Latvia is a country, right?

Imagine if I had to pitch an advertising campaign congratulating Latvia on the  successful  conclusion of its maiden Presidency of the  European Union (EU) in June this year, since it joined the union in 2004. If someone randomly came up to me and asked what my concept would be: it would be exactly  what you just saw:  The title and picture saying: Latvia, your flag is on my lips, Congratulations!

But to do that  I would have to assume that  you know what Latvias’ national flag looks like  and why  it would be significant  for me to wear it on my lips. Since I myself was simply clueless about Latvia less than ten months ago, I thought it might be cool to let you in on the thinking behind this fictitious advertising campaign of mine which no one has asked me to do by the way. I do it just because its fun to learn new things and to travel, even virtually. So my pitch is all about current history as you may have guessed so here goes:

First a disclaimer: I have never set foot in this country

So those of you who watch the news beyond your borders might be wondering why I would even bother congratulating Latvia on its EU presidency when the EU itself  is faced with arguably more pressing matters to resolve. First among them being the question of sanctions against Russia and Ukraine, should they be lifted or not? The second is the issue of  EU reforms brought forward by the United Kingdom, which wants a package of changes including tougher rules on migrant benefits and fair trade with the Eurozone.  Britain has a planned referendum in 2017 to decide on whether to stay in or out of the Union. So in light of this and many other issues concerning the EU such as Greece’s increasing financial delinquency, including an increasing wave of migrants from Africa into Europe, Riga – Latvia’s capital city’s role in the EU’s drivers’ seat for the past five months may seem well… inconsequential at best.

Think about  our younger years

I was actually quite shocked to discover that I share more in common (politically) with the small republic in North-Eastern Europe than with the rest of the  27  European Union member states combined. It was a strange feeling indeed. How was that possible right? I mean my  knowledge of Latvian history and politics was until recently, non-existent. And if on the very rare (unidentified flying object) occasion that it came up in conversation I would have automatically lumped it in the larger pool of Russia’s  (USSR) former conquests and basically left it at that.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong

Over the last couple of months, through intermittent and sporadic research prompted by a desire for something new, I found out that I do in actual fact share much more in common with Latvia  than with many of the countries in Europe I have visited or wished so fervently to see – I gave it my best shot Paris! Latvia’s history is complicated even for me,  I couldn’t keep track of the many, many conquest that took place there. But just to simplify a long story. Because of its strategic geographical location, Latvia has fought many wars with four main enemies at different times and simultaneously in its very tumultuous history: Germany, Sweden, Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. They’ve all pushed, pulled, killed and, manipulated in order to gain control of this  94 square kilometer of land.    For one Latvians are a brave and persisted lot who fought valiantly and tirelessly, with, for and against their occupiers, Russia and Germany who alternated possession of Latvia as if it were a ball in a tennis match. In fact I think at some point in history Latvian soldiers were fighting from all sides both with and against the Germans and Russians who were in turn fighting other Latvians to gain control of the Baltic nation. I never in a million years thought I could encounter a country whose history is more complicated than my own and as far as Latvia goes – it’s complicated and that’s not even an understatement.  Though Latvia gained independence in 1918, it took another 72 years of fighting off the various factions before it regained its independence again in 1990 on the fourth of May, despite having lost its independence formally to Russia in 1940.

Puts independence into perspective right?

In 72 years (and perhaps even to date) Germany and Russia could not leave Latvia alone which meant that Latvians not only had to learn to  hold on to who they were and their identity they also had to learn how the Sweet and honest Swedes, Precise and Competent Germans, Passionate and Strategic Russians and the Cynically pragmatic Poles were like and then use that knowledge to attain what they desired most of all: a right to self-determination and sovereignty.   They had to ultimately win not only just a physical, logistical or geographical war against the Germans and the Russians et al, they had to win the most important war of all:  The psychological war. Learning and understanding how the opposition thinks.

After joining the European Union in 2004 it took 11 years before the chair of the EU chairmanship  could rotate to their corner, which for them is a huge milestone. Even though the EU presidency rotates every six months to each of the member states, it shines a spotlight on the host country which is probably equivalent in my case to South Africa being included in the UN Security Council for the first time in 2007 (it was also the first time an African country was included in the SC in the UN’s history!)  So it’s a huge deal and milestone for Latvia. This is a time for them to flex their muscle and see how far their influence(if any) goes with the big boys. The country has made many gains and losses since its independence 25 years ago, but is today a largely stable country with a rapid economic growth of about 10 percent a year before an economic crisis and recession in 2009 reversed these gains. The country quickly recovered though and attained an annual growth of 5.5 percent by 2012 making it the fastest growing EU country to date.  Even so the rate of unemployment is very high (9.1%)  in a country of about 2 million people. Virtually all the previously state-owned small and medium enterprises have now been privatized with the exception of three. ( energy, oil and telecoms) two of which the country is planning to sell. With the second fastest  internet  speeds in all of Europe after Romania, it’s service sector provides about 24% of jobs in the country.

I see you, Thank you for the compliment

So my campaign which is basically this picture of a black woman is exactly what Latvia is not – on the outside. But I think if you were to look deep into the heart of Latvia ( conflicted and controversial as they may be) you will find that they look just like the pictured black woman. They have a level depth which is as frightening as it is exciting. They have penetrating black diamond like eyes: mysterious, curious, playful, visionary and sad all at the same time. They are wildly free and are connected to nature ( half of Latvia is made up of forest)and most things natural. They are intuitive, compassionate and sensitive. A people of legends, myths and numbers. Practical and wildly creative.  They are not  only strong and can whether tough storms but  they are also resilient and still maintain a youthful maturity, exuberance and just a little touch of innocence or  maybe some naivety.  And finally they are passionate people: their flag is the colour of dark red  on either side representing an ocean of blood spilled for independence (the exact colour of the lipstick, a mix of browns and purples) with a strip of white in the middle (represented here by the biting pearls or teeth). And since Latvians are not known for their wide beaming smiles – the only way to wear their flag on your lips is to do exactly the opposite and yes you guessed it: smile. ( this effect also works with red-wine stained lips).  So for what it’s worth, congratulations Latvia, Paldies, for the inspiration.


ABOUT LAST NIGHT: Africans & etc


Good Morning, Coffee, anyone?

I wanted to start this week’s blog by writing about the recent e-tolling saga ( formally known as the Electronic Toll Collection or ETC) in Johannesburg which has had Johannesburg motorists up in figurative arms. I wanted to note and remember with you what happened in Johannesburg’s streets after the ETC, went live in December of 2013.  I wanted to remind you of  the three most outspoken and loudest voices against etolls in Johannesburg with the exception of the Opposition for Urban Tolling Alliance OUTA: Ousted Cosatu president, Zwelinzima Vavi,  Patrick Craven, who resigned as the labour union federations’ spokesperson in April this year and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) which has since been expelled from the Union Federation.  I thought it curious that the panel of experts resolved to continue with the etolls despite widespread public opposition, and that Cosatu under the new leadership has all but changed its line and has tacitly endorsed the new dispensation, urging Gauteng citizens to just pay in not so many words.  I thought it was a curious coincidence then I thought; wait a minute, this is much deeper than I thought.

Eish Joe…

This feels like a long hang-over:  The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project ( GFIP) which includes the two main ETC methods: the “boom-down” electronic toll collection and the ” open road tolling” (ORT) which went live in Johannesburg in 2013 were implemented in 2007. Which means that the decision to install ETC in Johannesburg was taken in the early 2000’s under former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration with minimal to no public consultation with the caveat that perhaps in this instance a majority vote for the ANC was enough of green light for all of the ANC government policy positions.  The project which  was largely completed by April 2011, is ostensibly not the incumbent President Jacob Zuma’s decision even though he served as former President  Mbeki’s right hand man for much of his tenure.  In fact these decisions were likely taken and implemented in mid to late 90’s, with the first casualty being the controversial Arms Deal  Saga.

It’s so boring though…

You may think that this is effectively a moot point, but I think it puts the issue in context and makes very clear the country’s policy of  privatizing some key national assets; which  I think (though I will stand to be corrected) will in time include Eskom, Telkom, Sanral etc. Which has not shifted since the country’s democratic dispensation. This follows to the tee former President Nelson Mandela’s plea to the International community for foreign direct investment  (FDI) in public-private partnership deals which formed the basic foundation for the country’s economic policies over the years: Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) and now the National Development Plan (NDP).  President Mandela urged investors to come to South Africa saying ‘ We have many public assets, and we have the workers and labour unions under our control, we would like to partner with you” during his maiden trips as the country’s first democratically elected president. So what? Perhaps giving in on economy in exchange for “political” freedom was the only peaceful option for transition available to him and his team at the time. Perhaps he hoped that in time we’d gain some ground and through some  sheer force of political will gain some control over our economic future, perhaps it was just a foot in the door,  perhaps it was the best way to avoid a civil war. Again so what?

 Consider God’s Bits of Wood

As we mark and celebrate  Africa Day this week, we do so soberly in South Africa on the back of brutal attacks against our brothers and sisters.  And boy do they have a lot to teach us. They’ve been there before. Take a look at the  book, God’s Bits of Wood, a seminal work of literature by Senegalese writer and film maker Ousmane Sembene, in which he fictionalizes a historical account of the 1947/8  Senegal-Niger railway strike which changed the course of West Africa’s  political history.  For six months workers demanded salary increases, back pay, family allowances and pension funds – equal to what railway line workers in France were earning. A preposterous request by any stretch of the imagination at the time. Africans were not even considered human, let alone workers who deserved to earn salaries equal to white people who were then considered superior by virtue of the colour of their skin which also offered them a higher level of education, training and skills.   The striking workers were ignored and during the course of six-months, had to survive without food, water and money.  However they refused to relent, instead they united with other workers in Mali and Senegal and refused to go back to work on the repeated promise that their concerns/needs will be gradually addressed. Their employers argued that they had already benefited from Frances’ civilizing mission to Africa and a family allowances would prove too expensive as the Africans kept more than one wife, calling all African women concubines and or whores in short. Following a march from  Mali to Dakar, Senegal led by those very concubines ( Women’s march) the striking railway workers received all of their demands in full; effectively forcing the French to recognize black African workers (African labour) as fundamentally equal and worthy of the same benefits as their European (white) counterparts when performing the same tasks. The book is a work of genius.

You’re not serious…

I think the ETC saga in Gauteng presents a similar opportunity for motorists in the province ( and South Africa citizens in general) to stand for what is right, but of course the battle will not be won by three of the estimated 3.5 million registered motorists in Gauteng. It will  only work if all motorists stay united so that government understands that since it did not consider it necessary or imperative to fully and properly consult tax/rate/ payers/users of highways before signing said deals, it is equally and just as unnecessary for them to expect them to pay for something they never endorsed in the first place. It is a matter, indeed, of principle.  Government cannot continue to pay lip service to “Batho Pele’.  Perhaps in this way, this and the next administration will know to actually put people first when making plans for the country,  as it is ultimately this country’s citizens who will have to pay. This might, hopefully,  pave the way for  government to re-consider its fiscal policy to date and maybe think about truly restructuring  South Africa’s economy in a way that truly creates and sustains real growth. Because try as we might, we are not France nor are we Norway, Denmark or any of these European countries we are meant to emulate and impress. We need to create our own economic policies and plans that are tailored to fit and suit our unique economic position and  not size zero designs meant for models who live on coffee and cigarettes – we cannot unfortunately copy and paste development. I have faith that if we truly apply ourselves we will find the best economic solution for ourselves, but it has to come from South Africans and not as has been the case so far, our benefactors.

Yoh, dude! So you wanna be starting somethin’

It will be useful to quote here, political economist Mary E Clark  when she said “In life some things can be counted and others cannot. Those things which matter most – Beauty, faith, friendship and self-expression – are immeasurable. There is no way to count them. They are not marketable. As soon as we put a price on them they are debased and prostituted. Yet as a society this is exactly what we do. Only what can be bought and sold is given value” I think this is one of those “things” in life, that just cannot be bought or sold: the right to self-determination.



I know what you are thinking. The new name for my blog is an old cliche.  It is. But I have two good reasons why I named it the best line. First because it’s simple  and is unlikely to cause discombobulation for many people and because there is a mathematical equivalent called the best fit line or line of best fit which makes it sound interesting at best or boringly square at worst. But that’s also fine. You see, for a long time and surprisingly unbeknownst to me I have harbored an irrational fear of numbers. Though I was fortunate to be taught mathematics by a teacher who loved the subject, I could never get myself to do  maths exercises. It was a shameful and embarrassing experience for me which I could never vocalize or even speak of beyond the mental paralysis. It was a frustrating fear because I quite enjoyed maths and the story of numbers as my maths teacher told it. So much so that throughout my high-school career I believed I could never be an intelligent person because I didn’t do well in the only subject that automatically bestowed this coveted title on you even if you sucked at the rest of the subjects or were socially inept.  So that it didn’t matter how many A’s I got in other subjects, I always viewed myself as a failure because I never aced maths. As you by now well know, the opposite of fear is love. So without realizing it, I found myself  drawn to the sciences and math related subjects without ever vocalizing my interest or love for the subjects fearing that some clever person will suddenly ask me to work out the square root of  689, which happens to be an irrational number (26.2) on the spot and so what, we have calculators right? I wanted to change the name of my blog from the bottom line because  I was over it. Not everything is about money in life and often money and profits while important are not the most crucial deciding  factors when faced with a decision or a choice about how to use or invest our money. Our decisions are usually driven by a plurality of x and y ‘s : the unknown factors of emotions, feelings, experience, thoughts, words, belief systems, ideologies, what people say about the person, institution, job, or intuition  about whatever  it is you have to decide on.  In other words we use money to justify our decisions because most of the reasons we give for our choices and or decisions are highly irrational. So the Line of Best fit or Best fit line in maths, algebra or statistics is a method we use to help us manage what we don’t know, it’s a way to control the result somehow. We use it to predict trends, likelihood, probability and possible value of something in a way that seems and sounds more rational than a gut feeling.  It’s an exercise of faith, like religion. When maths is explained in words it sounds like a lot of guess work, which it is, but in maths what often looks unpredictable and scattered  looks manageable and contained in graphs, blocks, squares, sequences and angles. Some how it seems logical, and our faith makes it rational. We choose to believe it is true. So  now I know, thank God, that words and numbers are the opposite side of the same coin. There is no need to fear only to fully love both. Words are as powerful if not more powerful than numbers, because it is what you say about the numbers, how you explain your theory, your argument  that influences a decision one way or the other, numbers in and of themselves cannot generate emotion ( with some exceptions).  But words and numbers are inextricably linked to one another. We either use words to justify our mathematical guess work or we use numbers to justify our passionate belief in something. Words and Numbers are most powerful when used together.   In every situation one has to look at an infinite number of variables, and decide on a the best line to take or just do what others do because often it takes more time and effort to decide what is best for you in any situation. We use words and numbers to support  our belief in why something will work or why it won’t. Why it has worked in the past and why it hasn’t, and most of it is guess work.   At times it is more challenging to decide which way to go or what line to take when every way seems correct, because though the numbers may add up, they may not be the best fit for you.  Therefore I decided that the Best Line is the most suitable name for my blog at this moment in my life, because it’s suits me and because it’s what we’re all trying to do everyday:  the best with an infinite amount variables or choices. The most amazing revelation for me in all of this is simply this: I was and always will be the x and y of any mathematical equation. I love maths, but having the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers to infinitude, while fun and rewarding is not the only sign of intelligence. A true sign of intelligence I believe is  being yourself, and being yourself is the difference between simple and easy, it’s hard to define: what is simple is not always easy, and what is easy is not always simple, but you know when it’s just right for you. And that’s the best line!


“Only once in your life, I truly believe, you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You tell them things that you’ve never shared with another soul and they absorb everything you say and actually want to hear more. You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, goals that were never achieved and the many disappointments life has thrown at you. When something wonderful happens, you can’t wait to tell them about it, knowing they will share in your excitement. They are not embarrassed to cry with you when you are hurting or laugh with you when you make a fool of yourself. Never do they hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough, but rather they build you up and show you the things about yourself that make you special and even beautiful. There is never any pressure, jealousy or competition but only a quiet calmness when they are around. You can be yourself and not worry about what they will think of you because they love you for who you are. The things that seem insignificant to most people such as a note, song or walk become invaluable treasures kept safe in your heart to cherish forever. Memories of your childhood come back and are so clear and vivid it’s like being young again. Colours seem brighter and more brilliant. Laughter seems part of daily life where before it was infrequent or didn’t exist at all. A phone call or two during the day helps to get you through a long day’s work and always brings a smile to your face. In their presence, there’s no need for continuous conversation, but you find you’re quite content in just having them nearby. Things that never interested you before become fascinating because you know they are important to this person who is so special to you. You think of this person on every occasion and in everything you do. Simple things bring them to mind like a pale blue sky, gentle wind or even a storm cloud on the horizon. You open your heart knowing that there’s a chance it may be broken one day and in opening your heart, you experience a love and joy that you never dreamed possible. You find that being vulnerable is the only way to allow your heart to feel true pleasure that’s so real it scares you. You find strength in knowing you have a true friend and possibly a soul mate who will remain loyal to the end. Life seems completely different, exciting and worthwhile. Your only hope and security is in knowing that they are a part of your life.” ― Bob Marley


Pre-amble: [The United Nations‘ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” ]

Once upon a time I had a heated argument with a partner.  As I was going off in all cylinders he kept looking at me curiously and when I finally calmed down long enough for him to get a word in edgewise, he smiled deceptively and said “I want to kiss you, but I’ve been thinking about how in the world I could do that. I mean your lips are so big and full.  I don’t’ even know from which angle to approach you. I don’t know if I should go left or right or just dive in straight ahead” He said, his head tilting slightly from side to side as if he was attempting to pin down a moving target. His words surprised me, but had the effect of knocking the air out of my argument.   An involuntary smile spread itself across my face and I was helpless in preventing the genuine laughter which followed. I remember thinking how amazingly brazen he was.  I looked into his gleaming passionate eyes which made a penetrating dance around my face and decided to show him some respect and reward his efforts with a compliment. “Hmmm” I murmured, “I suppose I could kiss you too” I said pausing and repressing the laughter which threatened to overtake coherent speech “but I just have no idea what I would be kissing there, you practically have no lips to speak of.   It’s as if the creator was in hurry to finish and just made a straight line, a slit, an opening just so you can claim to have a mouth while on the other hand he spent his precious time and took his time to carefully carve my mouth, creating these dark full, soft, curvy and juicy l…

I’m you sure you can guess how that sentence ended. Don’t worry if you can’t I’ll tell you. That conversation ended in a passionate sensuous kiss in which both of us took great care to find each other’s lips, big and small and allowed them to do the sweet talking.  By drawing my attention away from the issue which had me legitimately blowing hot coals at him he redirected the heat into an activity we both enjoyed. In that moment we successfully managed to diffuse a potentially explosive situation by choosing to laugh. It was a highly provocative situation which ended happily ever after.

So how is this tale of a typical lovers tiff linked to Charlie Hedbo?  Humour, Satire, Freedom of Speech/Expression, the right to offend and their opposite’s bigotry, hate speech, incitement, all phobias including  racism.  The later could have been read into the situation described above. Even though the initial misunderstanding was not even close to being a racial incident, my partner’s later comments could through a lens of history and current events  be justifiably so classified.   The difference was we both took no offense. The situation might have been different of course had one of us been hypersensitive about the size and shape of our lips. If I thought for a moment his statement was derogatory or an insult to my looks, person, history and entire generations of original people, which someone would be forgiven to assume and vice versa, I would be telling a very different story. We both could have given each other a different kind of kiss.

If we are (rightly) to protect and uphold the right to freedom of expression and in particular the right to offend embedded in the freedom of the press, we must know that people will take offence or become duly offended as was our intention when we exercised that right.  We should also acknowledge and accept the fact that once we have so exercised our rights we henceforth lose control over how these individuals and or organizations we mean to offend will retaliate or respond once we have successfully offended them.

We have countless examples in recent history of instances where people expressed thoughts and or opinions which have caused those offended by them to react, retaliate or respond, sometimes in the most disproportionately inappropriate ways, because once the fire is raging you cannot dictate the terms.  The recent xenophobic attacks against African citizens in Durban, KwaZulu Natal and other parts of South Africa are also a clear example of the power of free speech. In light of this if we are all to rightly ask King Goodwill Zwelithini to take responsibility for his speech, opinions and statements which may have caused, incited and or inspired the brutal attacks on African citizens, if we are right to call his statements:  irresponsible and careless, we must by the same token ask Charlie Hedbo – to take full responsibility for its own role in inspiring the attacks of January the 8th.

Charlie Hedbo’s pride lies in its ability to freely and fearlessly poke fun, lampoon and insult everyone they so choose. No idea or person is safe from the scrutiny which flows from their creative pens and pencils.  But that freedom or right does not preclude them from responsibility nor does it render them immune from scrutiny, criticism or worse fatal attacks from others.

Everyone has a right to poke fun, to satirize, but if someone does not find your jokes about them particularly funny or amusing, and you persist regardless of the fact that your persistence is making them angry, you will end up with an equal and opposite reaction.

It would be so wonderful to live in societies where people were mature enough to dismiss the Zulu King’s inflammatory statements or respectfully ignore them as if they were never uttered. Perhaps in those societies the king will have been deposed by now and asked to step down for abusing his power and influence. It would be great to live in a world where those who Charlie Hedbo aimed to expose, offend and or poke fun at would examine themselves first, analyse their own behaviour and actions highlighted in those cartoons, and ask themselves if they are in all honesty justified to take offense and if so why? It would be wonderful if they could take a moment to laugh at themselves, before acting on their righteous indignation.  It would be truly fantastic to live in a world in which people in all spheres of society would instinctively reflect on and attempt to eliminate their own bigotry before pointing a finger or attacking others. In a fair and just world everyone would be mature and sane enough to understand and know without question that violence cannot be an answer to any offense given or taken.  But we don’t live in that world.

For journalists, writers, cartoonists and others to pretend that we do is just as careless, irresponsible and dangerous as the actions of those three  gunmen, utterances by the Zulu King and people behind the xenophobic attacks.  In the course of our work as journalist’s performing a public service, we encounter resistance from those in power (and in the general public) who are more often than not permanently offended by the truth and our very existence. It is an offence we cannot control but it does not relieve us of the responsibility of conducting our work in fairness. And since everyone has a right to take offence with the work we do as much as we (have a right to) offend in the process of performing a public good, the onus is on us, those who stand for truth and justice to perform our duties with the highest levels of integrity, and the highest commitment to truth, fairness and justice for the greater good and betterment of society.  We must take responsibility for the rights and powers bestowed on us to speak truth to power in a way that will not degrade the very values and principles we aim to uphold by holding those in power to account. We must also be accountable for our own actions in spreading ideas and opinions which will incite such violence, first upon us and our ability to perform our duties and or upon the public we serve. We need to use our power wisely, strategically and with soberness. We need to be shrewd and careful, without compromising the truth or being careless with it. The truth is already a hard pill to swallow, adding insult to it, is unlikely to make our work any easier or contribute to peace and justice.  We must at all times feverishly endeavour to exercise our rights and freedoms in such a way that they enhance the rights and freedoms of others (n. mandela).  This is our mandate.  No offense. Perhaps one day we will laugh about it. xx

“You write in order to change the world, if you alter, even by a millimetre the way people see reality, you can change it” James Baldwin