Radio Silence

Hey there. Howzit?

So we’ve had a bit of radio silence here on the blog, relatively speaking. Apologies for that. (Or, for some of you, you’re welcome.)

It’s been a bit busy around here lately and there are a number of updates in the hopper, but their reporting may be delayed and you’ll just have to wait for them to trickle out over the next couple of weeks.

Here’s the deal:

This week I am participating in a course on human rights law in Africa as part of my involvement with the Centre for Human Rights. While it’s fun to be back in the classroom, it’s my first time trying to keep up with professionals trained in international law, so right now I am treading water.

Besides gaining a better foundation in human rights principles as applied to Africa (and as developed within Africa), I am fortunate to be among lawyers and NGO staff from South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Turkey, Sweden, Italy, France, Germany, Hungary and Denmark (by way of the UN in New York). I am the only Evil American, so I enjoy being the target of criticisms re: US refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court or to ratify conventions aimed at eliminating discrimination against women (CEDAW) or to promote the rights of children (CRC).

Tomorrow morning we have a miniature moot court exercise concerning a quasi-hypothetical case of human rights violations in Zimbabwe. I am on a team representing the complainants, 50 women who attest to being sexually assaulted because they are members of an opposition political party. It will require more than even my hundreds of hours of watching Law & Order can provide.

Among the many, many interesting discussions, which have thus far ranged from human needs vs. human rights to polygamy to so-called “sexual cleansing”, is the debate regarding whether there is such a thing as “universal human rights.” The basis for most international human rights law evolved from western ideologies (Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Montesquieu, et al.). Where/How do African cultures and traditions (Ubuntu) fit? A fascinating set of questions.


As time permits, I will churn out updates on my visit to the school, library and crèche in Ivory Park and some important work being done there (including ways you can help the kids!), as well as on the tens of thousands of Jacaranda trees currently blooming in a now purple Pretoria.

In the meantime, tell us what you want to know. What do you want to hear about? Jenny is busy, too (as always), but maybe you can convince her to pony up a few paragraphs…

It’s half past. We must revert or be retrenched.

This is a photo of Mandela Square in Sandton, which has very little to do with this blog post except that I drafted the post at a cafe in the square before snapping the picture...and what's a blog post without an image?

Yes, yes, there’s been an uncharacteristic lapse on the blog. No posts for several days? They must have been eaten by lions! The ones that roam the streets at night!

No, fortunately there have been enough warthogs roaming the streets at night to keep the lions sated. We’ve been quite safe, actually.

We have been busy, though; Jenny with her research and now a Fulbright conference in Sandton (more on that later), and me with some new consulting work.

Most recently, and most significantly, I started as a consultant with the Centre for Human Rights, which is both a respected international NGO and a department of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria. My role will be to enhance communications, assist with funding proposals/grant applications, support individual projects and analyze operations. I will also attend several of their world-class Advanced Human Rights Courses, the first of which is on Human Rights in Africa in mid-October.

Already, our exposure to South African institutions and businesses is forcing us to develop a new vocabulary:

  • half past — Simple, straightforward and easy enough, right? Then you may underestimate how often you say things like “Let’s meet at nine-thirty” in America. It just rolls off the tongue. To be understood on the first go here, it’s “Let’s meet at half past nine.” Sure, “nine-thirty” is acceptable, but it seems that most folks find it easier to hear “half past nine.” I’m getting used to it, though I still feel that saying “half past nine” requires a British accent, a pot of Earl Grey and crustless cucumber sandwiches on a silver platter.
  • must vs. should — In America, we might say “Should we meet about this again, perhaps at nine-thirty?” Here, we say “Must we meet about this again, perhaps at half past nine?” In South Africa, in this context, must does not have the sarcastic or otherwise negative connotation that can be implied at home. It is used much in the same way we use should. This one really goes beyond business to nearly all service transactions and inquiries. “Must I edit this copy for the Web?” “Must I watch the fly-half to see the true artistry of rugby?” “Must I dip the spoon in the Nutella before eating the almond?”
  • revert — Keeping with the heightened formality of South African business language, revert is a more civilized (or civilised) way to say “I’ll get back to you.” If one doesn’t have the answer now, or needs more time to respond to an email, one might type, “Thank you for your question. I will look into that just now and revert on Monday.” (In this example, “just now” means “whenever” and “Monday” means “Tuesday.”)
  • redundant — This one is tricky as it can have two meanings. In an organization (or organisation) that often deals with Americans, it can be assumed to mean “duplicative” or “excessive” as applied to a process or program, etc. More often, though, the term applies to a position or person. So, if an employee has been deemed redundant, s/he is likely to be…
  • retrenched — The South African way to say fired or laid off. Whenever I hear this word, I think of little Dilberts being escorted by Security from their cubicles out to an actual trench, like something dug with collapsible spades by the German army of the early 20th century, where they would wait to be called up to their next jobs. But, I suppose it is unfair to think so literally. After all, what happens to a person who is fired or laid off? (One might say that both terms involve a burning sensation…)
  • trainsmash — Being retrenched would definitely be a trainsmash. Being two minutes late to the meeting that began at half past nine would not be a trainsmash. Note the difference between “trainsmash” and “train wreck.” Totally different meanings, though it’s likely that either or both could be encountered at any office at any time.
  • thanks a stack — LOVE this one. While it’s obviously just a variation of “thanks a lot,” it’s so much fun to think about what the “stack” might be. A stack of money? Tempting. A stack of pancakes? Now you’re talking…

All in all, we’re really learning how to talk here. Which is important. Because we still haven’t learned that most offices close for the day at 3:30pm 15:30 half past three…