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South Africa: A fading rainbow?

Democracy is not an easy thing to do. It is not something that can be implemented over night nor does the ability to vote mean that things will immediately turn out for the better. For democracy to work, institutions need to be in place and civil society must work together to grow something organically.

Notions of idealism have often ignored the fundamentals of rationalism and pragmatism. In effect, just because something may seem right, it doesn’t mean it is going to work. To a large extent, this forms the building blocks of modern Conservatism and many of the views of the 18th century politician Edmund Burke. Societies don’t become something overnight, they evolve through history and culture. The lessons of revolution and visionary leaders have often led to mass murder and the brutality of totalitarian regimes.

The problem with democracy is that when it is in place, citizens expect results immediately. Yet, when things don’t, old habits often die hard. One only has to look at Russia. Western critics of the current Russian leadership may have some salient points regarding Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian style, yet let us remember that democracy as we know it has never existed there at all. Before Stalin and Lenin, Russia was ruled by hereditary Tsars. Authoritarianism and the security blanket of socialism are the systems that Russians know; it may be some time before the framework of democracy beds-in.

The same can be said of South Africa. The pressure for the country to flourish remains intense, almost on the verge of burdensome. The peaceful legacy of Nelson Mandela’s leadership was a platform for countries overcoming long legacies of discrimination to aspire to, any step backward is deemed a desecration of Mandela’s legacy

The current crisis involving the South Africa questions not only the stability of the economy, but the essence of its democracy. The shooting and subsequent killings of protesting miners at a platinum mine near Rustenburg asks not only questions of the police, but questions about politics and society.

Since 16 August, South Africa’s platinum mines have become inoperable. Mass demonstrations by several unions have prevented workers returning to the pits and have put future operations in doubt. The protests have continued to gain momentum and not just in Rustenburg, miners from across the country have joined in wild-cat strikes. The return of the banished former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema has only stoked the fire further.

Malema is no stranger to controversy. A fierce critic of South Africa’s current leadership, Malema has openly stated his admiration and friendship of Zimbabwe’s ageing tyrant Robert Mugabe, discredited the Government of Botswana and called for the South African mining sector to be renationalised. The 31-year-old raised headlines initially for singing the infamous ‘Shoot the Boer’ at ANC rallies, Boer being the white farmers who settled in South Africa in the 17th and 18th century, now a looser term for white South Africans. In April 2012, Malema was finally banned for calling President Zuma a dictator. Yet, it does not appear to have curtailed his opinions. Malema this week was talking to the South African army, in what has been perceived as a threat to national security.

Whilst Malema’s rhetoric can be deemed as absurd and opportunistic, to what extent does it echo with many of the workers in South Africa’s mining community? Since the end of Apartheid, are they materially better off? Life expectancy has dropped to 52 years old, over a tenth of the population is living with HIV, on top of poor educational standards, crime remains an inherent problem with high murder and violent crime rates. Figures also put the unemployment rate at 25%, though many believe it to be around 40%. Has freedom from Apartheid brought opportunity? For the masses living in black townships, how many would argue that much has changed?

Whilst many poor black South Africans have suffered, the political elite have prospered. 100 years since the ANC was born, to what extent does it really represent its constituents? Why has it introduced a secrecy law that critics believe to be akin to Apartheid-era politics. Why were the miners in Rustenburg arrested under an obscure Apartheid law?

South Africa has struggled like any country whilst it attempted to re-emerge from its bleak past. South Africa is held up as a beacon because what was enshrined in its constitution made it the world’s most equal society. Yet the strikes and gaps in wealth tell another story. A new black elite has managed to develop from the seeds of freedom. From what should have been an opportunity for liberation and new beginnings has led to greed, corruption and a failure of the masses. Whilst the miners may return to work this week, what remains is a seriously inequal society and the fault lines that will only become wider.


2012: Arab Spring or Fall Back?

During 2011, the Arab political world was transformed as hard-line dictatorships were removed by a movement fronted by a new generation of well-educated, communicative and assertive citizens. Tired of inherent corruption, police brutality and economic mismanagement, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets with a will for change and democracy. In a matter of weeks, decades-old autocracies fell in both Egypt and Tunisia. Whilst across the border, a popular armed rebel movement, backed by NATO, dethroned a former Arab revolutionist turned tyrant, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi.

Yet a year after the start of these successful rebellions there is an increasing amount of uncertainty across the region, and worryingly beyond. New fault lines are developing within these new democracies and the avenues of new media are being stifled by the traditional realms of international diplomacy. In Bahrain, little support has been given to the oppressed Shia majority, whilst in Yemen, the West was reluctant to see President Ali Abdullah Saleh replaced. All the while in Syria, the death toll continues to rise as the international community struggles to deal with the brutal excesses of the Assad regime.

Assad: Belligerent

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a youthful generation looked forward to a new set of ideals at home and abroad. Yet that generation, now part of the political elite, find themselves coupled with an economic crisis and an ever-mutating world.  The tide of the past two decades has made them increasingly fraught and reluctant to react. They have come to learn, with great expense and millions of deaths, that the succession of democracy and elections does not necessarily lead to economic growth or security. A decade of war in Afghanistan has caused no ends of trouble and still no long-term solution lies in place. Iraq, Pakistan and Syria are all issues that could easily explode beyond borders. Sclerotic institutions such as the UN hold legitimacy, but lack authority. Whereas regional bodies like the African Union (AU) and the Arab League remain divided by stasis and affliction.

The Arab Spring appeared different because the uprisings were led by an internal opposition. International voices highlighted their commitment to human rights, political reform and democracy, but nothing beyond. The memories of Algeria and Iraq meant that the West was reluctant to commit to anything other than rhetoric. Yet here were revolutions that were relatively bloodless and demanded change with so called ‘Western values’. The Libyan revolution required NATO help and incurred losses, but with an ultimate desire for freedom.

However, the flourishing hope appears to be diluting. Syria is fast turning into a cauldron. The UN ceasefire appears to exist purely as a memorandum. Russia and China indignantly reject any action towards President Assad, whereas other Western powers remain divided on whether to arm his opponents. Meanwhile; Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are concerned at the subversive role played by Iran and Hezbollah. In the past year alone, over 9,000 people have died due to the violence, if this turns into a regional war then who knows how big the death toll will become.

In Africa, unrest is dispersing across several countries. Guinea-Bissau suffered a coup d’état, Nigeria is dealing with a violent insurgency in the north. Tuareg mercenaries, armed by Colonel Gadaffi, have captured the northern half of Mali, including the town of Timbuktu, and have declared independence from Bamako. Whilst in the east, the bloodless secession of South Sudan from Sudan is fast turning ugly. Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir recently called his former countrymen ‘the enemy’. Already factional fighting and bombing has occurred across this fragmented, yet, oil-rich region. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended over 50 years of civil war, a legacy that left over two million dead. Former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki has been unable to get the leaders of Khartoum and Juba to sit down for talks. As Mbeki says, both countries are trapped in the ‘logic of war’.

A year after independence, are the Sudanese on the verge of war?

As combat operations in Afghanistan wind down and the bite of defence cuts hits NATO nations, the prospect of future interventions remains doubtful. Unless organisations like the UN are willing to reform then who is to stop anything? The lessons after the Cold War have made industrial nations wary of change. If these countries lack the foundations and institutions of a democracy, then who’s not to say that it won’t fall apart in years to come?

2011 was a year that brought change for the Arab world, bringing hope and prospects for a new generation. We will see whether 2012 will continue to bring those fortunes or just the hangover from hell.

Venuste Niyongabo: How one man gave Burundi hope.

Burundi is a country that does not stir the popular imagination for most people in the world. Situated in Central Africa, with a population of just over ten million, the small landlocked country seldom gathers the news headlines.

In April 1994, a flight returning from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was approaching the airport in Kigali, Rwanda. On board were the Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President, Cyprien Ntaryamira, returning from UN peace negotiations in Arusha. As the plane approached to land, it was hit by two surface-to-air missiles, exploding immediately. All twelve passengers on board were killed instantly. Few could have foreseen what would happen next. In the following 100 days, around 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and Hutus were butchered as Rwanda imploded into a cauldron of murder. Thousands were hacked to death by machetes and millions more were displaced, all the while the world stood still.

The neglect and the shame have meant that the world eternally remembers Rwanda, yet no one remembers Burundi.

Even before 1994, Burundi had suffered its own internal conflict. For decades, ethnic Hutus had suffered economically and politically under the existing regimes. Yet in 1991, a non-ethnic Parliament and new constitution was agreed, and in 1993 the country elected its first Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye. Hope quickly dissipated. Within three months Ndadaye was assassinated by Tutsi extremists. The death of Ntaryamira and violence in Rwanda only made the situation worse.

Yet one Burundian held different aspirations. Venuste Niyongabo, a Tutsi from the south of the country, was preparing for the Summer Olympics to be held in Atlanta, Georgia. As one of the world’s poorest countries, Burundi did not have a proud sporting reputation. It sent its first athlete to the 1988 games in Seoul and only formed the country’s Olympic committee in 1993. With few televisions in Burundi, Niyongabo had no idea what to expect of the games. Not only was he was to compete in the 5000m, against the feared Kenyans but in a race that he had only ran twice before!

For athletes nowadays, the biggest fear before entering into a big competition is injury. For Niyongabo, a week before the 5000m finals, he learnt that Burundi had suffered yet another military coup d’état. With few details and poor communications with the world, the Burundian delegation in Atlanta had no idea what was going on back home. Niyongabo had no idea what was happening with his family.

Yet on 3 August the as the athletes prepared to run, at the height of a civil war, the Burundian nation stopped to listen to their radios. According to some reports, rebels refused orders as they listened to Niyongabo compete. It was to become a special day for the whole nation as their man beat all the favourites to stroll home and take gold, the country’s first Olympic medal. It caused great celebration within the Olympic village as everyone partied. According to one report, the Burundian Minister danced despite the fact he was no longer a Minister.

The world, now fully aware of African conflicts and obsessed by tribal enmities, asked Niyongabo whether his win was for the Hutus or the Tutsis? Niyongabo replied that his win was for the whole country.

Burundi did not suddenly drop arms and stop the conflict. The ugly civil war continued for almost another decade, killing around 300,000 people and displacing many thousands more. Yet reports unravelled, similar to the Christmas Day truce in World War One, that on that day soldiers were told not to fire their weapons and celebrate Niyongabo’s success.

Niyongabo never went onto gain the same success as he did in Atlanta that night. His career was blighted by injuries. Yet he spurred on a legacy for which he can be proud. Burundi has sent athletes to every Olympic Games since 1996 and continues to emulate the victory of its only Olympic medal. Niyongabo now lives in Italy where he helps promote friendship and fraternity through sport. We can only hope that in London we see the same.

Nigeria: Beyond the violence

It is unusual for African countries to make the news headlines in British media, yet the continuous violence in the Northern Nigerian city of Kano has created much concern and interest from across the world. An Islamic and self-declared jihadist organisation called Boko Haram, which means “western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language, has been launching co-ordinated suicide attacks across the country as part of their demands for an Islamic caliphate under Sharia Law. In the past few months attacks have intensified with bombings on Christian churches, the UN building in Abuja and most recently several police stations, where 186 people were left dead. At the centre of it all is the hapless President Goodluck Jonathan. Elected last year after the death of his predecessor President Yar’Adua, 2012 has not begun good well.  Not only a state of emergency in the north of the country and border closures with Chad and Niger, he has had to deal with a general strike after the government removed a fuel subsidy. The incidents in Kano have so far seen the national Chief of Police sacked and the ‘reorganisation’ and ‘repositioning’ of the Nigerian Police Force. Do these events mark a new era of politics in Nigeria or do they simply comply with the world’s previous assumptions of the country?

There is a belief with many Westerners that Nigeria is a land of dysfunction; dominated by internal strife, oil revenues and systemic corruption. The former US Secretary of State once declared that all Nigerians are crooks. Perhaps most people would associate it with email ‘419’ scams or documentaries by the filmmaker Louis Theroux. Yet the links to Britain are historical and continue to be present today. Acquired as a buffer from the Francophone dominated West Africa, the British Empire formed a country comprised of different religions, languages and tribes as a measure of convenience. Religious lines were split almost evenly between the Muslim north and Christian south, though religious relations were normally good. The country’s significance was reaffirmed several years later when oil was discovered at a time when the Royal Navy was changing its fleet from coal to oil powered vessels. When independence was granted in 1960, rule was governed in a similar way to the how the British had left it. The dominant population of Northern Muslims had power in the legislature and crucially the military, to the displeasure of the southern and western factions. The ugly Biafran War in 1970, which left over one million dead, is a direct legacy of the tension between the north and south.

Yet the underlying issue in Nigeria is not religious or ethnic conflict, but endemic corruption. Even as the country emerged from a military dictatorship, corruption has continued to play its part, from the local area boys to the state house. Nihu Ribadu, a prominent anti-corruption figure said that that since independence in 1960, over £380 billion dollars had been wasted or stolen by the government. Much of this money is laundered into British banks. In 2011, Transparency International ranked it the 143rd (out of 182) in its annual corruption index, yet Goldman Sachs deems it to be in an economic grouping behind the BRIC nations. As Africa’s most populous country, almost 160 million and growing, why is their thought to be so much potential when seventy per cent live under the poverty line?

Oil and petrodollars, continue to pollute the environment and the political system. As other countries have found, resource dependency inhibits creativity and innovation. As the state can rely on mineral wealth, it relies less on tax revenues and consequently accountability. The World Bank says that Nigeria’s oil wealth is siphoned off by only one per cent of the population.

After the oil price rises in the 1970s, it was the multinationals who filled the investment void vacated by the Government. Portrayed by some as a Faustian pact, the multinationals offered a more reliable investment to locals through jobs and wealth. However; not all benefitted, as local Governors became rich, other regions and ethnic groups were left out and felt the effects of oil spills and contamination. The lack of infrastructure or investment in health and education has been the main consequence. In 1993, fed up with the continuing pollution in the Niger Delta, protestors prompted a shutdown of Shell’s operations in the area. As a consequence, a military crackdown brought before a court several men accused of murder, with questionable evidence, including the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa. All men were hanged for their crimes, stoking an international uproar, which saw several countries request Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth.

Even with its massive oil exporting powers, almost 2.2 million barrels a day, Nigeria does not have any working oil refineries and therefore has to import the great majority of its oil. Many of the deals are struck by governing politicians and as the Africa watcher Richard Dowden says “Any politician who does not end up a multi-millionaire is regarded as a fool. Not many Nigerians are fools.”

And what of the nation’s politicians? Nigerian Parliamentarians are paid a salary of $1 million a year with $1 million in expenses to supplement it. Former rulers like Ibrahim Babingida and Sani Abacha both managed to steal billions of dollars and get away with it. The impunity and almost admiration for such men may be the reason why corruption happens and why there is so much of it. Simply because it is there and it works. It is part of the system, so there is no other way to function. As long as everyone receives their share then it is okay. Corruption is the oil that allows business to function. Tax collectors, telecoms companies, immigration officials all take part, especially the maligned police force.

The ruling Peoples Democratic Party [sic] (PDP), the new governing elite that succeeded the military, have a cosy arrangement that rotates the Presidency between a ruling southern Christian and northern Muslim. It in effect allows those in charge to have a share of the spoils whilst in charge, before the next rotation. The issue currently is that Jonathan succeeded Yar’Adua, who died before his tenure finished, before being re-elected. This led to violence in the city of Jos last year and the more recent anger in Kano. Muslims were annoyed at their PDP officials who acceded to Jonathan’s victory. Boko Haram is now exploiting that loss of trust by giving people an alternative, violence is their tool. For the first time in decades many Christians are leaving the north in fear.

Commentators argue that militants in the lawless Niger Delta were bought by government bribes to keep the peace; it is only likely that the members of Boko Haram will be bought with bags of bills sooner rather than later.

Prospects of Nigeria splitting or an African ‘awakening’ are not to be ruled out, but is anyone in a position to take it that step further? Nigeria is becoming strategically important to the West as it slowly becomes less dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Yet who is to say that the Gulf of Guinea will remain stable.

ANC:100 years – Living on history itself.

As world leaders and activists gather in Bloemfontein to celebrate the centenary of the African National Congress Party (ANC) it should provide an opportunity for all onlookers and participants to reflect and rejoice. The internal struggles against the Apartheid Government that eventually forced the world to act should be something that we must never forget. White rule saw coloured and black people subjugated, withheld basic economic and human rights. Anyone who tried to undermine the regime was brutally repressed. The ANC openly challenged the Apartheid system, providing legal help for defendants against a bias judiciary and organising strikes and boycotts. Banned by the Government following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where 69 protestors were killed after police opened fire, it continued to operate in secret. Working across the border in neighbouring Angola and Mozambique, it planned and launched sabotage attacks against factories, mines and communications with an aim to disrupt the day-to-day working of the country. Many of its activists were incarcerated, most notably Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, whilst others were fleeing abroad to push the intellectual message to an international audience. The ANC had become the world’s moral upright party, it was a cause that touched people’s conscience and believed it was time to act.

The release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election as the first black leader of South Africa saw the rebirth of the country and an avenue of hope for millions of ordinary South Africans. Perhaps his greatest legacy was standing down after one term in 1999, allowing democracy to flourish after 50 years of insubordination. So does the party really stop there?

Since the man they call ‘Madiba’ stood down there has been greater scrutiny to how the country operates. His successors Thabo Mbeki and the current President Jacob Zuma have both been criticised as the party’s political practices have been questioned and a new ruling elite have emerged. Instead of the demands and transition to a fairer and more equal society, vast amounts of wealth have exchanged into ANC associated hands. In 1999 instances of widespread corruption were uncovered after the procurement of $4.8 billion of defence contracts with European defence manufacturers. Mbeki played down the HIV/AIDS epidemic across the country and Zuma said that showering after intercourse was a way of prevention. Mbeki was accused by human rights groups for turning a blind eye to atrocities being committed across the border by the Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe. Zuma’s leadership has been dogged by inter-party conflict led by the former youth league leader Julius Malema and the recent passing of a secrecy bill that forbids whistle blowing and investigative journalism against the national government. Both men played their part in the early struggles, yet both have continued to present the past as their ticket to the future. 17 years of power has not served well a new generation; millions of blacks still live in townships, almost 8.7 million live on less than a $1.25 a day, not to mention the high unemployment and violent crime rates. Both Mbeki and Zuma have made promises that remain unfulfilled.

Electorally the ANC continues to win votes from the Apartheid-era electorate, yet the population with a median age of 25, less aware of the past and uncertain of their future is turning to the electorally viable Democratic Alliance party, led by Helen Zille and significantly, Mamphela Ramphele, a fierce ANC critic and partner of the late Apartheid era hero, Steve Biko. The centenary should be an opportunity to remember the likes of Mandela, Sisulu, Tutu, Tambo and all others in the struggle, but we should remember those who have continued that have been left behind by the malaise of the ANC administration.

The legacy of Mobutu: The DRC votes.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the vast and troubled country in sub-Saharan Africa, is going to the polls for only the second time in fifty years today. A country ten times the size of Britain, with a population just over 70 million, has suffered terribly since its independence from Belgium in 1960. Its vast reserves of natural resources that include timber, gold, diamonds and many precious metals should have created economic stability and wealth for its people, yet war, corruption on an enormous scale and destitution has left the people of the Congo at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index, earning a miserly $200 a year. The current President Joseph Kabila, who has been in charge since the previous leader (his father Joseph-Desire) was assassinated in 2001, looks set cement another term in Government and reaffirm his Premiership. However, the 40-year-old, Kabila is far from popular. Labelled as another African autocratic, he is distrusted in the east of the country and the ten million strong capital city Kinshasa. Pledging to introduce high speed rail to a country that notoriously lacks a road network, Kabila is certain to win through a mix of weak opposition and strong arm tactics. International critics are alarmed that Kabila has abolished any run offs between first and second place candidates and feel that the ruling party will do anything to hijack victory by any means possible, including ballot rigging. So why have the DRC and its people endured such an ignominious past and what does the future hold for this huge country.

In what became known as ‘The Scramble for Africa’ the small European nation of Belgium snapped up the huge region surrounding the mouth of the River Congo. Ordained Belgian-Congo, it became a playground for Emperor Leopold II in what can be deemed as one of Europe’s darkest periods of imperialism. Reconstructed in Joseph Conrad’s early 20th century novella, ‘Heart of Darkness’ captures the impunity and sheer subjugation of human life in pursuit of mineral wealth, most notably ivory. After World War Two when the ‘Winds of Change’ were sweeping across Africa, Belgium had highlighted that Congo may require longer transition before independence. Instead of the 50 year period that Belgium had drawn up, the Cold War forced it to fast forward independence to 18 months. The country’s first Prime Minister and pan-African Marxist, Patrick Lumumba, was deemed as a liability by Western Governments and swiftly abducted then killed by firing squad, before his remains were put in acid to prevent him being deemed a martyr. The man the West backed and who would go on to rule for 32 years was Colonel Joseph Mobutu.

The rule of Mobutu can only be deemed as bizarre and shameful for all those who kept him in power. A powerful public speaker and strong campaigner, Mobutu was a bulwark against Soviet interests. If he was ever facing political strife then he could rely on French, Belgian or American paratroopers to put down any insurgency and all the while he could rule as he pleased. His reforms included the Africanisation of his country. He became Mobutu Sese Seko which translated to ‘all powerful warrior’ and Congo was renamed Zaire, Leopoldville to Kinshasa. He introduced cultural rules including collarless shirt similar to Mao’s China, he wanted to reaffirm an identity to country that for so long had been mismanaged and corrupted. It was Mobutu who brought Muhammed Ali and George Foreman to fight in Kinshasa in 1974 in what became known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ to raise the country’s profile. Yet Mobutu was the most flamboyant and corrupt of them all. Economic mismanagement saw him ordering crates of money for himself from the central bank and building massive palaces in the dense jungles. He had fleets of Concorde, had a taste for expensive pink Champagne and used the Zairian Treasury as a wallet on extravagant shopping trips to Europe.

Like most dictators, ideology gradually blurred because power was everything. As long as he was in power, the West turned a blind eye to what was going on internally. If he ever felt a threat from others, they were either bought off or executed. Towards the end of his rule, Mobutu, like many dictators before him, became obsessed about plots to kill him. He retreated to his palace in the forest and let most decisions be taken by his generals. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Western Governments no longer needed to fancy favours from these decrepit despots. Economic collapse and the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi forced hundreds of thousands of refugees into the West of Congo around Goma. Mobutu, now suffering from cancer, was unable to put up any resistance against the Tutsi-led armies from Rwanda and Uganda, and fled in exile to Togo and then Morocco.

The question that many commentators asked was what a post-Mobutu Zaire would look like and whether it would work? Africa’s biggest kleptocrat had plundered, yet he had stabilised tribes and created an identity for his people. The day he fled, the rebel leader Laurent Kabila declared himself President, yet peace was short lived. What is now recorded as the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, and seen as Africa’s world war, it drew in nine countries and has reportedly led to over five million deaths , completely ignored by most Western media outlets. Many of the belligerents have been accused of invading/co-operating purely to loot the DRC’s mineral wealth, in fact Rwanda recently handed back some money it had made from stolen diamonds. To this day, the UN’s largest peace-keeping force operates within the country, with nearly 20,000 uniformed personnel on the ground and costing over $1 billion a year. Most reports to the outside world highlight the use of rape as a weapon of war, in 2009 there were 8,900 recorded incidents of rape. Yet, in a country so huge, it is difficult to determine the number of sexual crimes that have taken place, countless have been infected by HIV.

The great new Empire of China has also been criticised for its relationship with the DRC Government. A multibillion dollar bilateral contract that exchanges infrastructure work for valuable minerals. Many criticised China for taking advantage of its African partner.

 So as over 32 million people head for the polls to vote for the candidates (including Mobutu’s son) it is hard to believe that a cross in a box is really going to make a difference in a country that has a tortured history and hopeless future.

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