Daryl Ilbury

Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

20:20 vision…and it’s not good

In Eish!, Politics, Scoundrels on April 27, 2014 at 4:43 am
ANC moving forward

ANC election poster promises signposting actual delivery

On the much-lauded 20th anniversary of the first truly democratic elections in South Africa, there’s a lot of retrospective navel-gazing in the media mixed with modern promises and political fighting-talk ahead of the next elections on 7th May. For me this is all captured in the image on the left.

Some context: I took the picture during my daily walk to work along one of the major streets in the centre of Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital. It’s a snapshot of conditions of a portion of the city that’s a stone’s throw from the city hall – an ANC stronghold – and a couple of minutes drive away from the seat of national Government – The Union Buildings – also full to the rafters with senior ANC decision-makers.

At first glance you notice the rubbish strewn on the pavement. But look closer at the poster half way up the pole (you may need to double click on the image). It’s an ANC election poster showing President Jacob Zuma with the words underneath ‘Together we move South Africa forward’. The juxtaposition between promise and delivery is jarring.

What you can’t see is the litany of broken paving, missing manhole covers and indefinitely suspended road works that are repeated throughout this part of the capital, and through which the municipal, provincial and national ANC decision-makers travel regularly.

This is not an isolated case. The ANC’s election claim it has a ‘good story to tell’ of governance over the last 20 years has been found by respected fact-checking journalism organisation Africa Check to be almost entirely false. The media are also full of stories of corruption, mismanagement and abandonment of responsibility. Another, more worrying, snapshot of this is in the deterioration of the once highly-respected Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

What makes all this so truly unbelievable is that it most probably won’t make a shred of difference to the people of Pretoria who are expected to return the ANC to govern the city, the province of Gauteng and the nation as a whole come 7th May.

So why is this? In brief: the typical South African doesn’t have sufficient maturity of understanding of their entire role and responsibility in the democratic process. They don’t understand that it is they who ultimately hold the Government to account, and that this responsibility requires rigorous implementation at election time.

This is very much a reflection of the lack of critical thinking by South Africans – a result of a decades of state control during apartheid; embedded traditional cultures that demand unquestioning reverence towards leaders; and a pervasive identification with religions that provide promises of delivery – without accountability – by mythical beings.

Personally, I believe that if the people of Pretoria walk past this kind of scene every day and still vote the ANC to power on 7th May, they deserve to get screwed. Again.

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Listen to an excerpt from ‘Quiet Maverick’

In Eish!, Science on April 24, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Quiet Maverick cover

[If you wish to go directly to the recorded excerpt, click here]

I received an e-mail the other day from Mampoer Shorts, the publishers of my book ‘Quiet Maverick – Tim Noakes Chews the Fat’ saying that it was now their top selling title on Amazon.com. Needless to say I was more than a little chuffed, although, at the risk of sounding like an absolute prat, not altogether surprised. And there’s a story attached to that, one that dates back to 6th December 2012, and a strange evening at the University of Cape Town.

The occasion was a debate. But this was no typical intellectual parley over academic minutiae. This was going to get nasty, because the honour of an entire discipline within the health sciences had been challenged. Those coming out fighting were two major heavyweights:

Professor Tim Noakes, the Discovery Health Chair of Exercise and Sports Science and Director of the MRC/UCT Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine in the Department of Human Biology at UCT, and co-founder, with Springbok rugby legend Morné du Plessis, of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.

In the other corner was Dr Jacques Rossouw, the former Professor of Medicine at the University of Stellenbosch and Director of the MRC National Research Institute for Nutritional Diseases; past President of the South African Nutrition Society and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Heart Foundation of Southern Africa; and now chief of the Women’s Health Initiative Branch in the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Raising the stakes further, the event, which was part of the celebrations attendant on the 100th anniversary of the Health Sciences faculty of the University of Cape Town, had been titled “The Great Centenary Debate”. Noakes was there to present an argument the title of which suggested the extent to which it would challenge convention: Cholesterol is not an important factor for heart disease and current dietary recommendations do even more harm than good. This was a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of traditional nutritional thinking.

Under the interrogative glare of the TV lights Noakes turned to face a packed lecture theatre, heaving with people wearing condemnatory frowns – the academic equivalent of bared teeth – and hunched forward, ready to scrutinise his every word. He may as well have been blindfolded with a target pinned to his chest.

As I watched Noakes suffering the barrage of challenges, I wondered why he was doing this. Why was this reserved man, a seasoned academic and a globally respected authority in his field, leading what seemed a quixotic charge against the established tenets of another branch of science?

The science journalist in me saw a story, and to cut a long story short, it became ‘The Quiet Maverick’.

Since its publishing, there has been a increased awareness, dare I say ‘popularity’, of the paleo diet – which Noakes has championed – and more recently the publishing of a recipe book by Noakes, David Grier, Sally-Ann Creed and Jonno Proudfoot. There has also been an increased interest in what drives Noakes to continually defy convention, and therefore, it seems in my book that explains what that is. I am certainly not complaining!

Anyway, not so long ago I was interviewed on air about the book and asked to provide an author’s reading from it. I chose an excerpt that covers the tragedy that forced Noakes into the game of South African rugby – a game that didn’t welcome him, and yet which saw him take it to the very top of the world.

And here it is.

If you want to know the whole story, you can download ‘Quite Maverick’ via Amazon.com here.

“What the f…, Daryl?”

In Eish!, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on April 23, 2014 at 4:51 pm
Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

It took a tweet from @ScienceWTF quoting British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to jolt me back to writing – that and a full six months in my current position as Media Coordinator at SAASTA. I have over that time come to realise that the only way to get more science into the public domain is not with a gentle nudge but with a silk-enrobed sledgehammer.

That may sound a little blunt, but in my travels across the country and in my interaction with South Africans – both creators and consumers of media content – I have noticed two things: the relative lack of imagination and maturity in the South African media landscape, and a lack of critical thinking in the typical South African media consumer.

I am not surprised given that I am intimately familiar with the editors’ mantra “our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”. This is of course highly inaccurate because we are all voracious consumers of science (albeit largely unknowingly so). But more about that later.

So what does the average South African media consumer have an appetite for? If we are to judge by the content currently peddled by the conventional media, it’s the following: Oscar Pistorius, politics, crime and – trailing at the back somewhere – sport.

Let’s examine those one by one by asking a couple of basic questions about their relevance:

Oscar Pistorius

Who will be directly affected by the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial and therefore has a proper reason for following it? Outside of Pistorius and his family, the family of Reeva Steenkamp, and the prosecution and defence teams, few, if any. So why are so many people glued to it? For the same reason Romans used to pour into the Colosseum to watch Christians being eaten by lions. There’s a word for it: schadenfreude – and it represents a particularly nasty side of human nature. Therefore the deafening coverage of the trial in the media actually speaks unflattering and uncomfortable volumes about the (lack of) humanity of the South African media consumer. So therefore why cover the trial to such an extent?

Politics

Who is directly affected by the detailed coverage in the media of the actions (or more accurately inactions) of politicians? Outside of the politicians who rely on remaining in the public attention in order to remain relevant, few, if any. Unless, of course, by their actions (or inactions) being covered (uncovered?) in the media, they receive their justified comeuppance. However, in South Africa such accountability is virtually absent, otherwise half the players in politics would be in jail. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

Crime

There’s no denying crime, especially violent crime, is rampant in South Africa; so much so that rape and murder hardly make the headlines any more. That’s a shocking state of affairs, but not so much as the fact that it’s not considered sufficiently so by the Government to warrant any decisive intervention (see point above on inaction). It’s fair to say the typical South African media consumer has become inured to reports of crime. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

Sport

There’s also no denying that South Africans have a passion for sport, especially football (that’s real football by the way, where players actually put foot to ball, not American ‘football’, where they don’t). With so much passion, you’d think South Africans are good at playing the game; however, a quick glance at the FIFA rankings would show otherwise (hint: we’re buried on page 3). Granted, we are good at other sports, like rugby and cricket; but let’s face it, sport’s hardly a matter of life and death (and please don’t quote Bill Shankly is if to prove it is). So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

However, there isn’t a single element of our lives that isn’t examined by science – not one; and it’s usually with the purpose of improving our lives. Science isn’t 18th Century Greek architecture – the domain of specialists with niched scopes of interest! We consume it – it’s in the food we eat, in the technology we use, in the clothes we wear, in the natural and built environments in which we live, in the medicines we use, in the air we breathe, in the behaviour we display, in the way we think and in the way we move. We are also the very embodiment of science – in the chemistry of our blood and organs, in the physics of our limbs and in the electricity that courses through our brains; and we exist in a universe that is composed of the very same chemicals that are the building blocks of our bodies.

In short: science is the core of our very being.

The discipline of science also encourages critical thinking. Let’s not forget South Africa is a country where an ignorance of science is fuelling rampant levels of HIV infection, and where the belief in spirits and untested ‘traditional’ medicine is fuelling a plethora of miscreants offering everything from miracle cures to “bringing back lovers, lengthening penises and winning the lottery”. Don’t laugh – have you read your stars today? Do you really believe swirling balls of high density gas thousands of light years away move with the specific aim of determining when you should buy a lottery ticket? Of course not…and you don’t believe in fairies, either but you’d buy a lottery ticket and pray to some mythical god to help you win.

“Our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”? What utter bollocks! They NEED science.