Monday, 4 January 2016

The Missing Middle

I present some thoughts on why political opposition to the ANC is failing to make much of an impact on the ANC’s support base.

You need to take care not to lump all ANC supporters together.

The rural poor have had genuine advances: running water, RDP houses, fuller schools. That the water supply is unreliable, the RDP houses fall apart and most of the schools are little better than day-care centres reduces the value of these gains a lot, but they are gains. Add in social grants and food parcels, and the ANC makes a pretence at caring about this section of the community and no one did before, so they get away with it.

The group more likely to switch are the emerging middle class who are finding that they earn more than the NSFAS cut-off yet can’t afford university fees, so their prospects for improving their next generation are frustrated, and frustrated hope is a huge driver of change. This also is a group that is more likely to read forums like this, and to feel they are not at home with the people they find here. Would they vote EFF? Maybe, maybe not. Agang should have been attractive to this group, but failed for a bunch of reasons I won’t bore you with.

If you step back and look at the big picture, new political movements arise from new alignments of class interests. Old movements decay into patronage networks. Old movements’ survival game is thwarting any realignment of class interests. The ANC has that covered with workers because unions have been absorbed into the patronage system. This works because the unions have a deep hierarchy and a small number of leaders near the top can be bought off relatively cheaply (cabinet posts, provincial government etc. – Shilowa was a good example, while that lasted). The emerging middle class is harder to buy off because it does not have a hierarchical structure. Hence the government’s fearful response to #FeesMustFall.

Race is the government’s key weapon to stop a realignment of middle class interests into a powerful political movement. They failed to split the EToll protest movement this way, but they did manage to split #ZumaMustFall to a large extent because of racist responses by supporters of this campaign.

Any opposition movement to be successful must tap into this growing demographic and firmly condemn racism not only in its ranks but also in its wider support base.

So why not the DA? The DA has the same neoliberal economic agenda as the ANC and has a general arrogance about it that makes it a difficult choice for voters who have not already bought into it. Its history also makes it unattractive.

Neoliberalism is the agenda of the rich: in every country that has bought into it, the result has been increasing inequality.

Though the DP grew out of long-time anti-apartheid predecessors, its 1999 “Fight Back” campaign under Tony Leon was designed to attract pro-apartheid voters (“fight back” against what?). Then when the DA was formed by merging with the “New” National Party, the suspicion was deepened that this was a party of closet apartheid apologists. When the NNP split off and merged with the ANC, somehow this was not seen as negative for the ANC.

Because of this baggage, the DA has trouble cutting through. For this reason, I still see a case for a new movement. If anyone is interested let me know and I can start you off with what went wrong with Agang…

Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Tale of two Window 10s

Rhodes University donated a very old PC to a local NGO and I set it up for the NGO. Though my preference is the free software route the practical reality is that I am not an NGO supporting NGOs so the easiest thing is to install what they are used to and that enables them to share documents with others, and that means Windows and MS Office.

The machine came with XP and that is a concern because it is not being actively maintained and there is a possibility that new software may not run on it. I was surprised at the modest hardware requirements of Windows 10, probably because Microsoft went the route of converging their desktop and mobile OS. While this effort has flopped in the mobile market, being able to run the latest OS on a machine that old is a plus. So how easy was it?

The hardest part was preparing the system and installation media.

First, I needed to put the installation media onto a USB flash stick, since the machine has no optical drive. A nice person in out tech support department helped with that.

Then, the Rhodes computing service set a password on BIOS to prevent changing the boot order, which I needed to do to start off the USB flash stick. Since it was heading for a weekend, I had to try to work out the BIOS thing. I found a web site that proposed popping out the CMOS battery and leaving it out for long enough to the capacitors to drain. That worked so well that the machine refused to start until the next day when I intimidated it by approaching it with a voltmeter – it started instantly but the BIOS password was still set. Another try: I found that it has an Intel logic board and there is a trick involving a jumper to put the BIOS into maintenance mode. I took out the password and then discovered that the BIOS would not let me set the boot order to include a removable device unless the removable device was actually attached at boot time.

Finally, I was able to start off the USB flash drive (after 2 restarts – perhaps it was slowly warming to the idea) and Windows 10 installed without any dramas. It took quite a long time, subtly disguised by appearing to finish fast, then needing a reboot. I was then able to install Office off another flash stick and do some minor configuration stuff, including persuading it I wanted to log in as a local user rather than via a Microsoft identity. This latter bit was not too hard for me to work out, but could have confused someone without tech knowledge.

On to machine number 2. A pensioner recently bought a notebook from a local dealer (upgraded by the dealer to Windows 10) and was having difficulty reading email attachments. The attachments are Excel documents, and I found him a free reader via Microsoft’s app store. When I launched it, it had some weird requirement for installing a license that made no sense to me, suggesting something had not been installed right in the base system. I gave up on that and found an older version of Microsoft’s free Excel reader, which installed just fine, but the system refused to find it when I tried to set it up as the default for opening Excel files.

When I installed everything from scratch, things were reasonably straightforward. Though I have extensive computing background, I am not a Windows user, so it is pleasing that it should be relatively easy to set up from scratch without too many bad surprises (the BIOS password thing would not be something the average home user would run into).

I wonder what the dealer did that made the other one more of an ugly beast to install software.

On the whole, though the first install I did went well enough, I am not tempted to shift from Mac OS. Though Apple has lost a lot of their edge in usability (not so much because Microsoft has improved but because they have stopped bothering with evidence-based usability and focus instead on making their systems look good), Apple still has one huge advantage for my purposes: UNIX-style development.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Muddle East

Some have responded to the recent Paris atrocities by saying, “So what? The People of the Middle East are suffering far worse at the hands of the West.”

You can feel bad for the people of Paris and still point out the hypocrisy of allowing Syria to be torn apart without a whimper of public protest, or 300 African schoolgirls disappearing with only moderate protest, or so many other appalling events around the world that do not excite Western news media.

Once we start down the road of justifying the unjustifiable because something even worse happened somewhere else where do we stop?

And when we start taking sides, we become blind to the fact that it is not just one side fueling the flames. Russia, the US (and allies), and local Islamic states all to varying degrees are fueling the conflict, providing weapons and money to back their very narrowly-defined very short-term interests. What is the role of Iran or Saudi Arabia in stoking up conflict? What is Turkey doing? Would the Syrian crisis have ended peacefully long ago if the Assad regime had not been guaranteed outside support?

The US and other Western countries blundering into this whole sorry mess is just one part of the equation. That on its own can’t explain all the instability. You think the Russians would have learnt from the horrible mess they got themselves into in Afghanistan, but no.

In the current Middle East conflict, it is very difficult to make sense of anything if you support any side as all sides have made terrible decisions.

Trace through the sequence of events in Egypt, as just one example:
  • Arab Spring protests – huge crowds in the streets, soldiers who refused to take orders to mow them down
  • a democratic election returning a Muslim Brotherhood government
  • follow-on protests as the government failed to meet expectations
  • a military coup

Some of this you can put down to Western interference. The Arab Spring protests were genuine as far as I can tell, as were the protests against the newly elected government. Where Western interference kicked in was the fact that the military coup was tolerated where such a takeover in most other parts of the world would be condemned. So it is a mistake to explain all problems in the Middle East through a lens of Western imperialism. It is a factor, but not the only one.

Looking more widely, putting everything down simply to Western malevolence does not explain the deep animosities between the different strands of Islam who are doing each other far more damage than they are doing to foreigners. Nor does it explain the roles of Russia and other regional powers like Iran and Turkey.

Beware the logic fail of “enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The biggest enemy in this conflict is lack of moral clarity arising from taking a side and sticking with it.

Yale: It’s About Racism

I am on a short visit to the University of Michigan during my sabbatical and all hell is breaking loose at university campuses including Yale, where there have been angry protests.

Back home, campuses have been in turmoil over protests against institutional racism. I hardly expected US universities to emulate this to make me feel at home, yet here we are.

I read the original Yale email and the Erika Christakis response. It was the latter that apparently triggered the anger. Taken out of context, that email was not that big a deal (decide for yourself; read it here). Why did it elicit such an angry response?

Let’s see what the original email said – this is the most relevant part:

However, Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface. These same issues and examples of cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation are increasingly surfacing with representations of Asians and Latinos.
 Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.
 The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc. In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…
The original email is an insipid mealy-mouthed attempt at labeling offensive racism as cultural insensitivity. The Christakis email attacks this as taking choices away from students.

Imagine for a moment it was the Halloween custom to dress up as Nazi concentration camp guards. Would labeling that as cultural insensitivity, with a mild attempt at discouraging it, be the appropriate institutional response? Would slapping down that mild admonition as impinging on freedom of speech be taken lightly by those targeted by Antisemitism?

In South Africa, a recurrent response from those who don’t get that racism is still a problem is that black people should just move on – apartheid is over. In the US, I detect a similar attitude – that race is an issue of the past. Unfortunately it is not, because people of color and minorities in general still suffer abuse on a daily basis. Politicians exploit prejudice; why is Trump for example able to lead the GOP field with openly xenophobic attitudes?

Racism in all forms is repulsive. It’s time everyone accepted that. Then possibly the victims can move on.