Monday, 22 September 2014

On the nature of liberty: people versus things

Through much of the twentieth century, there were two competing theories of liberty.

One, the socialist view, is that capital is fundamentally evil and the state should run society at all levels.

The other, the libertarian view, is that state power is fundamentally evil and private enterprise should run society at all levels.

The fundamental flaw in the socialist view is that a monopoly of power leads to abuse, and that concentrating all power in the state makes such abuse inevitable.

The fundamental flaw in libertarian thought is the failure to recognize that any organization with the capacity to overwhelm the individual is a threat to liberty.

We leave aside the issues of economic merit – that is a subject worthy of fuller discussion. The only point I touch on here is that monopolies are inevitable in a system without constraints on the power of business, because business has the power to influence politics. There is therefore no such thing as a pure market economy: even if you start out with one, as soon as any business or consortium of businesses have the power to influence government and hence economic policy, they have an interest in subverting a free market to their ends.

Niger Delta pollution (source: EnviroNews Nigeria)
The major point I make here is that big business can be every bit as damaging to the individual as government, possibly more so, since a multinational has a cross-border reach. Consider for example massive pollution by the oil industry, which uses excessive profits in countries with weak regulation to help pay costs where they are called to account in more regulated countries. Ask someone in the Niger Delta if they would prefer a stronger more accountable government over unfettered rights of big multinationals.

If we therefore hold liberty of the individual to be the starting point of any rights discourse, we need to include in that discourse limiting the scope of business. And that leads to a fundamental that contradicts a substantial part of the rights logic in the US, where business has a virtually unlimited capacity to interfere in politics. Despite the concept in law of a legal person, a business is not, and should not be, treated as a person as regards rights. A business only has rights to the extent that those who control it and those controlled by it have rights. So it is ridiculous to argue freedom of speech in curtailing the right of business to make unlimited political donations.

In a world where businesses are accorded rights, individuals cease to matter except to the extent that they promote the interests of business, an inversion of any reasonable concept of rights. Unconstrained big business is therefore as much an undesirable outcome as unconstrained government.

Libertarians, particularly, the US kind, commonly make the mistake of seeing big government as the one and only enemy, totally neglecting the potential for harm by big business.

We need not choose between two evils: if we understand both as undesired outcomes, we can avoid both.

A business is not a person, it is a thing. Once we accord it rights, we damage the rights of real people.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Agang One Last Time (I hope)

Those following the Agang saga will know that the two MPs were trying to gain control of the party through the courts. What follows is my personal position, rather than that of all involved. Even so, when I talk about fundraising, I mean for all concerned, not just for myself.


Let’s briefly review the timeline that leads to here:
  • 7 May election – despite doing badly, Agang wins two seats
    • at this stage the party has deep problems: a huge debt, communication with members and supporters breaks down, the member database is not accessible because of unpaid bills, the NEC is collapsing because of resignations
  • 12 June – fraud allegations against the leader surface from an unconventional source – a “provincial spokesperson” Donald Tontsi with no mandate to speak on such matters goes public
  • June 16 weekend – I am in Cape Town to try to understand what is going on since the Tontsi statements sound crazy and find no substance to the allegations and start to understand just how deep the problems are; Dr Ramphele decides to reconstitute the NEC because it has become dysfunctional and is not addressing the problems that are threatening to destroy the party
  • 19 June – Agang task Team appointed by the leader to sort out the mess meets, delayed by the promise of the other side to contribute members, who do not show up; Andries Tloumma plays the same game with mediation: agrees, then reneges without excusing himself
  • 29 June – last of a series of meetings called without any recognized process culminates in Tloumma, Tshishonga and one other original NEC member proclaiming themselves a “quorum” despite precedents that the NEC required at least 4 members for a quorum, announce they are suspending the leader and create a new NEC
  • 3 July – The NEC Dr Ramphele created announces expulsion of those behind the 29 June meeting, who  take the matter to court, refusing attempts at a negotiated solution; meanwhile Dr Ramphele announces her withdrawal from politics

To court

Those of us who were asked by Mamphela Ramphele (MAR as she is affectionately known, after her initials) to join her reconstituted NEC and task team (intended to revive the party’s flagging fortunes by addressing pressing issues like finance and collapse of our membership systems) were the target of a high court interdict in Cape Town.

We decided that it would be pointless to contest the matter since parties that decide their affairs in court lose the public. Nonetheless we felt, at the urging of members who didn’t want history to be defined by the winning side of the court battle, that we had to put our side. This we did by submitting a lengthy affidavit (which you can read here).

One of the effects of the interdict is that none of us named as respondents is entitled to speak for the party in any capacity. At the time, I was a provincial spokesperson in good standing. Their destabilization campaign started with unauthorized spokespersons making wild statements. It seems they do favour party discipline in the strictest terms when it suits their cause.

Where we are now is that the MPs’ faction has won control of the party and the problems that have existed for more than 3 months are still there to be solved. They now have to be solved by a party that had made itself look ridiculous, and which no longer has a leader of international (let alone national) stature.

Fraud claims abandoned – but not the end

By this stage, MAR was out of the fight. Though named as a respondent, she had withdrawn from the party, and used the case to persuade the MPs to drop their accusations of fraud, and we took that as a victory, because their case had been built on the claims that she was sidelining them to cover up this alleged fraud, which now turned out to have no substance. But the other side disagreed and pressed on, and our understanding was that putting this affidavit to the judge would not put us in line for costs, because we were merely adding facts for consideration, and agreeing to abide by his decision.

We were taken completely by surprise when the matter went to court Monday 4 August and the judge not only found in favour of the MPs and their supporters, but awarded costs against us. If you do not contest a matter, is not surprising that you lose. What is surprising is that the judge would award costs against us without inviting us to argue against that. We will be asking for reasons to see if we can do anything about this but in the meantime have to face the possibility of heavy costs.
Since one of the details in the order is that we cannot claim to act for Agang that in effect means we carry the costs in our personal capacity. If you think that is unfair, we invite your to help us with those costs. Anything we collect in excess of that need will go to our new active citizens movement, which you can sign up for here. If you want to support us, please fill in the form below, and deposit the money to our account.

Friday, 25 July 2014

After hearing news of events in Cape Town today, I issued the following statement.
Following Agang’s MPs withdrawal of all allegations directly or indirectly made against former party leader, Dr Mamphela Ramphele in the Cape High Court today, Judge Dennis Davis gave members of AgangSA until Monday 14:00 to file opposing affidavits as to why Agang’s MPs should be expelled from Parliament.

This followed an interim inter​dict granted ​on 1​7 July by which the MPs sought to prevent their expulsion on the basis of serious allegations made by them against Dr Ramphele. Having withdrawn their allegations today, the court will have to decide whether there ​is ​still a basis for the interim order as previously granted which prevents their expulsion​. Judge Davies also heard that 14 respondents to the matter had not been given reasonable time to respond. Two members of Agang’s NEC appeared in the Cape High Court today within minutes of the matter being heard – Nameka Mguzulo and Yunus Vollenhoven. The Judge also said​ it would be necessary to establish which i​s the legal National Executive Committee leading Agang in terms of its Constitution​, after agreeing to hear submissions from the convenor of Agang's Presidential Task Team, Merle ​O’Brien appointed by Dr Ramphele to investigate and report on the state of the party.

The matter will be heard on Wednesday at the Cape High Court by Judge Davies.
For those who missed my previous Agang article, I was sucked into leadership issues on 13 June after allegations implicating Dr Ramphele in fraud surfaced. I had sight of the “evidence” the other side produced, and it was clear they had nothing, and this was a smear campaign aimed at destabilizing the party.

Finally, today, I am vindicated, along with MAR as she is know affectionately, and those who supported her.

Roll on Wednesday, when the judge will make his findings.

All along, we have not opposed the MP’s interdict and indeed most of the NEC MAR appointed has resigned from the party. We recognize that a fight to the finish for the party will finish the party. All we want is the truth to out.

And get on with our lives. We are working on a new active citizens social movement that will take the best ideas of Agang away from politics. You can sign up here. Indicating intent to resign from Agang is optional – many of those signing up are not members, and a few are staying on in Agang. We don’t mind because it is not a political party.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Why I Quit Agang

I recently quit from Agang. The party had some laudable goals including empowering ordinary people, and putting them back in charge of their future – rekindling of the fire that drove the Black Consciousness movement 40 years ago. Many of these goals  can be pursued pretty well without political representation – all it takes is working in your community.

If you like the idea of positive work in the community, we will soon be launching a new movement with those goals, taking the best of Agang out of the political space.

If interested, sign up here. You have the option also to indicate intent to resign from Agang, but the new initiative is open to all, not just former Agang members.

In the last South African general election, I was a candidate for Agang SA at provincial and national level. I was number 2 on the Eastern Cape list (much to my surprise – I had not offered to run with any expectation of such a high spot) and number 18 on the national list. I was also on the Eastern Cape executive with two portfolios, Policy Convenor and Spokesperson.

I became involved in the national leadership on 13 June, when I had exchanged emails with various members expressing concern about where the party was headed. On that day, I received a phone call from Dr Ramphele inviting me to Cape Town to help sort out the mess. I booked my ticket (at my own expense) and spent the weekend with her and other supporters. Here are some of the things I discovered:
  • the fraud allegations against her were based on flimsy evidence that clearly implicated someone else rather than her in inappropriate paperwork submitted to the IEC
  • the party had a massive debt, including over R1-million owed to SARS (South Africa’s tax agency)
    • how, I wondered would a organization not trading for profit owe so much in taxes?
    • party officials had paid themselves huge executive salaries and not bothered with basics like ensuring that PAYE (payroll income tax deductions) was remitted to SARS
  • the party had lost control of its member database because of failure to pay service providers
    • we could not do a membership audit needed as a first step towards democratizing our party structures; that included a long-overdue national elective conference
    • we could not communicate with members
  • the NEC generally was not functioning
    • key members had resigned and not been replaced
    • meetings were held without minutes and agendas
    • meetings had to be cancelled for lack of a quorum
    • the critical tasks to fix the financial and infrastructural problems were not being tackled
  • the NEC was supposed to have met on 12 June, when it could have dealt with the fraud allegations
    • only 3 members had turned up so it could take no decisions, lacking a quorum
    • meanwhile wild and incorrect rumours of fraud were circulating, and the two MPs (Tshishonga and Tloumma) were doing nothing to stop this – including press statements being issued by previously unknown “spokespersons”
It was in this atmosphere that supporters advised Dr Ramphele to invoke the extraordinary powers the party’s constitution conferred on the founding leader to reconstitute the NEC. She took care in so doing not to fill the positions of Deputy President and Chairperson, leaving open the possibility of reconciliation with the MPs. She also decided to appoint a task team to fix the problems the party was facing, mainly getting its membership records in order to facilitate democratic processes, and getting its finances under control.

I ended up both on the reconstituted NEC and the task team. Needless to say, the MPs rejected all of these changes; having sat on their asses for 6 weeks and done nothing to stabilize the party, they now used the possibility of being sidelined from the NEC as an excuse to destabilize it further and grab control.

It is important to understand that in South Africa’s voting system, you do not vote for MPs in their own right. You vote for a party, often strongly identified with its leader. Between elections, MPs do not have a constituency or voting district that can call them to account. If MPs run the party without any controls, they are not accountable until the next election. A coup by MPs therefore is a serious subversion of democracy.

Starting around mid-May, a series of national inter-provincial meetings was called by obscure members who had no standing to do so. The Eastern Cape executive was concerned about the intent of these meetings and declined to attend, accompanied by an increasing list of provincial chairs. At the end, we had support in this stand from four other provinces. It is important to understand that the support from the five provinces concerned was from elected leaders. The only province where the leadership was in dispute was Gauteng, where the dissenting faction had suspended the leadership, and Dr Ramphele had reinstated them.

While Agang had not established comprehensive democratic processes, the provincial executives were elected. Calling a series of meetings, culminating in the 29 June meeting that “voted” in a new NEC and “suspended” Dr Ramphele, without involving the majority of the provincial executives, therefore can hardly be considered democratic. And this from a group that accuse her of being dictatorial and undemocratic.

At an early stage of this, Tshishonga was ducking and diving. While he did nothing to help stabilize the party, he professed no involvement with the instability. His failure to show up at the 12 June NEC meeting to me pointed to irresponsibility at best, complicity at worst. He and Tloumma were in full possession of the facts about the fraud allegation at that stage. Their clear duty as senior office bearers was to give Dr Ramphele the opportunity to examine and explain the evidence, rather than to use it as a weapon against her in a power grab.

By the 29 June meeting, we felt we had exhausted all options for reconciliation. Tloumma had agreed to mediation with Dr Ramphele, and failed to show up at the appointed time. He had also agreed to bring in new members to the task team to make it more representative, and reneged.

Even so, after Dr Ramphele announced her withdrawal from politics on 8 July, we made one more try. The answer: accept their new NEC. We could not accept that their NEC had any constitutional validity, and negotiation in any case requires some give and take from both sides, not a fixed position.

When the MPs and their acolytes took the matter to court to obtain an interdict to enforce their interpretation of events, we decided it would be futile to oppose them. While their case was riddled with logic and factual errors, the party was R20-million in debt with unpaid salaries and creditors. Any action in the High Court involves significant costs, and we could not ethically commit to such costs when so much money was owed. We also could not see a positive outcome: no matter who won the case, the public does not warm to parties that conduct their affairs by acrimonious lawsuits. So we did not oppose, and the judge gave them exactly what they wanted.

In a situation where I was prohibited from speaking for the party – noting that I was a provincial spokesperson and not deposed from that position – and where the party’s NEC was now fully under the control of those who were willing to destroy the party to keep their seats in parliament, I had no option but to walk away, along with the rest of the NEC that the court had overturned.

So the short summary: if you are happy with the new management of Agang, stay with them. If not, join us in our new initiative. If you liked the idea of Agang but didn’t buy into it as a party, let’s hear from you too. Here is the link again.