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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Time for a National Imbizo?



Back in 1955, the Congress of the People was a national gathering for those excluded from the apartheid order, which produced the Freedom Charter, a blueprint for a non-racial South Africa. By the time of our first democratic election in 1994, there was a presumption that the Freedom Charter was dated in detail, but nothing was done to replace it. Nearly 60 years on, the country is increasingly directionless and it is not clear that there is a national consensus on the kind of nation we want to be.

In the wake of the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) from Cosatu there is growing talk of launching a new political party.

Before Numsa rushes into creating yet another party, is it not time for us as a nation to sit back and take stock of where we are as a nation, and what our national programme should be?

Anyway, haven’t we been there before?
Voting pattern 1994–2014: the biggest change is in the fraction not voting
There was the split of the ANC in the wake of the Zuma ascendancy that led to the formation of Cope, which fell apart amidst acrimonious lawsuits. From 6.75% of the vote in 2009, they dropped to 0.67% on 2014.

Then in 2013 the EFF and Agang were formed, each as the great new hope for an alternative to the ANC. The EFF fared a whole lot better, with 6.35% of the vote, while Agang barely made it to 2 seats with 0.28% of the vote. Collectively, Cope, EFF and Agang only scored 7.3% – not much more than Cope’s 2009 result. Agang is now following the Cope example with acrimonious lawsuits and EFF has split, with results still to be determined.

The DA, meanwhile, has gained ground – but if you look at the picture, the opposition vote is no bigger than it was in 1994, when the ANC was led into the election by Madiba, one of the most revered political figures of the last century. The only really big change since 1994 is the declining fraction of the voting population who turn out to vote (the black zone at the top – a drop of nearly 30%).

So what we can see is that parties that try to appeal directly to the ANC base are stuck in band of 5-7% even when they come with a huge plus like taking away a big section of senior leadership (Cope) or a major part of the ANC Youth League (EFF). And parties that do not have such a direct appeal to the ANC base cannot attract much more than 20%. That the biggest effect since 1994 is the collapse in voter turnout says a lot about how little appeal opposition parties have to disaffected ANC supporters.

If the main unifying force of a new party is dislike another party, that cannot lead to a sustainable movement, which is why there is so much internal strife in opposition parties. Even the DA, the most successful so far, has had its internal conflicts.


Part of the crowd at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, 1955
Back to 1955: the Congress of the People was a national gathering of those excluded by apartheid and preceding orders. It resulted in the Freedom Charter, a document so long dormant that by 1994, the ANC did not consider it relevant in detail even if the ANC pays lip service to the main ideas.

What we need today is another national gathering, this time reflecting the full diversity of our society, to talk about the problems we face today – and to map out a new national direction.

Since the political process has not delivered this and indeed is failing in many very basic ways, civil society should take a lead. I propose we call a national imbizo under the auspices of major civil society movements. We have some in this country with a huge following and that have done brilliant work, filling the gap where government has failed. Examples include various movements of the unemployed, unions, Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, business organizations, environmental groups, Khulumani Support Group – and there are many more.

If we can call such a national imbizo and arrive at a common understanding of what we as a society see as our priorities, only then is it reasonable to talk about a new political movement. Even if this imbizo does not result in a new movement, it will help those in existing parties to understand where we are going wrong.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Apple: just breaks

The real pleasure of using a Mac was that you took it out of the box, asked for your previous Mac personality to be transferred over, and you were in business. Things generally work, and that also runs to UNIX-style development, as is typical of many academic projects.

Whether you want a consistent user interface or to go to the command line and type

./configure
make
make install 

it all, in Jobs’s words, “just worked”.

The other side of the Jobsian design world is making things look cool, and that is part of the experience. You have hardware and software that you feel good about having in your home or workspace. Sometimes, that conflicts with practicality, but when both are right, it’s a winning formula. But if I have to sacrifice one, I would rather have something that works and looks a bit less cool than something that looks super cool and doesn’t work.

A while back I updated to Mac OS X 10.9 (“Mavericks” – also the name of a surfing spot with scary monster waves that occasionally kill a surfer). I was travelling at the time so I didn’t use it much before updating to 10.9.5, after which I ran into a problem printing. Could it be a coincidence that a release named after a beach with a vicious break is the turning point from “just works” to “just breaks”?

I use HP printers connected via and SMB server, a setup that has worked across a number of OS upgrades and different Macs. The Mac I have now, a fairly new MacBook Pro 15-inch, Mid 2012 model, bought around the time it was being phased out, should not have problems running the latest software. It is a well-tested design, and only barely out of production.

Another issue I have run into is that the new LLVM compilers don’t entirely work with projects designed to work with the GCC toolchain. Since a lot of what I do is shared projects with other academics running on Linux, this is an inconvenience, but one we will eventually work through. I could have stuck with the older version of Xcode a while longer, but wanted to try out Apple’s new Swift language.

Waiting until some of the earlier complaints about Mavericks were sorted seemed a safe step. But the printing thing was a surprise, and I have had no luck with extensive interactions on Apple’s Support Communities forum, nor so far with posting a bug report though Apple responded by asking for more information. I will add an update if I get a response on that.

Since Mavericks only broke printing and messed up compiling stuff I share with Linux projects, should I install Yosemite (a place of grand view sites and frosty glaciers – and where climbers occasionally fall to their deaths; do you see a pattern)? One major upgrade before, after all, only broke two things.

Does anyone else wonder why Apple can’t step back from their obsession with anorexic design (wow, look, I’m so thin, you can’t see me side on) and get back to making stuff that “just works”?

And could they please stop naming new releases of the OS after places that kill people?

Monday, 6 October 2014

Confusion will be my epitaph

Confusion will be my epitaph –  King Crimson
I recently wrote an article signalling that I wasn’t going to write another article about Agang. This is it.

I and about a dozen others were subject to an interdict in the Cape High Court on 4 August that prevents us from speaking for or acting as Agang. Nonetheless, when I heard an NEC meeting was called for 27 September with a wider invitation to membership, I showed up because I happened to be in Pretoria on the day, to observe rather than participate.

What I found was a bigger mess than I could have predicted, even though I had big problems with the previous interdict.

The two MPs, Andries Tlouamma and Mike Tshishonga, have had a major falling out and are fighting each other in the courts. The September NEC meeting was called by the Thishonga camp, and the Tlouamma camp planned a later meeting the same day.

I will not dwell on accusations and counter-accusations; rather I will try to fill in a few gaps based on conversations I have had with members and former members while in Gauteng.

But first, a question many members have asked: why did we not communicate with the membership more? When I was drafted into the Task Team and later the NEC that was deposed by the MPs, one of the major problems we faced was the collapse of finances meant we had lost our member database, so we could not email or SMS members. All we had was an outdated inaccurate dump of the Eastern Cape and Western Cape member and supporter database.

The MPs, with their parliamentary salaries and allowances, had the resources to travel the country, but they were doing so to rally support for themselves. When I was appointed party spokesperson, I had no access to the party’s twitter handle or Facebook page, and those responsible were not conceding control. It could take me up to 3 days to get an article posted on Facebook.

On now to something new: the question of how Tlouamma came to be in leadership and not in a minor position: deputy president and number two on the parliamentary list. Tlouamma is a shadowy character with no past. If you do a Google search, limiting results to before June 2013 when Agang was formed, you get nothing, even if you also try his alternative spelling, Plouamma. This is someone who claims to have had a leadership role in Cope, a party that was very much in the news as it imploded, and to have run multiple businesses.

So how could someone with zero public profile rise so fast?

Backtrack to the abortive DA deal. One Sakhiwo Yako claimed that the party was, as a consequence of this, going to replace Dr Ramphele as leader. This was strenuously denied at the time, and she claimed he had already been expelled as an EFF plant. Fast forward to March, when the party held its manifesto launch. That was an event plagued by disorganization as the venue was shifted at the last minute to Atteridgeville where local support was not particularly high, resulting in a struggle to fill the venue. But behind the scenes, worse was happening. Yako, according to my sources, was planning a comeback by busing in supporters to dominate the planned vote for the party’s new NEC. Leadership got word of this and stitched up a deal with, among others, Tlouamma, who had been in the Yako camp, to appoint rather than elect an NEC. This was possible because the party was operating under a very vague launch constitution that did not define processes for electing an NEC.

It was that deal that gave Tlouamma his relatively high positions. Exactly how this was possible is not clear, because those responsible are not talking.

Worse, there was confusion as to whether a new constitution had been adopted. All structures were told to organize on the basis of the “Conference Convening Constitution” (CCC), the only one available on the party web site – yet some claim this constitution was never formally adopted, and it was not lodged with the IEC as it should have been after a constitutional change.

This confusion was later to be at the root of the 29 June coup and the 4 August interdict – the MPs claimed that MAR (as Dr Ramphele is known to friends and supporters) had no right to act unilaterally as president, a right that is in the CCC. They counter this by insisting that the older constitution lodged with the IEC is the correct one. Their preferred constitution confers similar rights to the “founding cabinet” of which MAR was at the relevant time the sole remaining member so it is questionable that they would have won their interdict on this and other grounds had we contested.

But that is not really the point – fighting this out in the courts is not the way to go. The big flaw in the 29 June process was that putting 100 people in a room does not determine the will of the membership, particularly when those people are selected by a faction that aims to take over the party. That can only be corrected by a properly convened fully representative elective conference; fighting this out in the courts will not convene such a conference.

Some are claiming that Tlouamma got where he is because he is an ANC plant. This is of course possible, but it is also possible that he is simply someone with street cunning who is good at looking after himself. He uses classic coup tactics.  He orchestrates chaos keeping his name clear of the action, then walks in and claims to be restoring order. He discards anyone who could challenge him once their usefulness is over, and rewards lickspittle underlings who do his dirty work. Having used Yako to get into a position of power, he discarded Yako. Having used underlings to undermine the leader, he has paid off those of unquestioning loyalty with jobs out of his parliamentary budget, while discarding others who could challenge him like Thishonga.

Tshishonga, having leveraged him into a position of sidelining all who stood up to him, is now claiming to be the hero who is saving the party.

If the party is to recover from this, it has a daunting task. These are the things it will have to get straight:
  • proper democratic leadership elections – only possible if membership records are in order, and there is a consensus on how elections should take place:
    • does every member have an equal vote?
    • do absent members have the right to assign a proxy to someone who can be present?
    • instead of a vote per member, does each province have a fixed number of delegates?
      • if so, is this number the same for all provinces or
      • proportional to the membership of that province or
      • proportional to the population of that province?
  • adoption of a code of conduct to be agreed to by all members to:
    • prevent arbitrary people issuing press statements
    • prevent disputes from going to the courts without exhausting internal remedies
    • clarify rules and procedures for contesting leadership
  • adoption of a constitution that is not riddled with loopholes
  • recovery from an nonviable financial position
    • whatever MAR may be accused of, she was the only member with the capacity to fund-raise on the scale needed, and unwarranted and unfair accusations of fraud against her made it hard for her to fulfil this role even if she had stayed on
    • massive debt makes fund-raising for future campaigns futile – any positive cash flows will attract the interest of creditors whose sole interest in avoiding sequestration is fears that the party will not have the cash even to cover court costs
The 29 June coup has not taken the party forward. Indeed it has exacerbated tensions because it set a trend for parallel structures and fighting things out in the courts. None of the problems we were trying to solve in the Task Team that the MPs rejected have been solved, and they have only added to the problems. Even if Tshishonga succeeds in his court action against Tlouamma, due to go back to the Western Cape High Court late October, he will still face a huge uphill struggle, much of it his own doing.

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.