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 of 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

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Ideology and counter-ideology of climate change

Climate science is not fundamentally about ideology – science stands or falls by evidence.

Nonetheless, when a scientific finding has economic ramifications, ideology kicks in. Logically, ideology should only apply to remedying the identified problem, not to evaluating the science. For example, if you are an absolutist free marketeer, you would look to the markets to solve the problem. If you are a hard-core socialist, you will expect the government to fix the problem. If you are a pragmatist, you will be happy with any mix of private sector and government initiatives – whatever works best.

The problem arises when you have a scientific finding that reveals a problem that cannot be fixed by either the markets or government alone. Then, the ideologue is driven to attacking the science.

As one example, in the Soviet Union and satellite states, the dominant ideology was that all people are fundamentally equal, there are no hereditary differences and that the state was the only agency for ensuring that such an equal society functioned. That some were in Orwell’s words more equal than others, we will leave aside. Outcomes of this ideology dominating science included:
  • Trofim Lysenko’s anti-Mendelian pseudo-science whereby biology was perverted to suit the dominant ideology; dissent from his theories was outlawed in 1948, and his dominance of Soviet agricultural research set that country back a long way
  • conductive education – a Hungarian theory that disability caused by brain damage can be overcome by training. Again this fitted the Soviet-era ideology that all inequality is induced, but has no basis in evidence; the movement persists to this day, offering false hope to families of the disabled
The Soviet Union is at one end of the scale; at the other is extreme market ideologues who attack science whenever fixing a problem it reveals appears to be impossible without state intervention. While some of these ideologues are fundamentalist libertarians who genuinely believe all government interference in the economy is bad, there is a good deal of inconsistency among such campaigners. The big threat is almost always government interference in unbridled profit-seeking. Very few take umbrage at government interventions that favour business – especially big business.

Aside from this inconsistency, the big flaw in libertarian thinking is a total focus on big government. Generalize this concept:
any organization big enough to overwhelm the individual is a threat to liberty
Then we see that we need to be wary of any organization that becomes too big.
Examples of organized opposition to government interventions arising from inconvenient science include tobacco, the ozone hole and climate change. The argument is almost always the same: the science is flawed because it cannot give an exact answer, personal attacks on the scientists, claims that contrarian science is suppressed.

None of these claims stand up to scrutiny.

No science modelling the real world is 100% accurate – once a risk is clear enough to be worth avoiding, you quantify the costs of various avoidance strategies against the risk, and develop a suitable strategy. Yet  the argument in these cases is almost always that the science must be 100% right – 90% is not good enough. In fact, even it the science only has a 1% chance of being right, if the catastrophe predicted is big enough, it is prudent to take action.

No one goes into science to get rich – not if they have any sense anyway. Research grants aren’t money in your pocket. They pay for things like graduate students, making more work for you.

In some fields of science, it is true that public alarm at the outcome can fuel more funding. Knowing what cancer is would alarm anyone. In cancer research, funding generated out of that sort of alarm not only fuels research into the cause but into the cure.

In many other fields of science that produce alarming findings, responding to those findings does not aid those making the discovery at all. If the tobacco industry slowed down promotion of its product as harmful effects became known, research on harmful effects would taper off as fewer people smoked. Research on causes of the ozone hole and climate change intensified as a result of industry push-back.

It is particularly obnoxious in ozone hole and climate science research to argue that scientists are producing alarming results just to get more research money. In both cases, had industry accepted early indications of cause for alarm and responded appropriately, the place to prioritize research funding would be to mitigation. In the case of the ozone hole, mitigation required finding alternatives to CFCs. In the case of climate change, rather than pinning predictions down more precisely, the logical place to direct research funding is towards clean energy.

So, what’s to be done?

First, we need to challenge the libertarian presumption that government is the source of all evil. Transnational corporations have a reach that exceeds that of most governments, and are not particularly accountable. If their shareholding is diffuse, there is no single point where pressure can be applied to correct faults.

It is also not true that the market is the single best mechanism to deal with every problem.

First, not all goals are economic.

Second, the market is highly distorted by the influence of very large corporations; not only can they use monopolistic practices to stifle competition, but they can buy off politics and create a regulatory environment that favours them over smaller competitors.

Third, some economic factors fall outside pricing controlled by the market. Negative externalities – costs to parties outside a transaction, like pollution, which is a cost to society as a whole – cannot be regulated purely by the market.

Finally, a purist socialist approach to everything has been tried in various forms, and hasn’t worked – so let us not kid ourselves that we can go back there to deal with an even harder problem.

We can ultimately only solve large-scale societal and muli-societal problems like climate change, universal access to health care and equitable access to basic services if we stop being bound by ideology and judge each issue on its merits.

So, going back to climate change: we need to remove ideological blinkers when considering the evidence. If the evidence says we should act, there is even more reason to remove ideological blinkers, because he best solution to a hard problem requires working on it from all angles.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Facebook blocking Daily Dispatch

Despite repeated complaints, Facebook is not lifting a ban on posting articles from Daily Dispatch, a major newspaper in South Africa. Since Facebook mostly provides free services in huge bulk, they do not have easily-accessed contact information like phone numbers where you can reach a human.

How can this happen? It could be a glitch but it is a convenient excuse that a paper publishing stories deeply embarrassing to the government is being blocked in the heat of an election. While FB is unlikely to be behind this, that they could have done this unintentionally or in response to a bogus scam or spam report is bad enough. That they are unresponsive to complaints makes it worse.

I am working on fixing this as are others. Until we get it right here are a few juicy things from DD that someone doesn’t want us to see.
This is a start – post links in comments and I will add them here if good.

Nkandla: ANC’s Strategy to Win

Agang’s campaign in the Eastern Cape occupies two worlds. We talk to the forgotten people, the communities where nothing works, there are no jobs and no way out. They want to be heard and they want a reason for hope. Then we enter the world of political debates, where everything is about point-scoring, who shouts the loudest and political posturing.

The PE debate (Source: Herald)
Tuesday 8 April: I am speaking for Agang in a debate in Port Elizabeth with 7 other parties, and the other opposition parties find a way to work Nkandla into every other sentence, sending the ANC part of the crowd into a frenzy each time.

Sorry, I am too much an academic to play this sort of game. We discovered the ANC’s on switch. Now talk about everything else, the humiliation and pain our people experience every day, and what we are going to do about it. How we can restore pride, rebuild hope and rekindle the promise of our new democracy of 20 years ago? But the ANC are the ones to watch. Nkandla is their issue, and you have to wonder how they can go into an election with such a liability.

So what is the ANC speaker’s response to all this? He totally ignores all reference to Nkandla and goes on about his party’s track record.

What track record? I wonder, having just been to a place called Taliban in the vicinity of Uitenhage. This is one of the most depressing places I’ve ever seen, with people living in utter hopelessness amidst heaps of trash. I talk to young people who passed matric and have no jobs. They are angry and feel betrayed.

Then the light comes on. This is the ANC game plan. Let the opposition shout Nkandla at the top of their voices, and calmly prattle on about all the good the ANC is doing. The message: Nkandla was a cock-up but otherwise we are doing just fine.

Well, are they?

Last financial year the government by their own figures lost R33-billion to wasteful spending and corruption. That’s one Nkandla every three days.

Nkandla is not an anomaly. It’s the way the government regularly does business.

And that’s just the money they admit to wasting – no doubt totally leaving out the waste of a bloated bureaucracy in the Eastern Cape Health Department that leaves insufficient funds for medical staff, to quote one example.

It is wastage on this scale that makes all our problems seem so hard. Yes, equalizing education post-apartheid was always going to be a challenge. The same for delivering quality health care to the poor and fixing economic inequality. We are not going to solve any of these problems by throwing money down the toilet on a vast scale (in parts of the country that have toilets).

In this weird inside-out looking-glass world, a government that flushes money away more efficiently than it delivers clean water has found a way to turn what should be a massive liability into an electoral advantage. A way of personifying corruption and incompetence in the president, while somehow carrying off the fiction that his personality has nothing to do with the government he heads.

Agang visits Glenmore
I think about the people in Glenmore, a dry dusty apartheid forced removal dumping ground also here in the Eastern Cape. No jobs, no hope, nothing to look forward to but the next social grant day.

Would people living in a trash heap be happy that the government has turned Nkandla into an electoral strategy to evade the issues that blight their lives?

Here’s a challenge for the ANC. Maybe you should go and ask them. Try Taliban and Glenmore to see if you get the same answer.

But first, disguise yourself as a human being. I’ll lend you my Agang T-shirt.

But of course the ANC will not take up this challenge, because Nkandla is their strategy to win. By talking loudly about this one thing, opposition parties turn the voters’ attention away from the other 120-times Nkandla-scale misspending that happens every year. We implicitly accept the ANC line that everything else is fine by making this one big failure the only one we shout about.

The personality of the president is not incidental to the ANC. It embodies what the ANC stands for now: a party of greed and self-enrichment.

Every person in Glenmore, Taliban and countless other townships and settlements who live lives of hopelessness and despair deserve better. It is Agang’s mission to change this country for the better, and that will not happen if we let the ANC get away with this. At very least, we should force them to defend their entire track record, not just disgracefully profligate expenditure on a financially incontinent president’s house.

The sad thing is that the money gone on waste and corruption could go a long way towards the social programmes we need to turn this country around. We do not need crazy economic policies or empty promises. What we need is sound governance and active citizens who stand up for themselves – a rekindling of the promise of freedom that burnt so bright in 1994.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Ubuntu 2.0

We have a saying in these parts:
umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu
a person is a person through other people
– kind of the opposite to each one for himself. With this sort of profound philosophy in our culture, how have we allowed a culture of personal gain to take root so firmly throughout society? Why has Africa as a whole gone so badly wrong if this is a core belief – and I have no reason to believe it is not?

What I have observed in seeing this belief in action is that many interpret it narrowly – that the “other people” are “their own”, narrowly interpreted tribally or even to close friends and family. Thus, for example, someone assumes the presidency of a country and immediately everyone close to them puts their nose to the trough – our turn to eat, a phrase originating out of corruption in Kenya.

What is missing is a greater sense of nationality, that this concept does not just apply to your own, but to everyone in the greater community.

This omission is particularly obscured by the myth of Pan-Africanism, the notion that Africa is a sociopolitical whole embracing Ubuntu, as the concept is more widely known (with fewer hard syllables for foreigners). Yet the reality is far different – tribalism persists, we have wars, civil wars, ethnic cleansing and xenophobia.

Another problem is that the colonial and apartheid systems co-opted traditional leaders into a police-state system of governance. Any democratic tendencies that may have existed in pre-colonial times were subverted to a system of total obedience to authority.

What is to be done?

We need to go back to traditional values and re-conceptualize them as applying to a modern democratic order.

Ubuntu in this new order means the opposite to everyone for himself (or herself). But it also does not mean look after your own. It means pursue your life goals by pursuing the greater good.

Tied into this is escaping the mindset of cowed citizens of a police state. Sadly, when colonial and apartheid powers retreated, it was all to easy for liberators to keep their subjects in a subservient state. After all, their leaders are now in charge, so what is there to fight for? But that is a very shallow definition of what a leader is, and derives from the subversion of traditional leadership by colonialism and apartheid.

A leader should be respected by virtue of earning respect, not simply virtue of the office they hold. A leader should represent the will of the people, allowing some latitude for a genuine leader to move ahead of the people on occasion, but ultimately to bring them along to the new position. In a democracy, a leader who loses respect and credibility can and should be voted out of office.

None of this contradicts traditional African values; rather the notion of Ubuntu modernized to a democratic order is a uniquely African contribution to human society, and a project worth pursuing. Failure to adapt the concept of leadership to a democratic order on the hand entrenches colonial and apartheid power relations, and leaves the ordinary citizen unable to benefit from liberation beyond the symbolism of changing the complexion of those in power.

Monday, 10 February 2014

South Africa Decides: The Big Questions

Now the election date has been set, it’s time for the political circus to start in earnest. We can expect personality attacks, stunts, scandal.

Up to a point, we have to consider some of these things because they are revealing of character and the extent to which you can trust leaders. But if this is all we look at, we are not going to make great choices.

During the apartheid era, much of politics was about principle. Even apartheid was based on principles of a sort, dodgy though those principles were. You knew where you stood, and you knew what you were opposing. Today, much of politics is not about principle. We have scandals about politician’s private lives, corruption and incompetence.

What is missing is answers to the big questions such as
What kind of country do we want to be?
How do we get there?
Besides South Africa’s unique problems, there are global problems that need real insight and analysis to tackle. Neoliberal capitalism failed spectacularly in 2008. Oil is running out. There is no hint of peace in the Middle East. Efforts to hold off harmful climate change are too little too late.

Maybe these things do not concern South Africans as much as a failed education system, a crisis in local infrastructure such as water and a growing rather than decreasing rich-poor divide, but they all point to the same cause: a lack of clear thinking about how we got ourselves into this mess and how to get ourselves out.

What I am looking for in this election is not politicians who are most adept at slinging mud, but politicians who have serious answers to the big questions.

I throw this challenge out not only to politicians but also to commentators, journalists, editors and everyone who wants to make an informed choice on election day: focus on the big questions.