Tag Archives: nobel

South Africa remembers Nadine Gordimer


Barely months after South Africa bid farewell to its iconic post-apartheid president Nelson Mandela, South Africans today are remembering the indispensable Nadine Gordimer, who might well be Mandela’s literary analogue. south africa flag

That’s high praise, considering that Gordimer is in strong company alongside the late Alan Paton, 74-year-old J.M. Coetzee and other literary stars who produced a particularly compelling body of work in late 20th century South Africa.

There’s a case that you should start with Gordimer for the best sense of life in apartheid-era South Africa, and that includes both fiction and non-fiction.

Gordimer died in Johannesburg today at age 90, over two decades after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for a body of work that examines the effects and realities of apartheid-era South Africa.

For example, Burger’s Daughter (1979) is the slightly fictionalized account of the story of Bram Fischer, a wealthy Afrikaner and attorney who supported the cause of ending apartheid, defending Mandela at the Rivonia trial and otherwise working to protect the legal rights of other African National Congress activists until he, himself was imprisoned in 1964 for 11 years, released just two weeks before his own death. Gordimer’s novel examines the story of Rosa Burger, the daughter of a martyred anti-apartheid activist, much like Fischer, and how she navigated life in South Africa in the shadow of her upbringing.

The Conservationist (1974), for which Gordimer won a Booker Prize, tells the story of a wealthy, if bumbling and well-meaning white South African who buys a farm on a whim. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that the protagonist isn’t a particularly material factor within the life of the farm, sustained by a community of black Africans. You can read the novel as a metaphor for the role of privileged white South Africans within the entirety of black-majority South Africa.

Gordimer’s writing style is more challenging than either Paton’s or Coetzee’s. It’s fragmentary, non-linear, more Joyce than Hemingway. But it’s powerful, and well worth the effort for understanding life in South Africa between 1948 and 1994.

South Africa, and the world, has lost a powerful voice, and her’s is a voice well worth remembering for its skillful grace no less than its role in changing the course of South African and world politics.

Nobel by elimination: OPCW was the only worthy recipient


The committee awarding the Nobel Peace Prize historically doesn’t shy away from making political statements through its award — and this year was no different.nobel-peace-prize

In retrospect, despite the Western media swoon over 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban and recovered in the United Kingdom to become a living symbol of the fight for women’s rights in the Muslim world, it makes a lot of sense that the Nobel committee would want to highlight the fight against chemical weapons, given that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war in August earlier this year was the worst chemical weapons attack since their use in the 1980s by Iraq.

Upholding the international ban on chemical weapons drew a very reluctant US president Barack Obama to the brink of military engagement in the Middle East.  In terms of war and peace over the past 12 months, there’s no denying that chemical weapons have playing a tragic starring role:

“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” said Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, in announcing the award. “Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”

(Honorable mention should go to Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who’s risked his life to fight rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

Even if the Nobel committee’s goal should have been clear in retrospect, it was always going to be a challenge to identify an individual worthy of receiving the award.

Maybe Russian president Vladimir Putin, who took up an offhand comment from US secretary of state John Kerry to broker a United Nations Security Council deal whereby Syria would identify and begin eliminating its chemical weapons stockpiles.  But it may have been the US threat of force that pushed Putin to make the offer more than Putin’s natural instinct for peace.

Moreover, Putin presides over an awfully authoritarian state, and his record on press freedom, LGBT rights, civil rights for minorities and the Chechnya conflict hardly screams out ‘Nobel laureate.’  It was always more likely that Alexei Navalny, the crusading opposition figure, would win the prize.  Or Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the human rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Or Lilia Shianova, the director of Golos, Russia’s independent voting rights organization. Or Svetlana Gannushkina, who’s been a leading figure in providing humanitarian and legal aid in Chechnya.

It certainly couldn’t be Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who’s leading one side of an increasingly intractable civil war and whose regime was responsible for the August sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus.  Despite Assad’s apparent and swift cooperation with chemical weapons inspectors, he’s still engaged in a bloody fight against a mixed force of Sunni rebels and other opponents who want to end his family’s Alawite regime, which has governed Syria with an iron fist since 1971.  It also couldn’t be any of Syria’s rebel forces, some of whom are aligned with the most radical Islamist terror networks in the world.

Nor could it be US president Barack Obama, who already won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and his administration’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria was bumbling at best.  That may be the nature of realpolitik, and the end result is probably beyond what Obama and Kerry ever expected would be possible.  But it was hardly a shining moment for US foreign policy.

Moreover, both the United States and Russia have so far failed to destroy their own chemical weapons stockpiles, a fact that the Nobel committee acidly noted in awarding the prize.

So who was left? The chemical weapons inspectors themselves.

Through the process of elimination, the Nobel committee decided to award the prize to the entity whose very job is the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and throughout the world.

That’s the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Ahmet Uzumcu, the OPCW’s director-general pictured above), a 16-year-old organization based in The Hague in the Netherlands and the watchdog tasked with keeping the world’s countries in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention — and which is now playing the crucial role of effecting a deal that should eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability by mid-2014, if all goes according to plan.  The challenge in Syria represents the most high-profile challenge for the OPCW since its creation but, so far, the OPCW is rising to the task.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization sometimes falls like a wet blanket, even though it’s happened 24 times since 1901.  This year’s award follows the decision last year to award the prize to the European Union for its role in becalming the European continent over the past seven decades.

Giving the award to the OPCW instead of Malala (or even Putin or another individual) didn’t necessarily provide a picture-perfect, feel-good catharsis.  But it rightly shines a spotlight on an unheralded protagonist at a time when the OPCW’s work is far from complete — even if it succeeds in Syria, the world won’t be rid of chemical weapons.

Photo credit to AFP / Bas Czerwinski.

Some thoughts on the Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize this morning was awarded to the European Union ‘for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe’:

Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the panel awarding the prize, said it was a signal focusing on the union’s historical role binding France and Germany together after World War II and its perceived impact in spreading reconciliation and democracy beyond the Iron Curtain that once divided Europe and on to the Balkans. “The stabilizing part played by the E. U. has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace,” he said.

I’ve got a busy morning, but I wanted to share three initial observations:

First, this is obviously a not-so-subtle attempt by the Nobel Committee to provide some encouragement at a time when the EU is in a bit of a crisis — not just in the sense of lurching to save the eurozone, but a more existential political crisis.  In many ways, the EU is right now a sort of halfway house that resembles something like the pre-constitutional United States, when it was governed by the ineffective Articles of Confederation.

The EU today has a monetary union, but no fiscal or political union to match, despite the failure of the much-derided “EU constitution” effort in 2004 and 2005 that ended with a resounding failure in referenda in France and the Netherlands.  With German chancellor Angela Merkel this week on a trip in Greece to discuss that country’s finances after four years of recession and biting austerity designed to keep Greece in the eurozone, the Nobel Prize will be a reminder that the stakes of the eurozone’s success really are more than just determining the  outcome of an experiment in monetary policy, but the future of the entire ‘European project’ — and I think that’s a point upon which both the pro-federalist ‘neo-functionalism’ and the more skeptical ‘intergovernmentalism’ schools of EU integration would agree.

Secondly, it feels like a posthumous Nobel award to Jean Monnet (pictured above) and Robert Schuman, a former prime minister and foreign minister of France.  The two were as responsible as anyone for the establishment of the EU’s predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 among France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.  Monnet’s plan for coal and steel cooperation and the 1950 Schuman Declaration largely became the blueprints for the creation of the ECSC.

If it seems shocking that the EU has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s only because it has been so successful.  From cooperation over coal in the Saar, the European project expanded into a means for creating a common market to tear down tariffs among European nations, a vehicle for unity against the Soviet Union, a mechanism for boosting fledgling democracy in Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1980s, a salve to soothe Europeans worried about the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s, and the easiest way for “western Europe” to reach out to the newly liberated eastern European states following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today, the EU remains a stabilizing force in the Balkans — with Serbia, the last bastion of ethnic-based warfare on the European continent in the 1990s, now a fledgling democracy that itself is in EU accession talks.

Finally, if you think of the Prize as both a boost to EU at a time of institutional stress and an acknowledgement of Monnet’s efforts, I also see it as an acknowledgement of the leadership of Jacques Delors — the eighth president of the European Commission, he more or less railroaded the Maastricht treaty through what was then the European Economic Community in 1992 (despite some fireworks with UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher).  Although I think it’s still too early to tell whether the euro as a single currency is a success or a failure, if the EU pulls through this crisis by developing a fiscal union and a political union commensurate with its monetary union, Delors will rightly be seen as just as important as Monnet and Schuman for his role in bringing about a real supranational union of European states.