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ISSN 1108-8931


 Year 9 - Issue 98 - July 08

Angus BeggAngus Begg: "Travel journalism: it's very much about sunsets and cocktails, with the 'freebie mentality' still ruling, especially in newspapers and magazines. The notion that travel touches every part of daily life, from politics to religion and the condition of our roads, is unpopular (and caused me to lose my drive-time travel slot on national 'public service' radio)"


The ECOCLUB Interview with Angus Begg
Photojournalist & Broadcaster, South Africa
Index of Interviews

Having grown up between Canada, the UK and South Africa, Angus Begg has been travelling for fair chunks of his adult life too. Working as a photojournalist and a broadcaster, his travels have taken him through the fields of current affairs and travel, from the genocide in Rwanda to the Serengeti migration, tea with Buddhist monks in Darjeeling, hiking New Zealand and reflecting on Poland’s Auschwitz. As news editor he helped set up SABC Africa (DStv) and today works as a producer/director for MNet’s Carte Blanche and columnist for South Africa’s Business Day weekly newspaper, The Weekender. He also contributes to various magazines; Getaway, Travel Africa and CNN Traveller.

(The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: You have travelled and worked in many African countries. Which of these have in your view developed a tourism model that approaches ecotourism ideals such as minimising its own environmental impact, funding environmental conservation, reducing poverty, respecting human rights, promoting knowledge & understanding, and why?

Angus Begg: The first project I saw of significance was outside Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, involving tourists staying in a village, amongst the villagers. The only concession was that option of a 'real' bed, (as developed-world westerners understand them) as opposed to the local, harder options. This was in 1992, and tourists then paid US$40 for the experience. Encouraging was the fact that the lodges at which they were staying encouraged this interaction – they knew how important it was for conservation and wildlife tourism to be seen to be working for the villagers. Since then I have come across two of the most fantastic ecotourism models: 

One is a place called Bulungula Lodge, on South Africa’s Wild Coast (Eastern Cape province). It’s officially in the poorest district in the country, Elliotdale, where service delivery hasn't improved one iota since the election of SA's first democratic government – children still die of diarrhoea because of filthy water, clinics too far away and roads so bad they're impossible to make use of in an emergency. Against this background financial services graduate Dave Martin and his wife, Rejane – chief economist for a major insurance group – have established a backpacker lodge that has been voted by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten places to see in SA. What distinguishes this from other ecotourism ventures (a loosely used term) is the extent to which local people are involved; they work at the lodge, they have a share in it (virtually part of the village, there is no theft, and the guests and visiting villagers share space in the main building) they run tourist-related businesses that supply services to guests such as fishing and cultural tours. It also runs on solar and wind-power, uses compost toilets, and has a remarkable water-saving shower device driven by paraffin – bit like a rocket! 

The second is Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. At the other end of the luxury scale, with five stars, its impact has been huge. It all starts with caring for the smallest and most diverse floral kingdom in the world – the Cape Floral Kingdom (it has 1,300 plant species per 10,000 km2 - the nearest rival, the South American rain forest, has a concentration of only 400 per 10,000 km2). It boasts an on-site college that enables kids from surrounding impoverished areas, who haven't even finished school, to qualify for further studies at a Cape Town technikon (technical university). They sell plants from the college nursery, raising considerable funds, and the best students every year go to Cornwall’s Eden College for practical work. From that has grown a soccer project, looking forward to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which has attracted serious international sponsorship and developed into a community centre serving all sports and with (apparently) the only soccer astroturf pitch in Africa.

ECOCLUB.com: What share of tourism accommodation facilities in Africa is actually in the hands of locals and communities as opposed to foreign-controlled companies? Does it matter? 

Angus Begg: I believe the vast majority are locally owned. Provided the ethics and business practice are sound and that money is ploughed back into the country, I see no problem with it. 

ECOCLUB.com: And does domestic tourism also play a significant part in South Africa? In what way is it different than international tourism? 

Angus Begg: Domestic tourism is the bread and butter of any country. Look at how America had to look inwards post 9/11. With South Africa susceptible to an often misinformed international population - people who actually think a disturbance or conflict in Kenya or a plane crash in Cameroon has something to do with SA, and book their travels accordingly – South Africa has to be locally aware. 

ECOCLUB.com: As a winner of the 2006 CNN Africa Journalist Awards, how satisfied are you with the quality of Journalism and Travel Journalism in particular in Africa - investigative or picture perfect? and in which countries? How easy is it really for a travel journalist to write a negative review and not suffer the consequences? 

Angus Begg: The South African government has since a few years into independence been taking shots at the independent media, which continued holding government to account – as it did with the previous government. But as with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (post the Somoza dynastic autocracy), the African National Congress (ANC) government doesn’t like to be held to account. The standard of journalism has dropped, I believe, especially in the electronic media, where disinformation and government propoganda has once again become the order of the day. Travel journalism: it’s very much about sunsets and cocktails, with the ‘freebie mentality’ still ruling, especially in newspapers and magazines. The notion that travel touches every part of daily life, from politics to religion and the condition of our roads, is unpopular (and caused me to lose my drive-time travel slot on national 'public service' radio). 

If I am hosted by a company etc, I put it to them that I have to write it as I see it – my take is that they have the opportunity for pure editorial, if they screw it up it’s their fault. Some people find that fair, others just want advertorial. The major problem is that publishers and broadcasters, despite generally making huge profits, aren’t interested in paying for decent content (I’m paid the same rate today as I was 7 years ago by the biggest publishing group in the country, which is still chaired by a former trade unionist / senior ANC office-bearer). They'd rather be offered a trip and give it to someone in the office who deserves a trip; there is no cost to the company, the journo feels happy as he gets wined and dined and he will produce what often turns out to be inane product. I could give many examples! 

ECOCLUB.com: What is your take on the blogging phenomenon, and anonymous journalism? Is it a fad or here to stay? Does it liberate/emancipate or degrade/erode the journalism profession? 

Angus Begg: I’m embarassed to say that I’m not that familiar with it. I have yet to enter the world of blog (which sounds like a dirty, dark planet)! It can both liberate and erode the profession, but I suppose it does offer choice, and if people don’t like it, they won’t search it out. I reckon it must be here to stay – what do you think ? Should I have one ??!! 

ECOCLUB.com: You were there, when the Rwanda genocide took place. Can it happen again? Has Tourism recovered? Has it played a meaningful role in reconciliation, equal to the one Paul Rusesabagina - immortalised by the Hotel Rwanda film - played during the events?  Briefly surveying official and private Rwandan tourism websites, we did not find any reference to the massacre. Is it best kept a taboo, or should tourists (and locals) never forget through museums and monuments, as is the case with massacres in other countries and parts of the world? 

Angus Begg: It can, and has happened again - in Kenya. Africa is an essentially feudal environment, and many of its rulers have no real interests in changing things, because unfortunately many of them seem to enjoy the notion of eternal power. Look at speeches by such leaders – and I think it’s relevant for the whole developing world – and you will notice unusually common reference to the term ‘power’. Tourism is in the process of recovering in Rwanda, and the big investment by East African hotel giant Serena (owned by the Aga Khan) speaks volumes, especially with general instability continuing in DRC and Burundi. A number of international NGOs are helping to resurrect the industry in Rwanda, in some cases – like Nyungwe Forest – creating tourist infrastructure for the first time. It’s pioneering stuff, and an amazing place to visit. Taboo subject? ‘m not sure if I met many Hutu’s, as everyone refers to themselves as “Rwandan, not Tutsi or Hutu” - I was looking because all the new restaurants and coffee shops and tour operators I spoke to were children of the Tutsi exiles of 1959, who had returned to their country with money after 1994. I would like to know how Hutus feel about the reconciliation process, and the ‘oneness’, but nevertheless didn’t encounter any hostility from the people I met. There is a strong sense of discipline around, and government is simplifying legal requirements for foreigners wishing to come in and do business and help get the country on its feet again. With the highest population per capita in Africa Pres Paul Kagame knows he has to make tourism work. 

ECOCLUB.com: Mandela, still going strong at 90, is considered by many as the world's greatest statesman alive. Has South Africa, with reference to its Tourism sector, and in the light of the recent anti-immigrant events, made an equally great progress over the past 15 years, in tackling racism, poverty & disenfranchisement? Could the Tourism sector generate more jobs for locals in the cities? 

Angus Begg: For good reason Mandela was just too late for us, with government now beset by corruption and a general lack of leadership. The tourism industry in SA has made strides, with some – like Dave at Bulungula – doing their best to help the less privileged. Some top-end lodges and hotels blow the horn of 'ecotourism' and providing employment louder than others, often facilitating access to capital through international connections. This can be a good thing, such as the example of Dr X from Boston or Zurich building an eye-clinic in a rural province. But the negative is that such establishments inevitably charge more per night than the cleaner will earn in six months, which I feel does nothing to do away with the generally black and white - 'us and them'- divide (as opposed to the Bulungula example). Increasingly you find 'black diamonds' - the newly-monied black class, who often (but not always) arrive at their news status courtesy of government patronage – also frequenting such establishments, as a way of announcing their 'arrival'. This further entrenches the feudal notion still prevalent in Africa, that he with the money and economic power (no matter how it was gained) - more importantly he who is seen to have it - is king.

Government has failed the industry dismally in many instances, especially the Wild Coast, where long-term sustainable tourism operations willing to pump in tons of cash have been put on hold for years, eventually chasing away the potential, well-intentioned investor. This has cost countless jobs in a woefully poverty-stricken, beautiful province. It turns out in this particular instance that various interested government officials have been holding up the process, hoping to pave the way for an Australian mining firm to step in and plunder the resource-rich coastline. How do I know? A colleague produced the investigative TV programme on it recently, and I've followed the story for years; four years ago (that's how long the story's been happening) I walked that coastline while seeing what had become of the EU's R84 million (abut US$10 million at the time) that had been pumped into the area. It just vanished. Today it's more about greed - one black brother stealing from another - than racism.

The wave of xenophobia sweeping the country needs to be put in some form of context: it has been a long-time coming. In a nutshell: South Africa's borders are porous, and with much of Africa still ruled by despots ('democracy' is a very qualified concept in this part of the developing world) the continent's beleagured citizens and refugees head south in search of both security and opportunity. Zimbabweans and Malawians especially are hired easily in South Africa, as they are known for pleasant and willing dispositions; Zimbabweans are often well-qualified (roughly three million having fled their own country), meaning – whether illegal or not - they get jobs quickly. The local workforce remains highly politicised. Many can't differentiate between being 'of service' to servitude (historical legacy), and thus would sometimes rather work only begrudgingly. So when economic times are tight, as they are now, and jobs are scarce, ignorance and intolerance reign – and black Africans turn on their brothers. 

Just yesterday, I was at a top guest-house in Cape Town, that has long had Congolese French waiters (the owner is originally French). They tell me that locals will target them because they have a different (darker) look, don't speak English well and dress in a particular fashion, thus they prefer to live in largely white areas – for safety's sake. Government has sat idly and watched (only lately sending in troops to help police in troubled areas), with our President overseas and even our president-in-waiting preferring not to get involved. They dare not be seen to be even vaguely sympathetic towards foreigners as it will cost them votes among the masses. That people have died, the same people who came to our country fleeing violence, poverty and persecution – seeking safety - is tragic beyond words. Luckily for the industry – although international TV news has flashed coverage of the events around the world - these incidents have been taking place light years from the tourist beds. Tourism still has great potential in South Africa, and billions are being spent on infrastructure for the World Cup in 2010, so more jobs will be created. My worry is that we lack both visionaries in government, and competence in key areas; to ensure that our electricity networks will always work, that such xenophobia is dealt with.

My hope is that once the 'magical' date of 2010 has passed, with the smoke and mirrors and the image of the feel-good parade having moved on, we will have a sustainable tourism industry to work with. Government and private tourism departments are almost entirely politically appointed and inefficient (generally speaking), with employees joining the industry to go shopping at international trade shows and backhanders being the order of the day. But at the proverbial end of the day we have three things going for us: a phenomenal natural environment, strong private sector, packed with experience and knowledge, that drives the industry and draws the tourists, and - despite the pockets of intolerance in the urban, underprivileged areas – a largely warm and welcoming people out in the country. That's what people come to see.

ECOCLUB.com: In what was a milestone for African environmentalism, Wangari Maathai won the Nobel in 2004. However many think that the environment is still a luxury in Africa, that rapid progress is paramount in the light of abject living conditions. If that is so, is high-end eco-friendly tourism, even though it may be elitist and a form of tourist apartheid, an honourable & useful compromise, or is it a drop in the ocean? 

Angus Begg: It's one form of making it work, as in Botswana's Okavango Delta, but is it right if it deprives locals from the experience altogether? I believe how people are treated is key to such operations, whichever end of the scale they may be on. My jury is still out on this one, although the experiences of Bulungula and Grootbos again refer... 

ECOCLUB.com: In the light of frequent air disasters and arduous flight connections, it has been argued that Africa needs a dense network of subsidised, safe air routes. Do you agree? 

Angus Begg: What about cheap, reliable, ecological public transport (trains, buses) for the masses? Viva! The masses wish for reliable public transport, but it aint comin' anytime soon. We decided to spend R21 billion (at the time about US$3 billion) on an arms deal - which has both our future and existing presidents implicated in corruption – instead of exactly the proposal you raise. 

ECOCLUB.com: What is your evaluation on the new scrummage / cold war for Africa and its resources between the worlds superpowers? Should Africa be given a fair chance through the removal of subsidies in the west, and then left alone to heal its wounds and stand on its own feet, or does it forever need the peace & war corps of investment, aid, ngos, bureaucrats, arms-traders, missionaries, preferential arrangements, cheap imports...? 

Angus Begg: Take a peek at China's scramble for Africa's resources. It is providing infrastructure all over Africa in return for much of its energy resources. Some call it looting, and their attitude to labour rights is indeed questionable to westerners, but they are nevertheless providing Africa with what Western aid has for decades failed to deliver effectively (money goes into corrupt political pockets or its tied to sometimes unsustainable World Bank targets). Yes, subsidies should be removed in the west – traditional western powers made fortunes by looting Africa, now they have to let Africa play too, by playing fair. Although internal political power plays in the likes of the US and EU make such a prospect unlikely. As for that list of parties you mentioned, they are often an industry in themselves – sometimes more important than the 'cause' they claim to be interested in. 

ECOCLUB.com: From 80's South Africa to Palestine and Rwanda, you have covered politics & strife but also tourism and the environment and been through places & situations most of us only see in the movies. 'Wise as you will have become, so full of experience', as the poem goes, have you ever considered crossing the street and participating in politics, or are you gradually finding your way back to your 'Ithaca'?

Angus Begg: I'm not sure about 'wise', although 'experience' I will concede I have gained. I'm a touch of a malcontent right now, frustrated by worsening corruption and displays of power in a country that had the chance to choose the high road after the '94 elections, but didn't, instead choosing to support the morally reprehensible Zimbabwean despot, Robert Mugabe, and turn a blind eye to corruption locally. Just this past weekend it has been announced that – despite overwhelming public sentiment to the contrary – that the highly effective National Prosecuting Authority will be disbanded. This is largely because it has been successful in investigating senior ANC (government) figures. I am fast realising through my TV work that we live here in a qualified democracy, and that inefficiency, greed and corruption won't see the ANC government removed from power. That's our legacy – the masses will vote according to colour because they were largely deprived of education and stick with what they know – even if it's a perspective no greater than over the hill in the neighbouring village - which perpetuates the feudalistic existence. So politics is not on the horizon (as is working as a political journalist in such an environment)! Being just post 40 and a white male doesn't help finding work in South Africa, no matter personal history and experience, so let's say I'm looking around for opportunities, whether in travel, photography, commentary or some related business. Somewhere therein perhaps lies my Ithaca. I've just moved to Cape Town, so at least I'm looking at this amazing mountain (Table) as I write, ocean and vineyards just a little further away ... pondering an uncertain future!

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here

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