a lunatic asylum. Such stories may also have resonated with the Indian-American author, Lahiri, in crafting a pivotal train scene in The Namesake.

However, the young woman on the train from Stellenbosch to Cape Town had no pretensions of seeking literary or cinematic fame by invoking Gogol’s name. She was far too caught up in her daydreams about a fellow commuter. If one could imagine a cross between the Hollywood actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Vin Diesel, the sensitive-looking soul with the biceps of a football player was her dream man. He usually sat across from her on the lengthy journey from South Africa’s wine heartland to the University of Cape Town. His nose was often buried in fictional books (mainly Gogol) or incomprehensible scientific texts. When she finally summoned the courage to talk to him, he told her that he was a physicist. The young woman, a humble secretary, was star-struck and tongue-tied at the same time. She did not wish to pester the young man with tales about her boring life where the only recent thrill was watching the formation of a new bee hive on the family farm. Besides, how could occasional intellectual spurts such as listening to the South African opera tenor,Gérard Korsten, compare with the sophistication of this smart man?

As it turned out, the pair shared a fascination for Korsten. The physicist analyzed the tenor’s performance as Canio in Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s Pagliacci and she told him about her love for Korsten’s role as a family patriarch in the long-running South African soap opera, Egoli: Place of Gold. Over time the physicist told her about his admiration for Sergey Korolyov (1907-1966, head Soviet rocket engineer and designer during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s). She listened to his scientific tales and reciprocated with gossip stories she had read about famed South African heart surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, in the Afrikaans tabloids.

Finally he revealed the top-secret research he was conducting at a local nuclear power plant (Koeberg, 30 km north of Cape Town). In addition, he confirmed reports about negotiations with the South African government to supplement the country’s growing demand for electricity by building more nuclear power plants. He explained that Russia has about 10% of the world’s reasonably assured uranium resources and considerable expertise in the generation of nuclear power (employing 200,000 people in this industry). Furthermore, the export of nuclear power and expertise were major economic objectives. To him it seemed like a match made in heaven. While a decision was still being weighed by the South African government, the physicist was excited at the idea of having more nuclear power plants on the continent and elsewhere. He viewed nuclear power as a “clean,” energy source and a means to offset the interminable energy blackouts that had become the bane of South African consumers’ existence.

Unfortunately the young woman did not share his feelings. Koeberg had opened in 1984, two years before the disaster at the Ukrainian power plant, Chernobyl. Radioactive fallout had spread several thousand square miles, driving more than a quarter of a million people permanently from their homes and causing numerous deaths. Her pessimism increased after reading reports about a faltering cleanup following a subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

It would be up to the physicist to convince her that the Russian government had learned lessons from the disaster. He would wax lyrical about improved crisis-management practices, cost-effective and safer nuclear reactor designs (citing innovations by TerraPower as an example), and also mention the possibility of using different reactors in the future. Although real-world applications were still decades away, he felt reasonably confident that he could assuage her fears and change her mind.

The next morning the ardent suitor decided to hedge his bets by presenting her with a list of alternative, climate-friendly energy sources which he knew would be more suited to her beliefs. Armed with both plans of action, he boarded the train and mentally rehearsed his request to resolve their debate over dinner later that night. He suppressed his excitement by feigning indifference, looking down at his briefcase, before settling into his usual seat near the window. He looked up expecting to see her face. Her seat was empty.

 

Entrepeneurs

My homage to entrepeneurs will begin with a piece a wrote a while back for the Norwalk Patch: http://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/can-entrepreneurs-aid-the-south-african-economy.

Additional information is available through the South African Institute for Entrepeneurs.

I hope to continue this series by shining a spotlight on entrepeneurs across the globe.

Cheers.

Neil Aggett

First appeared in the Norwalk Patch:

In detention

He fell from the ninth floor

He hanged himself

He slipped on a piece of soap while washing

He hanged himself

He slipped on a piece of soap while washing

He fell from the ninth floor

He hanged himself while washing

He slipped from the ninth floor

He hung from the ninth floor

He slipped on the ninth floor while washing

He fell from a piece of soap while slipping

He hung from the ninth floor

He washed from the ninth floor while slipping

He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

South African poet, Chris Van Wyk’s, words highlight the implausible denials offered by the apartheid-era government for the deaths of many political prisoners. The country’s most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, went on to become president. Others were less fortunate. Seventy three people died in detention during the apartheid years between 1963 and 1990, including activist, Steve Biko. Neil Aggett, a medical doctor, had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first white South African to die in detention after being arrested by the security police.

Born on 6th October 1953 in Kenya, the South African immigrant obtained his medical degree from the University of Cape Town ─ an English-speaking, whites-only university (at the time) forced to adhere to the apartheid-era policy of requiring non-white students to obtain special study permits before entering its ivy-clad buildings. Neil deviated from a comfortable path into medical practice and, according to Beverley Naidoo (author and Aggett biographer), began thinking of medicine in a social context at an early age. An excerpt from his first statement in detention reads as follows: “While I was working at Tembisa, I became aware that the problems of the patients I was dealing with were not only medical problems, but were basically social problems due to the people not getting enough wages, unemployment, and the poor conditions in the townships. This meant that I would stitch up a patient, only to have him return the following week due to alcoholism, unemployment or extreme poverty, with another assault wound.”

In Death of an Idealist: In search of Neil Aggett, Beverley Naidoo traces the short life of an intense young man, focusing on his trade union activities, detention, the inquest into his death, and the extraordinary impact he had on everyone around him. The descriptions of his 70 days in detention without trial in Johannesburg’s John Vorster Square police station is as unnerving as the thought that the circumstances surrounding his apparent suicide remains unresolved (according to recent article).

The only fact that all parties agree on is that Neil was found hanging from the bars of a steel grill in his cell on 5 February 1982. He was 28 years old. Thousands of black workers joined the funeral procession, many on foot, from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg to the whites-only cemetery, about nine kilometers away.

South Africa held its first general election for all citizens on 27 April 1994, heralding a new era. The next general election will be held on 7 May 2014 and may serve as a progress report on the opportunities and challenges ahead, while honoring the ultimate sacrifices made by many South Africans like Neil Aggett.

Being poor and sick in America

This post, which first appeared in the pre-Obamacare days in the Norwalk Patch, still resonates with me today. I miss my friend and dedicate this post to her.

I will never forget the first time I heard her voice in the university hallways. “Are you from Cape Town?,” she asked. I stopped momentarily, because that familiar-sounding accent brought back a flood of memories about South Africa. When I turned around, I saw a tall, middle-aged lady with a smile, reminiscent of the African sunshine in my former homeland, beaming at me. This was the beginning of a decade-long friendship between two lost souls in the heart of Manhattan. I quickly learned that Lady M., as I will call her, had been through a lot of ups and downs in her life. She had been diagnosed with an insidious oral cancer that eventually required surgical removal of part of her tongue, rendering her sounding like a female version of Scrooge McDuck. Lady M. did not let her condition get the better of her. She became a mother figure, who dispensed advice along with recipes for how to make tarts and stews based on the produce on offer at Jack’s World and other cheap emporiums in Manhattan. Visits at Lady M’s place were filled with laughter, stories and trips to the local bodegas to search for the Hispanic equivalent of South African staples such as Marie biscuits (a cookie with a hint of vanilla, best consumed with tea) and Milo (a Nestlé chocolate and malt powder product that we liked). She showed me tokens of her youth as a South African lass born to Scottish parents. I learned about the influence of friends on her formative years and about how she had cared for her aging parents before emigrating here.

While her cancer was in remission, we could both ignore the elephant in the room. In many respects, Lady M’s story was similar to those of others in households all over New York; however, she faced the added burden of being poor and without health insurance in a country that regards this item as a benefit and not a necessity. The first sign that her cancer had returned was marked by slurred speech and pain in her jaw. After finally securing insurance and consolidating her medical records from various institutions, experts confirmed her worst fears. The cancer had spread and this time it would be fatal. It was ironic that she was the one that ended up comforting the few people that knew her. Lady M quietly started preparing for her own death. She withdrew from the few friends that still kept in contact with her. Gradually her speech became incomprehensible. People would automatically assume that she had a mental disability when she spoke to them. So she learned to get by with a pen and paper.

And then she died, not registering a blip on the radar of thousands of passers-by in the busy city. In reality, dying of cancer is not as sanguine as euphemistically portrayed on television. People are not always fortunate to be surrounded by loving families or live in fancy houses. Sometimes people fight, because they want to live or they have someone waiting for them. Sometimes people are poor, they have no one and in the end the fight against bureaucracy and to improve the quality of their lives prove be overwhelming. I salute those people. May their struggles remind us of the human component of the financial equation in the search for effective, affordable healthcare for all citizens.

Nuclear relationships (First appeared on The Norwalk Patch)

Commuters from Connecticut to Cape Town have usually gained impromptu insights into different cultures by reading books written by brilliant wordsmiths. For example, the Russian writer, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, was masterful at translating everyday life in the Ukraine in a manner understood beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. His work was also used as a literary device by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, in her novel, The Namesake—a tale that focused on identity and the complexities of cultural assimilation into America.

Gogol’s childhood, filled with the Cossack traditions and rich folklore of his Ukrainian home, provided creative impetus for short stories that would form “the foundations of the great 19th-century tradition of Russian realism.” Using humor and a beekeeper as a narrator, Gogol introduced the reader to Ukrainian customs and folklore inEvenings on a Farm Near Dykanka. In another book, Diary of a Madman, the hero is an office drudge who ultimately ends up in a lunatic asylum. Such stories may also have resonated with the Indian-American author, Lahiri, in crafting a pivotal train scene in The Namesake.

However, the young woman on the train from Stellenbosch to Cape Town had no pretensions of seeking literary or cinematic fame by invoking Gogol’s name. She was far too caught up in her daydreams about a fellow commuter. If one could imagine a cross between the Hollywood actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Vin Diesel, the sensitive-looking soul with the biceps of a football player was her dream man. He usually sat across from her on the lengthy journey from South Africa’s wine heartland to the University of Cape Town. His nose was often buried in fictional books (mainly Gogol) or incomprehensible scientific texts. When she finally summoned the courage to talk to him, he told her that he was a physicist. The young woman, a humble secretary, was star-struck and tongue-tied at the same time. She did not wish to pester the young man with tales about her boring life where the only recent thrill was watching the formation of a new bee hive on the family farm. Besides, how could occasional intellectual spurts such as listening to the South African opera tenor, Gérard Korsten, compare with the sophistication of this smart man?

As it turned out, the pair shared a fascination for Korsten. The physicist analyzed the tenor’s performance as Canio in Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s Pagliacci and she told him about her love for Korsten’s role as a family patriarch in the long-running South African soap opera, Egoli: Place of Gold. Over time the physicist told her about his admiration for Sergey Korolyov (1907-1966, head Soviet rocket engineer and designer during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s). She listened to his scientific tales and reciprocated with gossip stories she had read about famed South African heart surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, in the Afrikaans tabloids.

Finally he revealed the top-secret research he was conducting at a local nuclear power plant ( Koeberg, 30 km north of Cape Town). In addition, he confirmed reports about negotiations with the South African government to supplement the country’s growing demand for electricity by building more nuclear power plants. He explained that Russia has about 10%of the world’s reasonably assured uranium resources and considerableexpertise in the generation of nuclear power (employing 200,000 people in this industry). Furthermore, the exportof nuclear power and expertise were major economic objectives. To him it seemed like a match made in heaven. While a decision was still being weighed by the South African government, the physicist was excited at the idea of having more nuclear power plants on the continent and elsewhere. He viewed nuclear power as a “clean,” energy source and a means to offset the interminable energyblackouts that had become the bane of South African consumers’ existence.

Unfortunately the young woman did not share his feelings. Koeberg had opened in 1984, two years before the disaster at the Ukrainian power plant, Chernobyl.Radioactive fallout had spread several thousand square miles, driving more than a quarter of a million people permanently from their homes and causing numerous deaths. Her pessimism increased after reading reports about a faltering cleanupfollowing a subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

It would be up to the physicist to convince her that the Russian government had learned lessons from the disaster. He would wax lyrical about improved crisis-management practices, cost-effective and safer nuclear reactor designs (citing innovations by TerraPower as an example), and also mention the possibility of using different reactors in the future. Although real-world applications were still decades away, he felt reasonably confident that he could assuage her fears and change her mind.

The next morning the ardent suitor decided to hedge his bets by presenting her with a list of alternative, climate-friendly energy sources which he knew would be more suited to her beliefs. Armed with both plans of action, he boarded the train and mentally rehearsed his request to resolve their debate over dinner later that night. He suppressed his excitement by feigning indifference, looking down at his briefcase, before settling into his usual seat near the window. He looked up expecting to see her face. Her seat was empty.