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‘From Hero to Zero’



Friday 16th July, 2021

What has befallen former South African President Jacob Zuma serves as a warning to all political leaders of his ilk in other parts of the world. He is languishing behind bars for having sought to evade accountability for his questionable actions during his tenure as President. His imprisonment has sparked widespread riots and looting.

In his youth, Zuma made a name for himself as a freedom fighter, taking on the apartheid regime, and even served a prison term for doing so. Having lived in exile for years, he returned home to a hero’s welcome and went on to become the President. It was after his rise to power that his image was tarnished by a spate of allegations of corruption. He cut a rug in public and many questionable deals on the sly. He surrounded himself with some corrupt cronies, whose rackets caused huge losses to the public purse. Allegations of corruption and abuse of power against him were such that he lost the backing of the African National Congress and had to resign before being impeached.

Zuma’s incarceration for 15 months was due to his failure to show up at an inquiry into some corrupt deals during his time in office. He may not have expected such a heavy gavel blow for contempt of court. If only he had prevented his greed from getting the better of him when he was in power and respected the law of the land at least in retirement.

Zuma’s imprisonment has been hailed in some quarters as proof of the robustness of South Africa’s democratic institutions, especially the judiciary. True, not many expected the constitutional court to take such deterrent action against someone like Zuma. But there are others who are convinced otherwise; they are of the view that the riots and pillage are attributable to social inequality, which has come to stay in South Africa despite the end of apartheid about 27 years ago. This argument sounds tenable to some extent in that the real causes of the violence and looting are also economic. The jailing of Zuma apparently acted as the trigger.

It is doubtful whether Zuma’s claim that he is a victim of a conspiracy by some western puppets has struck a chord with the public as such, although he still has some following among the ordinary South Africans, and is remembered for his role in fighting racial oppression in the past. The ongoing economic and social restrictions aimed at halting the spread of Covid-19 have hurt the South African public, and their outrage has spilled over into the streets. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse unless the police backed by the army succeed in reining in looters and arsonists who are having a field day.

Riots raging across South Africa for the seventh day running have left about 100 persons dead had a crippling effect on that country’s economy. Shortages of food and fuel are already being felt, according to media reports. Violence and looting could not have come at a worse time for South Africa; they have acted as super spreader events, and there will be a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, necessitating sterner action to curb the spread of the virus and aggravating the economic woes of the public.

If Zuma had cooperated with the judiciary and faced the corruption probe, he would not have been currently in prison, and his country would not have been facing the worst unrest in decades. There are lessons that leaders in other parts of the world ought to learn from what is happening in South Africa. They must realise that the sky is not the limit where their actions are concerned; they must be prepared to face the consequences of their commissions and omissions, and attempts to evade accountability could lead to disaster.

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Oxygen support



Wednesday 28th July, 2021

Those who do not believe in miracles will be hard put to explain why Sri Lanka is still behind India and Indonesia anent the pandemic death toll, given the extremely irresponsible behaviour of its people and rulers. Delta is deadlier and more transmissible than all other coronavirus variants and spreading fast here. But there are street protests, where nobody cares about the Covid-19 protocol.

Hospitals are struggling to cope with the increasing number of Covid-19 patients, most of whom are said to need oxygen support. This is certainly bad news which all those who have lowered their guard should take cognizance of.

The government has met the representatives of protesting teachers’ unions, at last. Their talks have ended inconclusively, but the government agrees in principle that teachers’ demand for better pay is justifiable. There is no gainsaying that the government teachers deserve a better deal, and nobody will object to a pay hike for them although there are many shirkers among them. But the question is whether this is the right time for salary increases in the public sector. The economy is also on oxygen support. True, the blame for this situation should be apportioned to all those who have been in power for the past several decades, but one has to come to terms with the ground reality.

Pay hikes for public servants mean tax increases and the aggravation of the woes of the public struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Indirect taxes (paid by all people) account for about 85 percent of the state tax revenue. This, however, does not mean those who deserve pay hikes should be denied them indefinitely. On the other hand, the government blundered by ordering duty-free luxury vehicles for the MPs and thereby making the public wonder whether its claim of being cash-strapped was true. Sanity prevailed, and the controversial vehicle order was suspended owing to protests. It also made a huge mistake by increasing doctors’ allowances and undertaking to grant the nurses’ demand for a pay hike; this ill-advised action prompted other state employees to resort to trade union action to win similar demands.

Meanwhile, it is heartening that the government has paid off a one-billion-dollar bond debt a couple of days before the deadline. State Minister of Money and Capital Market and State Enterprises Reforms, Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s announcement yesterday that the country had honoured its debt obligation may have disappointed those who expected their prediction of a sovereign default to come true. Some investors believed in that prognosis, panicked and suffered staggering losses. Minister Cabraal rubbed salt into the wound; he tweeted, “The bond investors who panicked due to rating actions and analyst reports and sold off at huge discounts must be regretting’. The situation, however, is far from rosy; there are more debts to be serviced and more forex is needed for that purpose; it is not feasible for the government to go on dipping into its foreign exchange reserves, which will have to be shored up urgently. But the aforesaid payment will help boost investor confidence and avert further credit rating downgrades. A prerequisite for tackling the debt crisis is to overcome the national health crisis and reopen the country fully as soon as possible so that the forex inflow will improve with expected increases in exports and tourist arrivals.

If the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, and the economy collapses, those who are demanding pay hikes and protesting to win that demand, will not get even their salaries; everyone will have to starve. This is what those who are facilitating the transmission of Covid-19 by staging street protests ought to bear in mind. Their processions will make it well-nigh impossible for the country to be reopened fully any time soon. What moral right will the protesting teachers who blatantly violate the quarantine laws and are seen trying to pull down gates have to tell their pupils to behave and follow the health guidelines when schools reopen?

The government must also act responsibly without provoking trade unions. It should have invited the warring unions for talks much earlier instead of having their leaders rounded up and packed off to faraway quarantine centres, and postponed the presentation of the Kotelawala Defence University Bill, which cannot be considered a national priority by any stretch of the imagination.

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Woes of Greens and Blues



Tuesday 27th July, 2021


The whilom yahapalana leaders are in the news again. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has gone on record as saying he will reveal, on 06 September, when the 75th Anniversary of his party falls, how the UNP is going to form a government. He is obviously trying to boost the sagging morale of his supporters with such rhetoric. His erstwhile yahapalana chum, former President Maithripala Sirisena, met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa together with an SLFP delegation for a discussion to iron out difference between the SLFP and the SLPP.

What does the future hold for the UNP and the SLFP?

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are now ordinary MPs, having squandered a political windfall. They have to stomach indignities at the hands of the breakaway groups. This is the price they have had to pay for their national government experiment which ended in disaster. Sirisena’s performance, however, has been somewhat better than Wickremesinghe’s—the SLFP has 14 MPs (in the SLPP parliamentary group) as opposed to the UNP’s one. Sirisena is lucky that he joined forces with the SLPP at the right time. The UNP made the mistake of overestimating its strength and pitting itself against the SJB.

The SLPP and the SJB have done well electorally mainly because of their leaders. The UNP and the SLFP have survived in spite of their leaders, and therefore may be able to better their performance in case of changes being effected at the helm. They cannot be written off simply because of their poor electoral performance, which is due to their leaders’ blunders. Wickremesinghe has rightly pointed out that the UNP bounced back despite being reduced to eight seats in 1956. So did the SLFP after its crushing defeat in 1977. But the fact remains that they made comebacks under new leaders!

The SLFP and the UNP may be able to regain their strength because they are two mass-based parties albeit currently in crisis. Their foundations are stable. The SLPP and the SJB are overdependent on their leaders. This can be considered a weakness. The former owes its meteoric rise in national politics to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity. It was Sajith Premadasa’s popularity that enabled the SJB to obtain 54 seats in Parliament.

We saw something similar following the UNP’s crisis in 1992 owing to an abortive bid to impeach President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The Democratic United National Front (DUNF), formed by a breakaway UNP group, also derived its strength from the popularity of its leaders, especially Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. It did extremely well initially, but began to crumble after the assassination of Athulathmudali (followed by that of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was responsible for the UNP’s split). Dissanayake returned to the UNP’s fold, and the DUNF lost its popularity and withered away. This is what happens to political parties overdependent on their leaders.

The UNP is in the current predicament owing to its leadership struggle that went unresolved. If Sajith had succeeded in securing the UNP leadership, he would not have broken away to form the SJB, and the UNP would have been strong today. The same is true of the SLFP. If Mahinda had been allowed to lead the SLFP after the 2015 regime change, the SLFP would have been the ruling party today. Those in the SLFP and the UNP must be looking forward to a day without their present leaders, but the SLPP and the SJB cannot think of a day without theirs. It is too early to guess what future holds for these parties.

Meanwhile, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who was part of the SLFP delegation that met President Rajapaksa told the media yesterday that their talks had been successful. There is no reason to doubt his claim. The President and Sirisena are friends; talks between them are always cordial. But it is not the President who has control over the SLPP. The SLFP should have had talks with SLPP National Organiser and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who runs the SLPP. It is the Basil loyalists who have turned hostile towards the SLFP and are even daring the latter to leave the government.

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Concentrate on big picture



Monday 26th July, 2021

The tragic death of Ishalini, 16, who was slaving away at a politician’s house, and the resultant public outrage have galvanised the government, a section of the Opposition, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), the police, etc. The NCPA has reportedly undertaken a mission to search for the poor children employed as domestic workers and take action against their employers. Sadly, a hapless child had to die a painful death for these institutions to swing into action.

It may not be difficult to find underage domestic workers if the public fully cooperates with the NCPA and the police, and the assistance of the Grama Niladaris is enlisted for the task. But tracing these children alone is not the solution to the vexed problem of child labour.

Who will ensure that the children to be saved are fed, clothed and educated? Most of the existing children’s homes are not run properly, and there are various allegations against them including child abuse. The media has reported numerous such instances. These institutions must be developed, managed properly and monitored regularly. There is bound to arise a need for many more such institutions to accommodate former child workers to be placed into protective custody. There is no way the children saved from semi-slavery can be reunited with their parents who are too poor to look after them. One only hopes this aspect of the problem has been taken into consideration by the authorities tasked with protecting children.

Most child workers are from the plantation community, and this is an indictment of the estate sector political parties and trade unions. The politicians representing the plantation workers are conducting protests and calling for action against those responsible for Ishalini’s death. But the problem of plantation children being taken to other parts of the country as domestic workers is as old as the hills. The protesting politicians should be asked what they have done all these years to obviate the factors that have brought about this unfortunate situation. The root-cause of child labour is abject poverty, especially in the plantation sector, and it has gone unaddressed all these years. Have the politicians who go places thanks to the poor plantation workers’ votes ever taken up the issue of child labour, in Parliament or elsewhere? They seem to have refrained from improving the plantation community’s lot lest they should lose a block vote. One’s gorge rises when these politicians pretend to be the saviours of the plantation workers and their children, and stage protests. They must be ashamed of themselves.

The same goes for other political parties and their leaders who are beating their chests in public. A prominent local government member of the ruling SLPP is among those who raped an underage girl recently. The present-day leaders also have a history of shielding rapists and other such anti-social elements. One of the first few things the UNP did after its mammoth electoral victory, in 1977, was to grant a presidential pardon to a convicted rapist serving a jail term for harming a teenage girl. The JVP, which is demanding stern action against those who employ children as domestic workers, had no qualms about using children in its abortive uprising in the late 1980s. Children were made to deliver ‘chits’ with which the JVP had shops closed, and many of them perished at the hands of those who unleashed state terror. Some TNA politicians have also demanded justice for Ishalini, but they unflinchingly supported the LTTE, which forcibly recruited children, who ended up serving as cannon fodder.

Besides the underage domestic workers, there are tens of thousands of forgotten children suffering in silence. They have dropped out of school due to poverty and are helping their parents eke out a living. These children, too, must be traced and looked after.

A country study conducted by UNICEF on the out-of-school children (OOSC) in Sri Lanka has revealed that the lower-secondary-school-age children at risk of dropping out are more likely to be boys than girls. Involvement in child labour, the UNICEF report says, puts children at risk of dropping out; however, by this age, many working children have already become OOSC. “There are more overage boys than girls in lower secondary school and repetition rates are higher for boys than for girls. Current dropout rates for lower-secondary-school-age children climb from 1.0 percent for 10-year-olds to 5.1 percent for 13-year-olds.”

Thus, it may be seen that the efforts currently being made to tackle the problem of child labour amount to only scratching the surface of the problem, and they are also likely to be abandoned when another mega issue crops up, eclipsing that of Ishalini’s tragic end. What is urgently needed is to prepare a national strategy to remove the scourge of child slavery. This is what Parliament should be doing at present. Instead, it is expending its time and energy on other matters such as the recent no-faith motion and a bill to be taken up soon to promote private university education.

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