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Voice from the Back

After apartheid
About 20,000 people were murdered in South Africa last year. Nearly 50,000 women were raped. There were close to 250,000 burglaries and 12,000 car hijackings . . . Last year Nelson Mandela derided those who leave South Africa because of crime, and identified crime as a white problem. But Antoinette Louw of ISS [Institute for Security Systems] said: "Mandela's message was that the government doesn't recognise the 'fear of crime' as a problem. That's a grave mistake. It's not just a white problem. Black people do feel very unsafe" Guardian, 18 February.

Agony Aunt advises
Would that the tough world of employment were different, but there's a lot of evidence to suggest that personal hard-luck stories are a bad call when asking for a pay increase. As an approach, it turns an applicant into a supplicant and weakens the ground on which they stand. What is recommended is a more positive attitude: base your case on your value to your paymaster. You magazine, 21 February.

South Africa's crisis
Terry Bell writes for the Business Report of the Johannesburg Star. He has obviously had more than a passing acquaintance with Marx's writings because his column, "Inside Labour", on the economic scene in South Africa is invariably perceptive and sceptical. On 30 October, 1998, he wrote: "The police are part of the armed wing of the state, a section of that monopoly of force exercised by the powers-that-be for the maintenance of law and order and the status quo . . . In fact, the claim that the police are the mere tools of 'the bosses' was reinforced over the recent strike wave. More work days were lost in the first nine months of this year than at any time since 1992. The strikes saw numerous clashes between strikers and police, and hundreds of complaints from striking workers about police brutality. Tales of sjambokkings, tear-gassings and the firing of rubber bullets and birdshot flooded in."

On 6 November, 1998, he wrote: "Yet within the broader trade union movement, at all levels, there is a clear explanation for the cause of the present crisis. It is summed up by June Dube, president of the Transport and General Workers' Union. 'Overproduction,' he said. 'The world is suffering a crisis of overproduction.' Calls for greater productivity (more products produced by the same or fewer workers) and greater competitiveness (more products produced by the same or fewer workers) and greater competitiveness (more products being produced more cheaply) therefore amounted to 'pouring oil onto a raging fire'."

Cuba's crime wave
This week the national assembly passed draconian laws against a rising crime wave on the island, which impose the death penalty and life imprisonment for violent crimes and drug smuggling. They also lay down stiffer sentences for prostitution, pimping, robbery and theft . . . Dr Castro said that crime had increased because the government was forced to open the country to tourism and foreign investment, creating inequalities on the island. Guardian, 18 February.

It is political economics
"The real wages of low-wage male workers have shown increases in the past few years." Trumpeted a recent report from President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, "in contrast to the period from 1979 to 1993, when they declined by 14.7 percent." The real story is that low-wage earners are still significantly worse off than they were 20 years ago, at least if you only count their paychecks. But government programs like the earned-income tax credit mean that wages don't tell the whole story. For economists the prolonged stall in wages remains the great contemporary conundrum. For politicians it is an opportunity to argue for new legislation. In his State of the Union message President Clinton proposed to increase the minimum wage by $1 to $6.15. [In 1979 it was $6.75] Forbes, 22 February.

Pleasure wicked
Children are suffering mental health problems in increasing numbers and at a younger age because of the pressures of the national curriculum, according to a three-year £1 million report [called Bright Futures] . . . The inquiry, by the Mental Health Foundation, claims that schools need to teach "emotional literacy" in addition to academic knowledge to combat the rise in the number of children who are withdrawn, isolated and depressive or disruptive. Sunday Telegraph, 31 January.

Into the future?
If you have a job to do, find someone to share the work and you get the job done in half the time. That's the idea behind Distributed.net, a group that co-ordinates spare computer processor power from across the Internet to solve huge mathematical tasks which otherwise would take days, weeks, and in some cases years. The tasks range from research projects to find large prime numbers, to cracking code messages, to analysing radio waves emanating from space in the hope of finding signals from alien civilisations. Guardian, 28 January.