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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.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The South African Opposition Challenge

Split of the vote since 1994: ANC is essentially at its
1994 level after increases in 1999 and 2004; the DA
has about the same share as the NP+DP in 1994.
When the dust has settled on the elections and the DA and EFF are over their triumph at a big swing in their direction (5.6% to the DA taking them to 22.2%, 6.4% from nothing to the EFF), we have to sit back and look at the big picture.

The total gains of these two parties are more than 3 times the swing of 3.75% from the ANC.

A remarkable thing about this election is how little the ANC was hurt by a string of scandals and blunders. While a swing of nearly 4% is pretty big, the ANC’s share of the vote in 2014 is only 0.5% below its level in the first democratic election in 1994 (illustrated, right).

Most of the DA and EFF increase has come from the collapse of other opposition party votes. Part of the DA swing is also accounted for by taking over Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats, who scored nearly 1% last time. COPE alone lost nearly 7%, and most minor parties lost votes.

While the DA has done well to increase its votes every election, chasing after votes of other minor parties has had the inevitable consequence of the DA losing coherence, with nasty infighting and selective leaks, some of which can only emanate from senior leadership. It was this selective leak culture that made the proposed deal with Agang very difficult to stitch together – leaks forced a premature announcement, leading to confusion.

Vote since 1994 including NP and NNP
Vote since 1994 including National Party 1994: the
opposition has essentially gone sideways and the ANC
has not really been punished for lack of performance.
The DA, to put things in perspective, in 2014 has about the same vote share as the combined Democratic Party (1.7%) and National Party (20.4%) vote in 1994 (total 22.1%). While this may be from a different demographic split (if you look at provincial votes, there are some big shifts), the DA has not significantly grown the opposition vote. In fact, given that they have picked up some support from black voters who would not have voted for the National Party, it is surprising that their vote share is no bigger than the combined DP-NP vote of 1994.

Look at the second picture: the dashed lines show that the conservative opposition vote has barely shifted since 1994, as has that of the ANC, while other opposition parties have been trading places rather than growing overall.

Another truly remarkable thing about this election is the way communities that have most reason to be upset about government failure still vote solidly ANC – sometimes with 80-90% of the vote. Ironically, where government has failed less, opposition parties score more votes. The DA has a real shot at winning a number of metros where the ANC vote has dropped to close to or even below 50%. These include Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela and Tshwane.

Despite all the complaints about potholes, e-tolls and the like, services in the metros are way better than in ANC-run small towns and deep rural areas. Where I live in Makana in the Eastern Cape, some township residents have been without water for months, some even years. Most rural schools are of a poor standard, and many rural communities have little or no cash economy besides social grants, with no prospect of jobs.

The ANC meanwhile is increasingly focused on pandering to the needs of a self-serving elite. The opposition made too much of Nkandla, allowing the ANC to paint a rosy picture of “good stories” – as if Nkandla was a glitch. Yet by the government’s own figures, R33-billion was lost to waste and corruption last financial year, an Nkandla every three days. No, not a glitch. This is the way the government usually does business.

 To resolve the mystery of why so many people who have cause for complaint vote ANC solidly, we have to look to history for why the excluded poor do not automatically rise up against a self-serving elite. In medieval times, a “good” lord ensured his serfs didn’t starve, since they were valuable as a pool of labour and as cannon fodder when a lord was called on to provide soldiers. Serfs were never allowed too much though – that would give them ideas above their station. Feudalism eventually ended when labour became scarce after Europe was depopulated by crusades, creating an opening for a working class with commercially valued labour.

As De Tocqueville observed, revolution broke out in France not because conditions were especially bad there, but because they were better than average in Europe – frustrated hope is a much bigger drive for change than utter hopelessness.

And that is the key to opposition politics in South Africa: very poor people on the edge of starvation are inherently conservative. They do not rebel against the existing order, not matter how unfair, if the existing order can instil in them the fear that they will do even worse if things change.

How unfair is the existing order? The worst off 20% of the population earn less than 3% of national income, and more than half of that is social grants. The best-off 10% account for over 50% of national income.

When out campaigning for Agang, one of the most incongruous sights was seeing a top of the line Merc festooned with ANC socks on its side mirrors cruising through a scene of extreme poverty. Why did those who had been left behind not bitterly resent the theft of public resources that went into that Merc? For the same reason a lord and retinue of knights in shining armour could parade through scenes of medieval poverty without risk of attack. Feudalism was such a complete trap that the victims could see no way out.

Here’s bad news for opposition parties: feudalism was an extremely enduring system. However, a key difference between the old kind and the new kind is we nominally live in a democracy. It is theoretically possible for a political movement to arise that challenges the system. It hasn’t happened yet, judging from the voting pattern of the last 20 years.

Why did Agang not do well this last election? Part of it was the difficulty of scaling up a new organization from nothing – the EFF for example had a large chunk of the ANC Youth League to build on. Another part was we were trying to address this dysfunction of the political system by addressing the left out voters – but the inherent conservatism of the victimized poor makes them a difficult constituency to win over. Much has been made of the failed DA deal – that was a setback, but cannot explain the whole problem.

I supported Agang because of Mamphela Ramphele’s history in Black Consciousness. What we badly need in this country is a revitalizing of hope, and the BC message of self-reliance, self-respect and rejection of externally-imposed limits is very much needed in South Africa today. It remains to be seen if the Agang project can survive the setback of a very low vote – but it is a worthwhile project and I intend to continue to pursue its goals.

Monday, 26 May 2014

What’s Wrong with Universities?

At my university (Rhodes University in South Africa), we have a policy of not outsourcing things a university traditionally does itself – even if that sometimes adds to our costs. We may be paid slightly lower than average, but we are also a happier campus than average.


Our outgoing Vice-Chancellor (president, in US terminology) Saleem Badat is rare among university leaders in understanding the character of a university and maintaining it against outside pressures. We are in a small town and account for a large fraction of the local economy – if we outsourced basic services to out of town companies, we may save a little money, but at what cost? Our local community is depressed as it is, and being an island of plenty in a sea of poverty is an unpleasant situation for those in both places.


You could argue this is no different from corporate social responsibility taken seriously. A mine, for example, could also source all its supplies as locally as possible.

But it goes further than that.

Universities around the world have made the same mistake: hiring expensive business consultants who tell them to run more like a business. Universities have been around a lot longer than the modern concept of a business, and have not caused major financial meltdowns, wars or corrupted the political system. At very modest cost to society, they have spearheaded curing disease, inventing revolutionary technologies and transforming society in more ways than I can think of.

Academics of  course, do sometimes cause major problems – but not operating as academics, where they have limited scope to do damage. Academic economists, for example, have at times spread highly dysfunctional ideas but, even there, it is not universities that have done the damage, but politicians who are ready to take bogus advice if it suits their agenda. On the whole, when ideas are kept within academia, the bad ones are eventually rooted out. And an academic who is not subject to commercial pressures is more likely to be honest about such mistakes.

Why is it that places that are supposed to be the home of the smartest people on the planet take advice from people who have no clue about how to run their institution, when the people who know most about how to run a university are those already there?

The only reason I can think of is that, having paid big money to corporate consultants, you would feel a right idiot if your didn’t take their advice.

What is wrong with all this?

A university has aims that are hard to quantify economically. Sometimes it is necessary to maintain a discipline that does not cover its costs because it is required for other subjects, or is at the core of research initiatives. Or maybe it is a discipline that no one else supports, and it has to exist somewhere. Achieving equity in the face of an unequal school system also has costs and a simple bottom-line based accounting system cannot adequately capture the value of that kind of redress.

The real difference though between a university and a business is the time horizon. A university aims to build for the long term. There may be no immediate return from a PhD or even a slightly better quality undergraduate curriculum. The value may only be seen years or decades later when a graduate cures a disease, invents a new technology or discovers a new way of economically empowering the poor.

We recently held a farewell for Dr Badat, who moves on to a major private funding agency. I hope Rhodes continues with his philosophy because that is one of the things that makes this place special – I have done the big city university trying to be a “business” too often to want to repeat the experiment.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Does the ANC want any votes?

The ANC, I am increasingly becoming convinced, is attempting to win an election while insulting and alienating the maximum number of people.

Here are some examples:

  • people who vote for the opposition and accept a social grant are stealing, says ANC KwaZulu-Natal agriculture MEC Meshack Radebe
  • Indians who complain about South Africa  should go back to India, says ANC Chatsworth branch chairperson Visvin Reddy (no doubt their ticket would be funded by the good kind of Indian, the Guptas)
  • Zuma says only clever people are offended by spending of a quarter of a billion rand on “security” upgrades of Nkandla
There you have it.

If you don’t believe the ruling party owns social grants, do believe that Indian South Africans are entitled to the same rights as anyone else including objecting to problems with the government and if you are reasonably bright, the ANC doesn’t want your vote.

Even without this, I have to wonder why anyone would support the ANC today.

When I stood with my students in the 1980s against rubber bullets and teargas, and saw them being viciously attacked with sjamboks, we saw the struggle as worth it because liberation was a great goal.

Now we have a tiny elite enriching themselves, living in mansions while ordinary people live in trash heaps.

Remember the slogan, “The people shall govern?” What’s this about a ruling party anyway? In a democracy the government works for the people, it doesn’t rule.

We didn’t fight for that kind of liberation.

That’s why I am with Agang this election.