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Richard Poplak and Kevin Bloom on the the Chinese Business Boom in Namibia

The Sheik's BatmobileWays of StayingRichard Poplak (Ja, No, Man, The Sheik’s Batmobile) and Kevin Bloom (Ways of Staying) have formed themselves into an intrepid reporting duo, as noted on BOOK SA before, and their latest collaborative effort sees them take a trip to Namibia, where they visit the building site of the Oshakati market and taxi rank, which is being built by a Chinese-owned firm. The Namibian construction industry is entering a showdown with Chinese firms, which the Namibian unions claim are operating outside the law and undercutting local firms in tender bids. Bernard Milinga, the general secretary of the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (Manwu), says that the Chinese companies exploit local workers.

At the Oshakati market and taxi rank, Poplak and Bloom meet “Tony”, the Chinese translator on the compound. Tony’s words indicate a different cultural and economic approach to labour. He claims that he is paid worse than Namibians and is “baffled by their insistence on taking weekends off”:

The construction site, at first blush, is like any other. Located in northern Namibia, in the former SA Defence Force stronghold of Oshakati, it is little more than a sun-baked clearing that reeks of stagnant water.

The gate in the barbed wire fence is secured by a length of pipe cleaner, a uniformed guard in a wooden hut dozes with a shotgun on his lap. Before us, a sign insists that this will one day be the Oshakati market and taxi rank.

We gently wake the guard and enter. It is Sunday today, quiet and lethargic, and only a skeleton crew mans the site. Barefoot Owambo teenagers drag muck from a waterlogged pit; in the shade, two sunburnt Chinese men lazily observe their progress.

Poplak and Bloom also visit the township of Katutura, 10kms from Windhoek’s CBD, where they speak to Simeon Bernardino, who welcomed the influx of Chinese business in the country, saying of Katutura, “There has been no electricity for two years and to use the toilet you must go to the bush”. Bernardino is now a “five star” member of the Tiens Group, which is a multinational conglomerate with a homebase in Tianjin. According to Bernardino, the company offers opportunities to those seeking a better life – opportunities which are otherwise hard to come by were it not for the presence of the company in Namibia.

Hifikepunye Pohamba’s new presidential palace sprawls over hectares of prime, hilly Windhoek real estate. It is surrounded by an imposing iron fence, adorned every five metres or so with garish, vaguely botanical crests.

The tiled walls give the impression of a high-end outhouse and there is a distinct whiff of gangster communism about the place — it would, one imagines, be more sanguine in Pyongyang. Indeed, the North Koreans prepared the designs for, and started construction on, the stronghold. When they were unable to finish it, a Chinese firm stepped in. Underneath the vast main buildings, we are told by a local construction magnate, bunkers and tunnels have been built to spirit away Pohamba and his court should things turn nasty.

On a velvety night, cold blue moonlight catching the acacia-studded koppies, the palace makes for an impressive sight. We pull off on to a side road and prepare to take some pictures. Several shots in, a van pulls up. Three armed men leap out and start barking orders and the most strident among them, a North African Arab — one of an increasing number of foreign mercenaries in the country, loyal only to their paymasters — demands our passports. “Would you take a picture of the president’s home in your country?” he asks. “Never!” They possess a coiled violence that makes us both very nervous.

Editor’s note: The article inflamed some commenters, who dispute Bloom and Poplak’s description of the infrastructure of Katutura. Our original reporting on the article, which quoted extensively from the comments as well as the article itself, drew a heated call from Bloom, who characterised our post as reinforcing these claims against the reporters’ credibility (by M&G Online users posting under the names Lihongeni Hamayulu, Piers Vigne, clarence mbai and Angus Matthews). The phrase in our original post, which drew Bloom’s ire, said that these commenters were “calling out out Bloom and Poplak for ‘irresponsible reportage’”. (The actual phrase used in the comments section is “trashy reportage”, but we wanted to avoid that word – our use of quotation marks was meant to convey the gist.) We often include comments in our wider coverage of articles of interest, but certainly never mean to imply that commenters are correct (or otherwise) in their assertions, and always intend to prioritise the original article over the “breadcrumbs” that might end up scattered around them. That didn’t quite happen in this case: our apologies to Poplak and Bloom for causing any offence. We’ve asked Bloom for a response to the M&G Online comments and will gladly publish it here.

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Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 28th, 2011 @13:43 #
     
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    Note: have added an editor's note to the bottom of this article, which addresses a few concerns that Bloom & Poplak had with our reporting.

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  • <a href="http://kevinbloom.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kevin</a>
    Kevin
    March 28th, 2011 @14:28 #
     
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    In the section of Katutura we visited - that is, witnessed with our own eyes - there was no electricity or running water. This section stretched right across a valley at the back end of the township, parallel to the B1 as it heads north out of Windhoek. We know there are no lights or toilets in the homes there because, well, we did what journalists sometimes do - we checked. The M&G commenters, as commenters sometimes do, took this one aspect of the piece and perhaps their own experience of a different part of the township as our central theme. It wasn't, which is why we don't ordinarily respond to commenters.

    That said, when a reporter without a surname (Chiara who?) uses BookSA's rightfully respected name to impugn our own names, it becomes an issue. Chiara, we know you had a deadline to meet this morning - it tends to happen to us on a Monday too - but the decision to take easy victories can and does backfire. Maybe, one day when you get a full byline of your own, you'll appreciate this little fact...

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 28th, 2011 @14:57 #
     
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    Thanks for the comment, Kevin.

    Our post didn't impugn anyone, however. It's easy to see how two hard-slogging writers, just returned from a tough assignment, would take issue with the way it was laid out - missing, perhaps, the fact that it was featured in the main slot on our front page, which is reserved for material we really like or consider to be particularly significant - but it's equally easy to construct an alternate reading of the original post, taking into consideration its context within BOOK SA's lit-friendly confines, and the fact that quotation marks were explicitly used to identify any suggestions that your work was irresponsible as the opinions of other people, not our own.

    The angle Chiara tried out for her post had nothing to do with easy victories. She merely looked to craft an interesting lede - and got her priorities out of order. It happens sometimes, but, lest there be any confusion around whom the buck stops with on this or indeed any post on BOOK SA's main blog - the person, in other words, to whom all righteous admonition should be directed - it's me. I should have caught the problem, didn't, hence my editorial intervention and apology.

    Last, we don't use surnames because, well, we don't, and haven't since the start. For our easy victory, read your cheap shot.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    March 29th, 2011 @10:56 #
     
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    From recent discussions on BOOKSA it seems clear to me that what we urgently require in South Africa is a literary tribunal. We can staff it with the M&G reviewers, and the reanimated corpses of Stalin and PW Botha. I will lead it, and our first order of duty will be to have Chiara X shot at her earliest convenience (dawn works best for me).

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 29th, 2011 @11:08 #
     
  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    March 29th, 2011 @11:30 #
     
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    No I hadn't Ben. It appears as if a purge will be required to prevent this whole thing degenerating into factionalism. I'm off to buy some ammunition and source a good voodoo practitioner.

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  • <a href="http://www.allafricanbooks.com" rel="nofollow">AllAfricanBooks</a>
    AllAfricanBooks
    March 29th, 2011 @15:21 #
     
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    Hahaha people let's not get carry away so easily, these things happen, at times people posts comments that they don't really mean just maybe out of the reaction to the article at that point in time. But after due consideration they might actually see the gaff and even if they don't always admit it openly, they do regret that they ever made such comments at times.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 29th, 2011 @15:31 #
     
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    I don't know, AllAfricanBooks - I think Sven might be serious.

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  • <a href="http://www.allafricanbooks.com" rel="nofollow">AllAfricanBooks</a>
    AllAfricanBooks
    March 29th, 2011 @16:08 #
     
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    Don't worry Ben, I think Sven will get back to his calm very soon. He is a reasonable person.

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