Flat Earth

Changing places

Confusing, this post-Cold War world. It might seem logical that the new South Africa has decided to switch its diplomatic allegiance to China from Taiwan - the Taiwanese, after all, were yoked in a "pariah alliance" with the former white government for many years.

But if the Taiwanese are feeling frozen out, consider the poor Pan Africanist Congress. Backwhen these things mattered, Nelson Mandela's ANC was supported by the Soviet Union and had its headquarters in Zambia; Robert Sobukwe's PAC, very much the junior faction in the liberation struggle, was based in Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere shared the movement's Maoist leanings. Now Nyerere is discredited, the PAC has the barest toehold in South African politics and its erstwhile allies in China are siding with Mandela.

The Chinese, however, know who counts - and not just in South Africa. Their quarrel with the Walt Disney company over a film Martin Scorsese is making about the life of the Dalai Lama might seem absurd, but one thing they understand in Peking is the power of propaganda. Anyone who can make Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck well-loved from one end of the world to the other, they reason, might be able to do the same for Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

Mother's ruin

Who's afraid of Mother Teresa? Certainly not the poor of Calcutta, who venerate her. Nor even Christopher Hitchens, who fearlessly (some might say recklessly) ripped her to pieces in a book-length indictment last year. But at the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, her very name strikes terror into the hearts of journalists who periodically are compelled to write about her.

Quite why is hard to say, but she has become a veritable jinx on the place. Apparently a former foreign editor died shortly after handling a photograph of her. Anyone who dares to predict her imminent demise risks serious illness, marriage break-up, financial disaster or some other evil visitation. To the hacks at La Repubblica, Mother Teresa is what Macbeth is to British actors: even the mention of her name is said to bring bad luck and she is referred to as la santa donna, the holy woman.

When the news editor reluctantly decided to commission a story on her latest admission to hospital last week, the journalists all went scurrying off to the coffee bar for hours on end, praying that someone else would be get the assignment. A lengthy account of Mother Teresa's failing health eventually appeared - but conspicuously without a byline.

Safety zone

Ill Wind Department: the demilitarised zone, or DMZ, between North and South Korea might seem one of the most unfriendly places on earth - the sight I found most chilling was a locomotive rusting in no man's land at the exact point where it stopped more than four decades ago - but it turns out that the hiatus has been good for some forms of life.

Though any human setting foot in the DMZ would be blasted away in seconds, half the world's remaining black-faced spoonbills and a third of the Manchurian cranes roost there, untroubled by the giant loudspeakers which blare propaganda from both sides. Edelweiss blooms undisturbed, and sandpipers stop by to fatten up as they migrate the 4,000 miles from Siberia to Australia.

Naturalists who hope the zone might one day become a nature preserve say overdevelopment in the South and poverty in the North make both Koreas hostile to wildlife. The cranes, for example, feed in South Korea's Churwon valley, but at night they fly to the DMZ, where they should feel well- protected: they are guarded by a million men on each side.

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