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Township art is a one-way street

It’s become common to find scenes of township life decorating the homes of affluent South Africans.  Do township residents do the same?   I haven’t seen any paintings of Constantia actuaries standing in their driveways, Waldorf kids at aftercare or Mrs. Ackerman carrying groceries to her Range Rover.

But maybe it’s time to depict those scenes. The robot artists could have a go at the daily lives of the wealthy, using their signature acrylic and tin style.  Let’s see who does it first.


Somalis in Bellville

If boerewors, Afrikaans, Ford Cortinas and bad taste come to mind when I say “Bellville”, you might be surprised to hear that that an estimated 5000 Somalis now live in its downtown area. The Bellville CBD at the bottom end of Durban Road is home to the largest Somali refugee community in South Africa.

Not much has been written about this cluster of traders that settled here over the last ten years. The few news stories that have appeared this year depict them in different ways.  This Rapport article lists the reasons why local homeowners want to take the municipality to court. The city council, they say, need to apply laws to the Somalis to stop their illegal mosque, the encroachment on residential areas and the rise in crime. It’s a bleak picture, wherein the Somalis are the cause of Bellville’s degeneration.

This article portrays Bellville as a sanctuary for Somalis after the xenophobic attacks that caused many to flee the townships. Shop owners enjoy business freedom here and one young man is quoted saying “it’s better than anywhere else in Cape Town”.

The best reporting on the issue I’ve seen so far is this Die Burger article by Jackie Pienaar-Brink. It uses the personal history of one refugee, Yusuf Omar Achmed, to show how and why Somalis come here. Achmed explains that he was a school principal back in Mogadishu, studying for a degree in business administration when Ethiopian troops invaded his country in 2006.

The journalist also speaks to locals who say that some of the recent arrivals are ill-mannered but that most of the Somalis traders are peaceful entrepreneurs and good costumers. One local woman goes so far as to say that the Somalis are like “boeremense”.

Our distrust of outsiders blinds us to the valuable contribution that refugees can make to the local economy. People seem to forget that the French Huguenots, the ancestors of Afrikaans families like the Coetzees, De Villiers, Nels, Marais, Le Rouxs and Jouberts also came to the Cape as refugees. They fled religious persecution in Europe and settled here where they could practice their faith without fear.  By 1730 they were known as the most hard-working community at the Cape.

New York was built by immigrants. Italians Jews came to America to make a better life for themselves, faced hardship and discrimination but came to play an important part in the country’s development in the 20th century. If you want to know more about the contribution immigrants make to America’s economy as a key source of entrepreneurs and graduates, read this article.

Of course, the reason why immigrants are so successful isn’t because people from other countries are inherently superior. The immigration process seems to act as a filter. Getting to another country by foot or scholarship is difficult. It’s like a sieve that only lets driven and resourceful people through.


A city like Bellville, perceived to be boringly monocultural, could benefit from such immigrants. I recently spoke to a young architect who grew up in downtown Bellville but now lives in Cape Town. His parents still stay in the area and though he has fond memories of walking along Voortrekker Road to the public swimming pool, he says he wouldn’t live there now because it’s just too dull.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida argues that cities that want to succeed in the information age need to appeal to the young, bright and creative rather than large companies. When Florida says “creative” he doesn’t mean “artistic”. His definition of the creative class includes scientists, writers, engineers, entertainers, opinion-makers and designers. To attract these people, says Florida, a city has to display an openness to different kinds of people and ideas.

Bellville’s problem is that its cultural capital is draining away. It’s aging. If it wants to curb this trend it could take a cue from cities like Austin, Texas and aim to become a multicultural, high tech city.

Until then, it can start by figuring out how to manage and include its Somali community. Minneapolis, whose Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood is known as “Little Somalia” provides an example. The ADC initiates social ventures in that city like this deli that serves Somali foods like sambusas, spicy Afrosteak and chicken fantastic.  I’d like to see businesses like that in Voortrekker Road. A Somali festival in the tradition of kerkbasaars could be held in the Danie Uys Park. It might just get a few Capetonians to drive up the N1 and change those outdated stereotypes.

5 life lessons we can learn from playing Diablo

Sorceress next to a bell curve

1. A limit on wealth can boost generosity

The first thing that struck me when I first played Diablo II online was the generosity. It was bizarre. Players approached me, asked whether I needed weapons, and then dropped a pile of rare katars and wrist blades. They didn’t even wait to be thanked.  Someone would give away a magical helm as if it was a burden.  And in a way, it was.

You see, in Diablo, there’s a limit to how much you can own.  There’s one backpack and one treasure chest to keep your stash, so you run out of space rather quickly. If you leave something on the ground it will disappear.

As a result, advanced players give valuable items away to free up inventory space. It’s similar to tax-deductible charity donations.  When you know that you’ll have to lose a portion of your wealth anyway, it makes sense to donate it and gain goodwill.



2. Don’t spread your skills too thinly

One of the great pleasures in Diablo is the moment you gain enough experience points to level up. You can then take a break from the action to decide how you’ll invest your skill points. But it’s not an easy decision.

Each hero class has a unique skill tree with three different branches.  A Sorceress’ skill tree is for instance divided between lightning, fire and cold spells.

There’s the temptation to try out everything on the skill platter.  After using Charged Bolt for a while, you might want to see what the Firewall spell can do.  But this type of switching between disciplines leads to an ineffectual character. A Sorceress with 4 points invested in Fireball and 5 in Lightning has a weaker attack than one who put all 9 points in Lighting alone. Because only one offensive spell can be used at a time, being moderately good in two disciplines is a waste. The real world equivalent would be to gain experience in two careers paths that are unlikely to intersect.

But as in real life, there are times when past expertise support our current skill set. For example, an ex-lawyer can use that experience to become a writer of legal thrillers, while a TV presenter with an MBChB could start an educational health show. In Diablo these are known as synergies: secondary skills that boost the effectiveness of your main skill.

Putting all your experience into one skill is never possible or advisable. You might encounter a challenge where the skill you’ve focused on is ineffective.  Spreading your skills too thinly is also unwise. The first time I reached the game’s eponymous monster it was as a Druid skilled in summoning wolves, bears, ravens and poison creepers. The big boss could wipe them all out with one Fire Nova attack, so they were useless. To defeat him, I had to concentrate on shape shifting abilities and attack him as Werewolf.

So if you created a graph with attack damage as the y axis and the number of skills as the x axis, it would probably follow a bell curve. You need a handful of synergized skills, but there’s a point where investing experience into extra skills will make you a master of none.


3. Pick a companion that compliments your weaknesses

I’m currently playing the game as a Paladin using Blessed Hammer as a primary attack. It’s a powerful spell, but annoyingly imprecise. Instead of flying directly at the target, magical hammers spin out, knocking any monster that happens to stand in its spiral trajectory.  So when there’s one vampire standing in the corner of a room, it’s near impossible to get the bugger into the hammer’s flight path.

That’s why it was fun play with an ally. A friend’s Sorceress is adapted to take out immediate threats with bolts of lightning. When we encounter a horde of monsters, I create a whirlwind of hammers while she assassinates the spell casters.

Such division of labour is common among married couples. To some, it is common-sense that a wife should take care of the house and children while the husband brings home the bacon.  We obviously need to move away from this old-fashioned view because it unfairly limits the opportunities available to women. But part of the reason these gendered divisions of labour persist, as Joseph Heath points out in The Efficient Society, is that such arrangements are quite effective. Sharing duties may help couples understand each other’s problems, but specialization creates a stronger team. The key is to collectively decide on a fair division of responsibilities instead of following archaic customs.

4. People are nicer when they’re secure about their social standing

So far, no-one has called me a ‘newb’, ‘noob’ or ‘n00b’. That’s unusual in a competitive online community. In Quake or Defence of the Ancients insults like “lol stupid noob” are often thrown your way. So why haven’t I encountered this on the South African Diablo servers?

The reason, I suspect, is that the experience level of players are blatant. When you enter a game, players can immediately see that you’re a level 72 Barbarian. So there’s no reason to prove your superiority by being a douche.  I can imagine that one of the advantages of clear ranking in the military is that generals don’t have to constantly remind people of what they’ve achieved. Hierarchies can be civil. In its absence, people resort to snobbery to demonstrate their superiority.

An example that comes to mind is the local film / servicing industry. Crew member on set are unpleasant people. Their ranking changes from one shoot to the next and there’s little job security.   Because everyone’s dressed similarly and there are no desks around, impoliteness is used to establish rank. Crew members also feel the need to regularly remind others of how much experience they have. If only they could wear badges with this info on it, such unpleasantries could be avoided.

Lut Gholein Gate

5. You’ll gain no experience hanging around, admiring your possessions

There’s something immensely reassuring about playing Diablo. You know that no matter where you’re going, if you’re killing monsters, you’re on the right track. Even if you’re fighting in an area you’ve completed before, you’re comforted by the knowledge that you’re gaining experience points and making your hero stronger. It’s only when you hang around camp, which is safe from monsters, that you’re wasting time. Every small effort has worth and knowing that is a strong motivator.

So the final lesson is simple. Stop procrastinating, jump in and do it.

Turning work into leisure

Worker in field

A friend recommended This American Life to me at the start of this year and since then, I’ve been hooked. It’s a radio show that’s been going since 1995. Each week has a different theme and you can download it as podcasts. What makes it so good is that they transform topics you wouldn’t expect to be interesting into compelling stories.

It’s also changed the way I think about exercise. You see, a podcast is an odd form of entertainment. You can’t sit in the lounge and listen to it the way you’d watch TV. It also doesn’t have music’s functional uses. It’s not something you can play in the background and you can’t dance to it either. The most suitable time to listen to a podcast is when your hands and eyes are preoccupied. It suits driving, but car journeys tend to be too short to enjoy an hour-long show.

What I’ve found is that it’s a perfect accompaniment to a jog to the Green Point Park. Both take an hour to complete. So doing exercise has become the only way for me to listen to new episodes. As a result, my mind associates the two, making me more enthusiastic about the jog because of the expectation of new entertainment.

I borrowed this trick from Duke University professor Dan Ariely. In the introduction to The Upside of Irrationality he tells the story of how he was the only patient to complete a gruelling 18 months of Hepatitis C treatment. He had to inject himself with a new drug called interferon thrice a weekend. The side-effects of the drug were headaches and vomiting that lasted 16 hours, every single time. It was an awful experience, but he was determined to shake the disease:

Every injection day I deeply wanted to avoid the procedure. But I did have a trick: I love movies, so I decided to motivate myself with movies. Every injection day, I would stop at the video store and pick up a few films. Throughout the day, I would think about how much I would enjoy watching them later. Once I got home, I would give myself the injection. Then I would immediately jump into my hammock and start my mini-film fest. That way, I learned to associate the act of the injection with the rewarding movie experience.

Ariely’s story shows that it’s possible to manipulate our connotations. We can change the way we think about tasks in order to get them done and be happier.

It’s funny to think that we’ve taken many of the chores that burdened our ancestors and turned them into leisure activities. In Bobos in Paradise , David Brooks looks at America’s new educated elite, who he calls “bourgeois bohemians”, abbreviated as “bobos”. They spend their wealth on sports utility vehicles, gardening equipment, industrial strength toasters and clothing made for Mount Everest. In the 19th century, the kitchen was a reviled part of the house. It was seen as a separate space that upper class women preferred to avoid, but today’s upper class have massive kitchens that swallow up adjacent rooms. They use it to entertain guests and equip it with professional stoves that cost more than the car they drove in their 20s.

There’s obviously a difference between the motivations behind these two examples. Ariely made an unpleasant experience bearable by associating it with leisure. The bobos turn work that they could easily pay someone else to do, into a lifestyle.  You could see it as diligent or extravagant, but it’s no better than angling fish.

It makes me wonder, what chores of today will future generations do for fun?