Flat Earth

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One Nelson's

Column is enough

THE OLD South African regime and the old Soviet regime were remarkably similar in their political outlook, despite their mutual enmity. That extends to the memorials each left behind when they passed into history.

South Africa is littered with ghastly monuments of which any Stalinist would be proud, including one to the Afrikaans language and another to a late and undistinguished Prime Minister, JG Strijdom, whose overblown bust glowers at a square in Pretoria. His near-namesake, a white supremacist called Barend Strydom, deemed it the right place to shoot down seven black people in 1988.

Now South Africa's new rulers seem dangerously close to demonstrating their own lack of taste: Danie de Jager, sculptor of the Strijdom bust and a statue of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, has come up with a design for a 75ft liberation monument called "Beacon of Freedom".

On top would be a 26ft bronze hand modelled on President Nelson Mandela's, breaking through prison bars. The project is backed by a pair of millionaire brothers, Sol and Abe Krok, who made their fortunes selling skin-whitening creams, Dingaan's blood purifier and Skelm worm syrup.

At first Mandela's spokesmen appeared to be giving their blessing to the idea, arguing that it was a privately-financed initiative. Then it emerged that government money might be going into the project after all. Public reaction now has everyone backing off, muttering "only a feasibility study", "public hearings will be held" and so on. Let's hope the whole thing goes the way of Ozymandias.

Eastern blockheads

WHILE it has often been noted that a German joke is no laughing matter, the Russian idea of an April Fool's Day prank can leave you feeling like you have been kicked in the head.

Itar-Tass news agency put out a hilarious report that the Russian parliament was considering reviving the Warsaw Pact alliance to scupper Nato's plans to expand eastwards. An "expert" was quoted as saying the Pact would be Russia's "secret weapon" and that the dissolution of the Pact had been an "historic injustice".

Given Russia's violent objections to the proposed enlargement of Nato and the recent vote by the Russian Duma to restore the old Soviet Union, the report had more than a ring of plausibility about it - so much so that it led the news in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Angry complaints from east Europeans with memories of the Warsaw Pact's "fraternal" behaviour in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 forced Itar-Tass to apologise.

After this, said Boris Zaitsev, the agency's day filing editor, the "Czechs and Bulgarians calmed down". Honestly, you could hear him thinking, some people have no sense of humour.

Press freedom news

MY colleague Robert Fisk recently described in these pages how his coverage of the Middle East had had him variously described as a black crow and a rabid dog in the Arabic press. Since the same coverage has now won him the title of Foreign Reporter of the Year in the British press awards for the second year running, he must be doing something right.

Not in the eyes of Abdul Azim Ramadan, though. The columnist for Al Ahram in Cairo, whose original article was headlined "The Lies of a Crooked British Writer", has returned to the attack after reading the Independent on Sunday. "I did not think I was giving [Fisk] the chance to depict himself as a martyr," writes Ramadan.

I will leave it to these two heavyweights to slug it out, merely noting that last week the editor and columnist of Al-Arabi, a leading opposition newspaper, were fined and sentenced to six months each for slandering a member of parliament. The offending piece criticised an earlier article by the MP. Perhaps Fisk should count himself lucky that such legal remedies are not available outside Egypt.