Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Do you love pandas?

Thanks to the cute good looks, pandas might very well avoid extinction.

Tai Shan made his media debut at the National Zoo in Washington DC today.

If you're South African, let's have a wide chorus of "Agh shame!"

Tai Shan on the 2nd of August.

Tai Shan on the 10th of November.

And now, live on IITQ cam! (courtesy of the panda cam at the National Zoo of course - 15m limit, subject to cam not being overloaded). Click play to begin live streaming.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


This makes my blood boil.

I was in Cape Town the day another heist like this happened, standing in my parents' garden. We heard the shots and ensuing chaos as the drama unfolded just over a kilometer away.

I was so impressed at the police work that had apparently traced the men from a cell phone dropped at the scene.

It seems that the police and prosecutors involved in this case were less competent.

Now these guys will doubtlessly kill again.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Does Jo'burg have a visionary?

The 100-year-old oak tree in Greenhill Road
I've spent a lot of time in New York. When visiting Manhattan, it is impossible not to be impressed by Central Park. The incredible vision required to set aside a park of this scale on an island desperate for space has to be admired.

In Johannesburg, our "Central Park" is perhaps the trees that shade our city. Six million trees make Johannesburg the largest man-made urban forest in the world.

I've gathered the following quotes from the rather excellent Johannesburg website from an article detailing the history of Johannesburg's trees.

Before gold was discovered in the area in 1886, there were several farmers on the Witwatersrand. These early farmers brought seeds from the Cape and planted acorn, oak and walnut trees. The Bezuidenhout family, among the first white settlers in the area, built their farmhouse in 1863 on the farm Doornfontein. They planted fruit trees in Judith's Paarl and Cyrildene, east of the city centre, but they no longer exist.

On the other side of town was the farm Braamfontein, owned by the Geldenhuys family. Louw Geldenhuys built his farmhouse against the Melville Koppies ridge, and his wife, Emmarentia, planted an oak tree and five palm trees in front of the house. These trees still exist, as does the house, gracing the suburb in an old-world splendour.

When the suburb of Emmarentia was laid out in 1937 the town planners wanted to cut down the oak tree as it was in the path of the road being laid out. But Emmarentia put her foot down - the oak was to stay. The tree is now on the pavement, the road kinking around it slightly.

By 1904 a parks department had been established, and by that time the city had four major parks: Joubert Park (17.5 acres), End Street Park in Doornfontein (4.5 acres), Oval Park in Parktown (3.5 acres) and Jeppe Park (2.5 acres).

By 1934 the number of parks had increased to 67, and there was an active tree-planting policy by the council, with 8 000 trees being planted each year.

Over a million trees were planted in the present-day Zoo Lake and the Johannesburg Zoo areas, in what was called Sachsenwald (later Anglicised to Saxonwold and now a suburb of Johannesburg), an area of 1 300 acres. They were blue and red gum trees, quick-growing and ideal for use as mine props. Oaks, pines and wattles were also planted. Picnic spots with benches were created in the forest, and it became a favourite picnic and riding area for Randlords and their families in nearby Parktown.

Remnants of the forest can still be seen in the zoo and in the parkland around Zoo Lake. Suburbs in the area reflect this history in their names: Forest Town, Parkview and Parktown.

Tree entrepreneur William Nelson, according to Smith, had nurseries in Turffontein, where "by 1896 he grew some 30 million trees, shrubs and plants for general distribution". His business was known as Nelsonia Nurseries. He apparently planted "66 miles (106km) of trees along the streets of the newly established suburb of Kensington". The task took six months to complete. She says it's believed to be the first time street trees were planted in South Africa on such a large scale.

Read the full article, together with the one detailing the census performed to arrive at the figure of six million.

Now you might be wondering where this is heading - what's the question?

Well I believe Johannesburg's heritage is under threat. Recently a billboard company cut down 68 trees to allow better sighting of their advertisements. This made the news and the resultant cost borne by the city to replace the trees (R700 for a sapling - the original mature trees would have been worth over R9000).

This weekend I drove to the World of Golf - a fantastic golf practice facility for driving, putting, chipping and putting, etc. The road linking Woodmead Drive with the K101 leads to the World of Golf entrance. It was an avenue lined on both sides for over a kilometer with tall pine trees - probably each about 15 to 20 meters high. Pine trees are a disputed asset in South Africa. They are thirsty aliens in a dry land. But these lined an otherwise dry unoccupied area and survive on Johannesburg's abundant summer rains. They are now almost all gone to make way for an office development - Woodmead North. The office development is on land situated behind where the pines lined the road. The trees would have provided a feature to its entrance.

This is a happening that it being repeated through Johannesburg as urban densification takes place. Densification is in fact a strategy promoted by Johannesburg's local government to deal with the new Sandton CBD's effect on transport systems and access by poorer communities. Take a drive through possibly South Africa's richest suburb, Sandhurst. It is made up of estates that border the Sandton CBD. It is a magnificent area and populated by beautiful trees. A key landmark is the estate bordering Sandton Drive - a veritable forest. It is now being developed by Investec with high density housing. The rest of Sandhurst is rapidly being subdivided as landowners scramble to make the most of a buoyant property market.

This destruction of beauty is not unique to Johannesburg. I often run on the mountain in Cape Town and all along the borders of Newlands Forest, suburbs are creeping ever higher - most notably on the eastern boundary shared with Kirstenbosch. New houses cling to the slopes at heights that take a good half an hour to reach on foot.

South Africa's cities need some visionaries who put a foot down against the destruction of natural beauty. Frankly, they need a few people like the William Nelson mentioned above.

Which is the best restaurant in South Africa?

95 Keerom
City Bowl, Cape Town
9th Avenue Bistro
Greyville Durban
Auberge Michel
Sandton, Johannesburg
Cape Town
La Colombe
Constantia, Cape Town
Lynton Hall
Pennington, KwaZulu-Natal
Yum (Greenside)
Greenside, Johannesburg
The Eat Out Johnnie Walker restaurant awards for 2005 are out. And Yum of Greenside, Johannesburg is tops again.

Yum is certainly one of my favourites. But I have many.

Recent experience highlights a fantastic meal I had at Georges on 4th, Parkhurst, Johannesburg, two weeks ago. Their grilled vegetables and gnocchi rates as one of the finest pastas I have ever had.

Speaking of pastas, Assagi of Illovo, Johannesburg is my favourite Italian restaurant and rated as such by many Jo'burg-based Italians. The Giovannis on Rivonia Road Sandton is pretty good too, and makes a great pizza.

Yindees of Cape Town is my favorite Thai restaurant - just awesome.

Wierdly, Le Quartier Francais of Franshoek did not appear to make the top 10. This after it was recently declared one of the world's top 50 restaurants by the UK-based Restaurant Magazine.

Aubergine and Lemongrass
Hillcrest, Durban
The Bell Pepper
Kensington, Johannesburg
Chefs in Motion
Lonehill, Johannesburg
The Grill Club
La Pentola
Riviera, Pretoria
Madame Zingara
Cape Town
Hazelwood, Pretoria
Ritrovo Ristorante
Waterkloof Heights, Pretoria
Singing Fig
Norwood Gardens, Johannesburg
Smoke Cafe & Grill Lounge
Groenkloof, Pretoria
Melville, Johannesburg
Illovo, Johannesburg
Yum (Greenside)
Greenside, Johannesburg
Which is your favourite restaurant? If I get enough responses, I'll create a poll of results. The Eat Out peoples' choice list is shown to the right.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

What should Roland do?

RELUCTANT: Roland Schoeman has asked Ernie Els what he should do about the offer Picture: ROBBIE SCHNEIDER, Sunday Times
I feel for Roland Schoeman. He is one of South Africa's best sportsman ever, in a sport where heroes don't enjoy much financial success.

Anybody who knows something about swimming knows it is one of the hardest sports in which to succeed. It requires at least 5 hours a day of practice - head down in the water, alone with your thoughts.

And Roland Schoeman is tussling with his heart. He has been offered R35m to swim for Qatar up until the 2012 Olympics. Read more here. He is one of the world's top swimmers. Yet he has not even made enough money to be a Rand millionaire.

I hate the thought of him turning out for another country. Yet I won't begrudge the guy if he decides to make some money.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Can SA turn crime into advantage?

Carnage: A cash van lies on its roof after being ambushed during a heist which left one security guard dead and two injured. Photo: Steve Lawrence, The Star
When you're down, you notice negative things. In my state of low spirits over the past few weeks, I have been really worried about the state of apparently increasing crime in the South African news.

The armed heists of cash-in-transit vans, the robberies of grocery stores, the attacks on tourists and the muggings on Cape Town's Table Mountain have all featured in my conciousness.

And then I read this report about a pardoned killer killing within two weeks of his release, robbing a little boy of his father and child support.

Of course South Africa suffers crime because of massive poverty and we are not unlike Brazil and Mexico in having to deal with the problem.

But while we focus on job creation we have to get tough on crime. Build more prisons. Increase the numbers of courts.

Perhaps we can be innovative about incarceration. Let's create work gangs to do work that is too lowly paid (as a result of Chinese competition) for local minimum conditions of employment. Let's use work gangs to perform the back breaking infrastructural work required in rural areas. Let's send a message that prison is not just a place that the weaker criminals need to fear rape, etc, but a place where those that prey on the weak will be made to pay.

And let's keep the criminals in prison. I love this country and have chosen to stay. Poverty is no excuse for crime. Ask those who really are desperate and are willing to work for anything.

I do believe in Guilianni's "broken window" philosophy that if you fail to take care of the small things the big things get out of control. Witness the crimes such as those committed by the hammer killer. There is no excuse of poverty there. Would these take place if we were absolutely intolerant of crime?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What validates me?

Work has validated me. It allowed me to be the best. To be a success.

Yes of course I know that who I am as a person validates me. My values, the people who love me, etc. But society measures us by our success in sport, business, academics, etc. And my sustained success came in business. I have felt worth more.

So of course humility beckoned. The past six months have been the worst of my life. First I left the firm I had given my life to for the last nine years - due to disagreement with the shareholders over purchasing the business. Not the way I wanted to leave.

For the past 4 months I have been working on what should have been my dream project. But it has been a nightmare. Perhaps I scoped it poorly during the sale, perhaps the team members didn't do their jobs properly, perhaps the client is unreasonable. None of that matters when you're fighting about deliverables at the end.

Luckliy I met someone a month ago and for once my private life is looking up.

I just want to get through this and take a break before considering what I do next. Man I'm tired.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Could South Africa take two titles in the New York City marathon?

Last year Hendrik Ramaala won the mens challenge in the New York City marathon. Will he defend his title against the challenge from world record holder, Paul Tergat?

But South Africa already has one title. Our world record holder in the wheelchair marathon, Ernst van Dyk, has won his first New York marathon title in a new course record!

South Africa continues to amass a disproportionate number of sporting title when you consider our relative size.

Well done Ernst!

Oh so close

Paul Tergat, left, of Kenya, crosses the finish line ahead of Hendrik Ramaala
Tergat beat Ramaala in a lunge for the line! Here are the last few moments of the race from the race website:

12:23 p.m.: Ramaala and Tergat ran stride for stride up Park Drive to the finish. Tergat briefly fell behind Ramaala, but then drew even again. Coming up to the line, both men lunged, but it was Tergat who broke the tape as Ramaala tumbled to the pavement. Both were given the same time, 2:09:31 unofficially, but Paul Tergat is the ING New York City Marathon 2005 champion.

12:17 p.m.: Keflezighi is off the pace now on Central Park South, so it’s Ramaala and Tergat dueling for the victory. It’s the defending champion versus the world record-holder. Now Tergat has a few steps on Ramaala. Ramaala is still in contact as they turn into Columbus Circle. It’s not over.

12:15 p.m.: 4:55 for the 24th mile, as they reach that marker in 1:58:54. Ramaala is making his bid for the win, and Tergat is covering his moves. Keflezighi sometimes looks like he’s falling back, but then he moves back up into contact; he’s not doing the lead work or creating the surges, just answering them. 25th mile in 4:48, 2:04:45.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Must SA move to a cashless society?

It is that time of year. Cash van heists are a weekly occurence in South Africa around the Christmas season.

Last year there were 192 cash van heists, executed by well armed criminals with AK-47s and R5 rifles and military precision. There has been a 12% rise in the January to October period this year. More in this Mail & Guardian article, The season for stealing.

The police appear to have made strides against crime in South Africa. I say appear, because there is an embargo on the release of crime statistics. This is a debatable policy. As a citizen, I would like to know what is going on in my country and the success of the police who are after all public servants. However, South Africa has done a remarkable job of improving the positive attitude in the country and this was perhaps a prerequisite to the economic transformation we are experiencing, which will in turn create jobs, alleviate poverty and remove a reason for crime.

But as the police have made strides against hijacking and robbery, organised criminals have looked for other targets. The R130m that was stolen by gangs of armed robbers was, you'd have to say, easy money. 10 heavily armed men against three guards in a van are going to win most times.

Of course South Africa must address the reasons for crime and take the criminals out of society.

But in the meantime, let's get cash out of circulation. Enforcing this has never worked. Many cashless society projects have tried and failed throughout the world. However, society responds better to rewards and penalties in the form of discounts and pricing. These do exist in that retailers do not pass on the card transaction fees for credit and debit card transactions. But the cost of handling cash in South Africa is enormous. Retailers must pay huge amounts to transport cash and banks charge extra for taking cash deposits.

Make it obvious - offer non-cash discounts at the till-point. Let's get cash out of the system.

See We’re being robbed blind.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Are South African police out of control?

Police all over the world take bribes and abuse their power. But South Africa's low pay conditions and disillusionment over unsuccessful prosecution after hard police work seem to have bred far greater levels of corruption.

Some of you may have seen the Special Assignment (South African news actuality program) on corruption at the Booysens Police office where illegal immigrants are regularly rounded up and then bribes are solicited.

Many of us will have heard of a friend caught beyond the legal blood alcohol limit who managed to bribe their way out of trouble.

But it was a shock to me on Tuesday night when I got pulled over and the cops went out of their way to find something to pin me for. Sadly they didn't have to go far because it was one in the morning and I had just nipped out to drop a friend off at their hotel. I didn't take my wallet as the drive is literally five minutes. And my driver's license was in my wallet.

The conversation:

Police: Mr IITQ, good morning (they'd got my details from their database before pulling me over.
Me: Good evening officer.
Police: I see this car is registered in Bedfordview, have you moved?
Me: No, the car dealer registered the car and they are in Bedfordview.
Police: Ah. Can I see your driver's license please? (meanwhile other officer is inspecting my registration disk - I thank the lord that is up to date).
Me: I'm really sorry officer, I just nipped out and didn't take my driver's license with me.
Police: Ah. That is a problem you see. Do you have any other form of ID?
Me: Sorry officer, no.
Police: Mr IITQ this is a problem. You see, if I give you a fine you could give me the wrong details and disappear. I have to take you back to the police station. Is there anybody who can come bring your driver's license?
Me: No sorry officer - I live alone.
Police: Mr IITQ, this inspector here will drive with you to the police station and we will have to lock you up for the night.
Me (irritated as I know these are all scare tactics to push me into offering a bribe): Officer, I know I have done wrong. But I left for such a quick drive that I did not even bring my wallet (true and signals I cannot pay them). I am afraid you will have to take me to the station and I will have to call my lawyer (escalates the issue to a level I knew they did not want to go to).
Police: Mr IITQ, once you have spent a night under those grey blankets, I promise you won't forget your license again. Next time, bring your license. You can go.

Man I was angry. And a little scared at how vulnerable a normal law abiding citizen is to an abuse of police power. Of course I was in the wrong, but being locked up in a South African police cell is a serious issue - and unwarranted for a misdemeanor offence.