Mozambique: Well done, South Africa!

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 16 2000

South Africa is to be congratulated on its response to the Mozambique floods, but the disaster highlights the differences between aid in Europe and aid in Africa, writes CAMERON DUODU

Television is a wonderful invention -- it finds it hard to lie. So we have all been witnesses to the paltry efforts of the so-called "international community" to save the people of Mozambique from the incredible deluges of water that have threatened to drown thousands of them with every minute that passes, and for about one whole month. As we watched and heard that the most active squad on the rescue front was the five-helicopter team from the South African Air Force, I silently blessed South Africa. Without the tireless efforts of the crews of the South African choppers, what could have happened? Wish South Africa had been able to send more.
But then, one had to ask oneself, so where are the other countries that possess helicopters? We were told that one ministry from a particular country was squabbling with another ministry over payment for the assistance being sent -- leading to a shameful waste of precious time. Others were reported to be "considering"; or doing "reconnaissance" first, or assessing the needs of the situation -- before sending assistance.

Meanwhile, people were dying after falling off the trees and rooftops where they had been perched. One woman gave birth to a child, in a tree. It was the helicopter crew that cut off the umbilical cord of her baby! Water, water everywhere, yet every drop cholera-ridden.

Mosquitoes carrying malaria from mud patch to mud patch, infecting kids already weakened by lack of food and drinking water. How can there be so much misery and how can the rich world watch all this and still keep their helicopters under wraps in hangars, waiting for another Saddam Hussein to declare war before sending the choppers into the air?

Those who hide their heads under a stack of ostrich feathers will no doubt bite off my head for saying this, but I am certain that if the colour of those helpless people in the water in Mozambique had been white, we would have observed a greater urgency in the response of the rich nations of the world to the demands of the situation. There would have been no nonsensical talk about how African countries spend their money on arms and not on rescue equipment; of their incompetence in maintaining the few helicopters they do have, and so on. Aid would have been sent urgently. Period.

Because I know that what I have just said can offend those with blinkers over their eyes, I have fortified myself. I offer to these sceptics, not the opinions of "bigoted" blacks like myself, but these extracts from the lily-white Los Angeles Times of May 21 1999.

Writing about the differences its correspondents had observed between the aid efforts in Kosovo (white) and Somalia/the Great Lakes Area of Central Africa (black), it said:

"The outpouring of aid in recent weeks for ethnic Albanians ripped from their homes in Kosovo has stunned humanitarian groups, which continuously fight for dollars for refugees in Africa. For many of these workers, the response to the Balkan crisis has highlighted the enormous difference between the newly sprouted camps in Europe and existing facilities in Africa. And this difference, in turn, has raised uncomfortable questions about the reasons for it -- a complex mix, according to humanitarian groups, of logistics, culture and race.

"While none of the camps compares to a permanent home and a stable life, refugee workers say, those in Africa and Europe are a world apart.

"Consider: the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is spending about 11 cents a day per refugee in Africa. In the Balkans, the figure is $1,23, more than 11 times greater.

"Some refugee camps in Africa have one doctor for every 100 000 refugees. In Macedonia, camps have as many as one doctor per 700 refugees -- a ratio far better than that of many communities in Los Angeles.

"Refugees at most camps in Albania, across the border from Kosovo, have readily available clean water. In Eritrea, on the Horn of Africa, families as large as 10 are given about 3,5 gallons of water to last three days.

"The camps in Africa hold as many as 500 000 people. Up to 6 000 refugees there die each day from cholera and other public health diseases. In Macedonia, the largest camp holds 33 000 people. So far, there have been no deaths from public health emergencies such as an epidemic or starvation.

"The immense flow of aid to Europe has alarmed some aid agencies, which worry that the attention focused on the Balkans will cut into the food and supplies going to places such as Eritrea and Somalia.

"Others offer a blunter assessment: they say wealthy donors in the developed world and the aid agencies they support feel more sympathy -- and reach deeper into their pockets--for those with similar skin tones and backgrounds. Andrew Ross, a refugee worker who came from Africa to the Balkans last month, called the camps in Macedonia "far superior" to those in Africa.

"'What's the difference?' Ross asked. 'There's white people here.'"

Isn't it depressing? We are supposed to live in this world; the earth is so beautiful from space that apparently, when you view it from another planet, you feel that "home" is absolutely special -- created for our appreciation and enjoyment. You cannot see the boundaries of countries from space. Yet we have allowed pig-headed prejudice to induce us to erect barriers against one another. Worse, we are destroying the planet by polluting its air supply.

Mozambique and disasters like it should open our eyes about racism, and about global warming, or the Green House effect, caused by how we carelessly pollute the atmosphere, before it's too late. Can we be saved? Do we deserve to be saved?