Friday, 5 August 2011

Afrikaans in the heart of Berlin

Beeld at Bahnhof Zoo (c) Anli Serfontein 2011

I had to do a double take as I walked in the crowdy Bahnhof Zoo in the heart of Berlin last Friday: There was the front page of the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld prominently displayed among the bustle of one of the busiest train stations in Europe. Up there with the journalism elite of the Washington Post!

Thousands of tourists, locals and visitors passing by were greeted in my mother tongue Afrikaans!

After attending the Festival for Afrikaans in Amsterdam in June, it looks like Afrikaans has truly arrived on the world stage in the most positive way possible. Its is no longer the Pariah language of the apartheid oppressors!
Beeld at Bahnhof Zoo in Berlin on July 29, 2011(c) Anli Serfontein 2011  

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

To Copy and Paste or not to Copy and Paste: that is the Question

It has been a week where I was once again confronted with cultural differences in interpreting core social values.

A popular, key Minister in the Cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel is caught out: a great chunk of his summa cum laude doctorate of Law was plagiarised. A scandal!

Der Spiegel this week on the plagiarism scandal surrounding Germany's Minister of Defence
But what shocked me most is not the fact that his doctorate was plagiarised. What shocked me was how the general German public viewed his plagiarism and how they urged him to stay on as a Minister. Worse still how his popularity rose with each passing day of this scandal week.
Der Spiegel article

A Facebook page was set up in support of him and it is growing rapidly day by day; the mass circulation red top newspaper Bild seems to support him. And a political survey shows that nearly 75% of the population thinks he is doing a great job, compared to 68% at the beginning of the month, before the scandal broke.

In my day, when I studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, cheating during an exam could certainly see one expelled from University and deprived of a Certificate of Good Conduct that was needed to change universities. Wits was no exception in this, it was and is general practise at elite universities all over the English speaking world, to act decisively against such deception. However the easy access to information on the internet has changed the game world-wide.

A few hours each semester I teach Business English at the University of Trier. Year after year I struggle and battle and plead and have angry debates with non-plussed German students about plagiarism and copying from each other in exams. We have different interpretations of the same act: I see it as cheating; they see it as a minor misdemeanour. 

While marking exams this week I can clearly see who copied from whom and there is not much I their lecturer can do. There is no system of invigilation like we had at Wits; a single lecturer is supposed to sometimes invigilate classes of 200 students while they write. An impossible task. 

Even if I can proof they cheated, there is little support from the University authorities. In this country primary school children already learn that copying in exams is a mere trivial offense, without any serious action taken against them. The wonderful German word Kavaliersdelikt.  As a mother I battled to tell my kids that it was wrong to cheat when all around them it was being done on a regular basis. Only fear of my ire, kept my older daughter from cheating and being caught. So whenever I have raised this issue, professors shrugged their shoulders and I get the sense that I have not arrived in academic Germany.

Even is there is proof, universities are reluctant to act. Officially universities warn against plagiarism; in practise they do little to curb it.

I have failed students who wrote essays in the journalistic style of The Economist or The Financial Times. I simply argued if I,as an English journalist, struggle writing in that style, how come they can with such ease write such flowing sentences? Only to then go on and fail the next English grammar or Business English vocabulary test? But as I quickly found out when they complained to the department: that is certainly no argument. And trying to catch them out is time-consuming work, for which we freelance lecturers are not paid. So we all tend to turn a blind eye.
Stern Cover July 2009

In the case of Merkel’s most popular aristocratic Minister, Baron Karl-Theodor zu und von Guttenberg started off arrogantly defending his thesis against the "audacious" accusations that he plagiarised. It took a couple of days after a Law professor pointed out that there was  plagiarism in his doctorate, and that he should not have gotten the degree conferred on him, before hundreds of volunteers took a closer look at his copy and paste master piece on Guttenplag Wiki website. By last Monday (21.2.2011) they had found plagiarism on no less than 286 pages of his doctorate. Statistically 72.77% of the 475 page thesis was copied and pasted without any reference to the sources. Therefore three quarters of his “first rate” doctoral thesis was NOT his own work.

By Monday evening, with overwhelming evidence against him he pre-empted the University of Bayreuth stripping him of the title, by voluntarily returning the title. In return he hoped to stay on as Minister of Defence. 

Unrepentant he argued there are more important issues at stake, than forgetting a few hundred sources. In my opinion the University in Bayreuth, only got active because of the bad publicity. It is the heartland of his CSU (Christian Socialist Union) party, where zu Guttenberg’s grandfather was already a key politician. Normally this baron could do as he wished here.

Zu Guttenberg's doctoral thesis that he got summa cum laude

In some ways his summa cum laude doctorate underlines what again and again is shown in OECD  (Organisation  for Economic Cooperation and Development) studies: That in Germany, like in no other OECD country, academic success depends who and what your parents are.

Today Bayreuth University has moved to the top of their website the heading how they deal with academic transgressions. And on Wednesday evening (23.02.2011) merely a week after the accusations first surfaced, the University acted swiftly and stripped him of his doctorate.

Der Spiegel summarised what has been happening in German society when it wrote today that “Guttenberg’s honour: Lying has become suitable for ministerial office”.

It is a blow for academic standards.

And what values do we give our children and students in this country? Are we telling them that it is okay to plagiarize but don’t transgress the 11th Commandment – “Thou shalt not be caught”

Monday, 20 December 2010

BBC Correspondent Brian Hanrahan dies: He represented a dying breed of journalist

This morning I heard the sad news that Brian Hanrahan, one of the BBC's finest correspondents had died. I've worked with Brian, many times in the last decade covering mostly stories related to recent German history. He was thorough, seeking the truth, a sticker for details, good research and facts and more facts. So many times when I rambled on, giving my personal take on events, he said to me "Just give me the facts"

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009

He was fair on those who worked with him and those he interviewed. He was a Mensch.

Today I remember after a heavy day of filming, the many thought-provoking conversations we had over dinner in Berlin and Leipzig and Dresden and Cologne.  We talked about the media, current affairs, history, books and art. He certainly shaped my view of the role of journalists in our day and age.  At every shoot I learnt something from him. In Dresden he encouraged me to still visit the world-famous Zwinger art museum with only an hour to spare on the morning we left.

Brian was far too young to die. May you RIP, Brian!

Here is an extract from my book, "From Rock to Kraut", about the first time I worked with Brian in November 1999 in Berlin to cover the 10th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.

"In late October 1999, almost ten years after the fall of the Wall, BBC News contacted me to ask whether I would be able to do some research for them on the fall of the Wall. I was busy celebrating my daughter’s 11th birthday party when the call came. As so often happens with the BBC, things were left way too late, and I had literally five days to try and find the people who correspondent Brian Hanrahan met on the night the Wall fell in 1989. 

Brian was in East Germany at the time and heard the Wall was falling via word of mouth. He went to the Bornholmerstrasse crossing. That night it was the first border post to open its barriers to the West. Brian and his camera team were there, going with the flow and talking to Ossis crossing into the West for the first time. Based on his footage, the Germans later made a film, and ten years later I had to find these people on the basis of very skimpy information……. 

For a start, the British, not being the greatest of linguists, made things extremely difficult. So all I was given was a list of people to contact, plus, in some cases, phone numbers from early 1990. Now it may sound as if my colleagues were being incredibly helpful. Well, there were some minor hiccups to start off with. For example, after unification in 1990, all old East Berlin phone numbers changed. I had also never seen the film and therefore did not know whether the names of the interviewees fitted East or West Germans. So where should I start to look? 

Single women may have married in the meantime and changed their names. And some names are very common. There was a certain Susanne Fischer whom they interviewed on that evening, and I counted seventeen Susanne Fischers living in Berlin. I gave up after phoning half of them. 

There was a particular waiter who Brian interviewed in a disco on the Kudamm—the famous and fashionable West Berlin shopping street—and who he was keen to have in the film as he was young and from the East. He came from Burg and I was given a number for him. With all East German telephone numbers no longer valid, this turned me into a super sleuth. 

There are only twenty-seven villages called Burg in Germany. So I required a map to try to work out which ones were in the former East Germany. 

There were three near enough to Berlin. BBC producer Paul Simpson, looking at the notes and having to deal with my calls of desperation then deciphered “Burg bei Magdeburg”. 

Now a young guy like that would have lived with his parents. I was told there was a restaurant in the castle in the village and assumed that he probably worked there. But then the restaurant no longer existed so I called the Tourist Information who passed me onto someone else: I called random people in the village, and it emerged that he had left Burg, like so many young people did after unification, and that he went to the West.

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009. Brian Hanrahan in Leipzig 2009, the last time I worked with him

Eventually I was given the number of a relative of his, who told me that he had moved to Munich, but was doing a course in Spain at the present time. Ten years after Brian filmed him, I reached him in Spain on his Spanish mobile phone and as fate would have it, he was going to be back in Munich on the weekend we were planning to finish filming. Having gone to such lengths to find him, I never met Marko. On the Sunday Paul and Brian flew down to Munich from Berlin to interview him, while I flew back to Trier, mission accomplished. Of all the sad stories of people who did not adapt to the pace of the West, Marko was one of the success stories, embracing the possibilities the West had to offer."

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

German Protestant head says a European Islam needed for dialogue

(c) Anli Serfontein 2010 - Nikolaus Schneider in Trier

Trier, Germany, 23 November (ENInews)--A European form of Islam needs to develop before a meaningful interfaith dialogue can take place on the continent, the new leader of Germany's 24 million Protestants has said.

"We are only at the beginning of a serious inter-religious discussion on a theologically high level and that is because there are problems with finding counterparts," the Rev. Nikolaus Schneider told ENInews in a 17 November interview in Trier.

"The imams who come from Turkey to Germany can hardly speak German and that means that we need to train imams in Germany at our universities," said Schneider, who was elected the new chairperson of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) on 9 November during a meeting of its governing synod in Hanover.

He had been the EKD's acting leader since February, when his predecessor, the Rev. Margot Kässmann, stood down after a drink-driving offence.

Schneider said that one of his priorities in his new post is to set up as soon as possible a meeting with representatives of Islam in Germany, which has about four million Muslims.

In recent weeks an intense debate has raged in Germany about the willingness of Muslim immigrants to integrate and learn the language. A book claiming that Turkish Muslims are not willing to integrate reached the top of the non-fiction bestseller list.

In a speech to mark Germany's 1990 unification, the country's President Christian Wulff also stirred controversy when he stated that Islam is part of Germany, alongside Christianity and Judaism.

Schneider told ENInews he welcomes the newly established Islam theology faculties at three German universities, as well as efforts to introduce religious education in Islam at schools.

In most of Germany, religious education is an obligatory part of the curriculum with separate classes for Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish students. There are however no classes for Muslim students.

"We need an Islam that has an academic formation in our country and at our universities, an Islam that is able to enter into dialogue with the social sciences and with the natural sciences in our country," said Schneider.

Referring to imams, he said, "They don't know our cultural background, and they cannot preach in such a way so that they can provide orientation to the conditions of our society, but they preach as if the people are still living in Turkey."

Schneider is also president of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, one of the 22 regional Lutheran, Reformed and United churches that make up the EKD.

On 20 November, he was a special guest at the Vatican of Archbishop Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising who was installed as a cardinal by Pope Benedict VXI. Marx is the former bishop of Trier that is within Schneider's Rhineland church area and they worked together during Marx's tenure in Trier. 

All articles (c) Ecumenical News International Reproduction permitted only by media subscribers and provided ENInews is acknowledged as the source.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Vatican cardinal says lack of shared communion his greatest regret

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009
Stuttgart, Germany, 22 July (ENI)--The recently retired senior Vatican official responsible for ecumenical affairs has said his biggest regret during his tenure in Rome is that he did not achieve an agreement on a common communion with Protestants.

"Today, there is a lot of convergence. So, we got closer to each other but we could not achieve the final breakthrough. I regret it very much but you cannot push the issue," said Cardinal Walter Kasper, who retired on 1 July as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

"The main thing that I did not achieve is the sharing of Holy Communion," Kasper told ENInews in an interview in Stuttgart, while attending, as a special guest, the 20-27 July assembly of the Lutheran World Federation.

Kasper, now 77, became president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 2001; he had served the previous two years as its secretary. Originally from Germany, Kasper is a former professor of theology in Münster and Tübingen, and was bishop of Stuttgart from 1989 to 1999.

Soon after he became secretary of the Vatican's unity council, Kasper took part in the signing on 31 October 1999, Reformation Day, of the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" between the Roman Catholic Church and the LWF. This aimed to overcome condemnations, dating back to the 16th century, between the papacy and reformer Martin Luther and his followers.

However, sharing in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the central Christian sacrament that commemorates Jesus' last meal with his disciples, remains a point of contention. Catholic teaching prevents Protestants in most situations receiving communion from Catholic priests, and says Catholics should not receive communion in Protestant churches.

"Of course, I regret it very much because I know the concrete problems in families, and between good friends and partners," said Kasper. "I know what these problems are but I cannot jump over the whole existing doctrine. It is a problem that still exists but I think we also achieved some things. Maybe not consensus but convergence."

Kasper's words echoed those of LWF president Mark S. Hanson from the United States, who earlier in the day told a media conference that the Lutheran commitment to ecumenism will not end until Lutherans can share the Eucharist with other churches.

"We must continue the dialogue about theological issues that still prevent us from communing together," said Hanson.

The LWF president had been asked if he could envisage a day when a married couple in which one partner was a Catholic and the other a Lutheran could share in communion together with the blessing of both churches. Hanson responded by saying that it is the lay people of the churches who are driving and sustaining these conversations, and he acknowledged the "grassroots ecumenism" that is alive among lay people.

"If Roman Catholics and Lutherans can feed the hungry together, wouldn't it be good if they could be fed at the Lord's Table together?" Hanson said.

Kasper said in an address to LWF assembly delegates, "In the last years, we have been harvesting the fruit of the dialogue. I was more than surprised to see such a rich harvest, and that we have achieved much more than we could even dream before. There has been no ecumenical winter."

Still, he acknowledged that there is an unfinished agenda and that this should be the reason to continue the search for unity. "We can no longer afford to stick to our differences," Kasper told delegates.

In his ENInews interview, the former Vatican official stressed that dialogue and debate should continue. "I think for both sides it is the same thing. You must be patient, and you must be impatient at the same time," he said with a smile.

Kasper explained that he thought it may have been easier for him to engage in ecumenical discussions, since he had experienced division at first hand in the land of the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, thus setting in train the breach with the Catholic Church.

"The Reformation started in Germany. We are at the origin of the Reformation, and therefore Reformation and relations with Lutheran Evangelical people are a concern for us because it divided us for many centuries. It still divides families today," Kasper said.

He noted that he had studied and later taught theology at German universities that each had two theological faculties, one for Protestants and the other for Catholics.

"So, ecumenical relations belonged to our life. One has many Protestant friends. I was bishop in this diocese, which is half Protestant and half Catholic," he said. "It is a normal reality for us, and I think this helps us
a lot to understand the other angle, and to understand the urgency to work for unity and communion."

In an interview in November 2009 in Wittenberg, where Luther worked and lived, Kasper noted, "We have learned a lot in the last 50 years. At the university, I spent a lot of time teaching about Martin Luther, and I have learned from that experience too."

In his Stuttgart interview, Kasper acknowledged that some sections of the Catholic Church have difficulties with such ecumenical developments but said he had the backing of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Looking back at what has been achieved in terms of ecumenical progress in the last decade, Kasper said it would not have been possible without friendship with his counterparts from other traditions. He said a deep friendship had developed between him and the Rev. Ishmael Noko, the Zimbabwean-born LWF general secretary.

"Personal friendship and personal relations are fundamental to ecumenical work and for pastoral work because without personal relations, personal friendships and trust you can do nothing; it is the basis of all. Then, when you have friendship, if there is trust you can also speak about the differences and you
can also achieve good results," Kasper said.

Introducing Kasper to LWF assembly delegates in Stuttgart, Noko said, "You embody in your soul the spirit of ecumenism. You have been an encourager, when obstacles seemed insurmountable, and a truth teller." [

All articles (c) Ecumenical News International Reproduction permitted only by media subscribers and provided ENI is acknowledged as the source.