Disc Dem

Disc Dem

Friday, 23 June 2017


We are being led by the nose. We are so busy reacting to the latest outrages, perpetrated by our own government against its citizens, that we are losing or have already lost our ability to think clearly about how to counterattack these assaults on the bastions of our democracy. The latest bastion to seemingly fall, the Office of the Public Protector, is for many people the most demoralising. We became accustomed to Adv. Thuli Madonsela speaking truth to power, but now have someone who is supremely arrogant coupled with suggestions of incompetence, or capture.

Coming fast and furious from so many different directions, the new Mining Charter, the nuclear energy debacle that is unfolding in Russia as I write, SOE Boards fragmenting, the PP/MKVA/ANCYL’s seemingly coordinated approach to the South African Reserve Bank’s right to independence, and now the ANCWL pronouncing that constitutional democracy doesn’t work because our courts have too much power, are all timed to keep us off-balance and in a punch-drunk state of paralysis. The surprisingly muted coverage of the Auditor General’s latest report on the parlous state of local government finances clearly demonstrates we are drowning in a sea of outrage, and have nothing much left to give to this equally appalling situation.

Chief Justice Mogoeng’s delivery of the Constitutional Court’s well-balanced ruling that it is permissible to vote on a motion of no confidence in the president by secret ballot should the Speaker so decide, coupled with his timely reminder to politicians that they take an oath to uphold and defend the constitution and not their political parties, provided a momentary ray of hope that MP’s might be swayed to vote their consciences. I say “momentary”, because as soon as the judgement had been handed down, the ANC caucus issued a statement that indicated they had not heard a single word the Chief Justice said about loyalty to the country and its people over loyalty to their party. The most telling extract reads:  “ANC members of Parliament are therefore representatives of the ANC in Parliament and derive their mandate from the political party which deployed them, in the same way as members of other political parties derive their mandate from their political parties. The most recent example of this is in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature where the Democratic Alliance refused to vote with the ANC to remove Western Cape Premier Helen Zille. In the Mogale City Municipality, the DA even went as far as forcing their councillors to take a lie detector test after some of their members defied their party mandate by voting in favour of removing the Mayor. This is the level of hypocrisy of the opposition who expect the ANC to do something which they flatly refuse to do.”

Apart from confirming that all political parties have the same modus operandi, we now also know that the ANC Caucus believes it is mandated to aid and abet the theft of state resources to the detriment of the people they are appointed to serve; and no matter what the circumstances, they must always vote against the opposition, even if it brings further harm to the people. The DA and EFF are also complicit in this party line dance that we naively call “democracy”. Do not be misled by their successful court challenges to the misrule of the ANC into believing they have any greater concern for the people. To quote a senior DA leader in a meeting regarding party politics interfering with service delivery: “I can tell you that when you are in a political fight, party politics will always come before service delivery”. I have consistently held the view that the DA does a better job of local government than the ANC, but the bar is set so low that even they can prioritise party politics before service delivery, and still come out ahead.

Then there is the EFF whose leader, Julius Malema, is still in dispute with SARS over alleged unpaid income taxes amounting to R32.9m. Having already negotiated a “compromise” with SARS in 2014, that required him to pay only R7.1m of a then outstanding R18m tax debt, SARS are now accusing him of not revealing the true source of his income, and also said Malema failed to disclose his interest in a Polokwane property. Malema claimed he had forgotten about the property as he never paid for it – well that sorts out how important the land issue really is to him if he can afford to forget about his own property. Then there is the finding by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in 2012 that Malema “improperly benefited” from a R52-million tender awarded by the Limpopo Roads department to engineering company On-Point, who allegedly then transferred some of the money to Malema’s Ratanang Family Trust. The bottom line is that this champion of the people also appears to be a champion tax avoider; tax that could be put to better use in alleviating the poverty of the very people he claims to represent.

This is the calibre of political parties, their leaders, their deployees and their cadres in this fledgling democracy of ours. It is no longer a question of the State of the Nation: it is the Nation that’s in a state. Political wolves are being held at bay only by the resolute defence of our Constitution by Chief Justice Mogoeng and his colleagues. This is unsustainable in the longer term. However admirable the intent of the Constitution and however often the Constitutional court reminds those laughably termed “servants of the people” how to behave, it contains no enforceable sanctions for those in breach of their sworn duty. As we have seen, and no doubt we will see many times again, this allows for the Justice’s admonishments to be ignored with impunity.

Now tick the boxes if you think these statements apply in South Africa today:

  • Tell the population you have their best interests at heart; 
  •  Have a derisory attitude towards educated people;
  • Provoke (economic) disorder then tell everyone you are capable of fixing it;
  • Promise to create jobs, respect the laws of the land, respect people’s rights etc.;
  • Have your own news organisation that promotes only your views;
  • Demonise a minority that effectively turns citizen against citizen;
  • There is a spurious “belief” that democracy does not work.

Interestingly, these same boxes would have been ticked in 1930’s Germany, and were major contributors to Adolf Hitler’s rise to dictatorship. After a failed putsch, Hitler realised that the route to supreme power was to use the institutions of democracy to destroy democracy. First, get legally established in power, and then erode democracy from within.

Although the scenario might sound familiar, the situational aspects are obviously quite different. We are fortunate to have an independent media community that counterbalances the propaganda of Gupta media outlets for example, so South Africans will not be so easily rolled over. That same independent media also keeps us up-to-date with the level of erosion being suffered by our democratic institutions. But we cannot continually be reactive to events. We must become proactive in defending our democracy, so the issue now is how do we change the political and social narrative in South Africa, and change it quickly?

This is the point at which our home grown version of Emmanuel Macron is supposed to step forward to provide the vision and leadership needed to unite the country, and to steer us into calmer waters. Wishful thinking aside, we are a resilient and capable nation that has the intellectual resources to collectively come up with workable solutions.

Finally, there is a scuba diving maxim used when in trouble underwater: STOP; BREATHE; THINK; ACT, which can also be applied to surviving the political rip currents tearing at our democracy. We must STOP perversely chasing Bell-Pottinger’s White Monopoly Capital plus other distracting narratives, or the latest scandalous revelations about State Capture. The only thing we add to these narratives is the negativity of more outrage.  So, take a deep BREATH to clear your mind, and start to really THINK about the situation we are in. Look at how we might contribute to countering the divisive rhetoric of our politicians, and who we can rope in to help us. Then ACT on your ideas, as well as sharing them as far and wide as your contacts list will allow. Also share with civil and religious organisations.  Don’t be shy about this. You may feel your contributions are too little to make a difference, but never forget that “the little joined up makes for a lot”, and as Albert Einstein said “You never fail until you give up”.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly

The fires in Knysna and its surrounds brought out the very best and very worst in South African society. On the really good side, volunteer fire fighters arrived from all over the country, and watching Working on Fire teams singing and dancing in a car park before heading off to risk their lives in the smoke and flames brought a lump to the throat. Local people unaffected by the fires opened their hearts and homes to those displaced, and the humanitarian aid response was, and continues to be outstanding.

The countrywide outpouring of sympathy and support across all race groups was heartening to see, with one particular twitter message summing it up beautifully in only 140 characters

Then there were the downright ugly sentiments of mean-spirited, sick-minded people who had nothing better to do during this disaster than to wish others harm. Intent on spewing their glee onto the internet they couldn’t be bothered to find out that the largest population group at risk was, in fact, Black. 

What we can no longer ignore, though, is that the racial divide which should have been closed or at least significantly narrowed after 23 years of “democracy”, is now widening.  It has taken the common cause of the Garden Route tragedy to bring people closer together again, at least temporarily.   How long this will last once the embers have cooled, and self-serving politicians have had their “Kodak Moments” in Knysna prior to returning to their divisive rhetoric, can probably be measured in microseconds, but South Africans in general have reacted admirably, and in unity, to a disaster in which people have been left with nothing.

Yet what concern do we show for those who are unaffected by fire or natural disaster and who have nothing to begin with? Is it their fault that they are unemployable because of our seriously defective basic education system? Is it their fault that restrictive labour laws deter employment rather than encourage it? Is it their fault that trade unions serve to protect the already employed, rather than encouraging additional employment?  I can already hear “Yes, it is their own fault for voting ANC”, but seriously! What little they may have in terms of social grants, RDP housing and municipal indigent support stems from ANC policies, so they can hardly be blamed for refusing to bite the hand that feeds them. It is also one of many reasons why they may choose not to vote at all, rather than vote for another party against the ANC.

The idiom common cause also takes on new significance when looked at in terms of a natural disaster of fire versus the man-made disaster of poverty. When a catastrophe such as the Garden Route fires encompasses all of us we react as a unified society, but when it comes to everyday grinding poverty it’s no longer our problem, it’s their problem whoever they might be.  So why can we not see all the problems of South Africa as our common cause?

I believe it is because to one extent or another we are still living intellectually, culturally and emotionally as independent societies within our previous racial classifications. It remains a case of us and them, which is dry kindling to politicians prepared to fan the flames of division regardless of the cost.  South African politics, from the days of recently much debated Colonialism, through the apartheid euphemism of “Separate Development”, to the multiple B’s and E’s of ANC policies, has always been about division and not unity. Politicians of average intellect survive on social division, and political leaders who have no vision beyond their quest for power, thrive on it.

It takes a glance at the two main political parties, where ANC membership will not rid itself of its compromised leader, and DA leadership compromised with a recalcitrant member, to realise how perverse the party system has become. The playground antics of South African politicians are a case of Forget about the ball, let’s get on with the game, where “the ball” is the people and “the game” is the acquisition of power. Factionalism is the order of the day, with politicians squabbling internally to capture power over their party, in the hope it will carry them to the ultimate prize of capturing the country. Take a moment to think about the following:

  • Why are none of the parties willing to provide transparency in their funding? Does this mean they are all captives of their major donors? When a hard decision needs to be taken, who do you think they will they listen to – the people, or their moneybags?
  • Why are none of the parties proposing changes to the electoral system that will make them more directly accountable to the electorate? Do you think party leaders will willingly give up their absolute power over deployees and return some of that power to the people? and,
  • Why are none of the parties even thinking about proposing changes to the Constitution to provide enforceable penalties for those “Honourables” who are proven to be dishonourable, particularly those in breach of their oath of office for example? Could it be that this is also too much accountability for them, and they are content with meaningless apologies that have no real consequences? 

While policies may differ, fundamentally there are no significant operational differences between the three main parties. The ANC’s NEC, the DA’s Federal Executive, and the EFF’s Central Command Team all maintain direct control over their cadres. Even a DA Executive Mayor in a local council cannot change members of their own Executive Committee without first asking permission from Cape Town.

Political behaviour is guided by ambition, and is influenced by whether they are already in power or are still striving for power. So why are so many mainly White South Africans convinced that things will change in 2019 when, they believe, the DA will take control of the country, either outright or through coalitions? The circumstances that allowed the ANC to run roughshod over the Constitution and capture the state will not have changed. The way parties are funded and operate will not have changed, and the system of unaccountability to the electorate will not have changed. So what guarantees does the electorate have that a new governing party will not eventually slide to the same depths of corruption? We certainly cannot just cross our fingers and hope new leadership will be more ethical - after all, even Robert Mugabe started off well. If we accept the term political ethics is an oxymoron, we should not only be looking to change the governing party. We should also be looking to fix the underlying weaknesses in our Constitution and electoral systems, which have allowed unaccountable and therefore corruptible politicians to bring us to the brink of disaster.

We desperately need a new social narrative, one that promotes inclusivity, provides dignity in the form of self-sufficiency, and pushes back against racially divisive and other populist or “revolutionary” rhetoric. The problem is not race, it is poverty.  Our politicians are simply playing the racial blame game, because this is the easiest excuse for their own lack of vision beyond accumulating personal power and wealth.  If our present political establishment is not capable of making necessary changes, then who can we look to?

In a brilliant article titled So, where have all the good leaders gone?” social entrepreneur Gordon D’Silva, OBE, made the following observations:
If we are to achieve real seismic change, it will require the creators of wealth to provide leadership capable of achieving sustainable prosperity for the whole community and not exclusively to the elite few. It will require tomorrow’s innovators in business to accept – what for me is the blindingly obvious – that the greatest risk to financial capital in the 21st Century will be the unyielding rise of global inequality.  In the absence of social innovators and leaders capable of bursting the festering boil of unrelenting inequality, we will continue to experience the emergence and growth of nationalist movements and a return to protectionist markets, closed borders and greater insecurity experienced by all.”

I think it is past time for us to take a long hard look at ourselves, and decide whether we want to continue feeding the fires of racial division sown by political rhetoric, or whether we are prepared to make a concerted effort to bridge the poverty gap - if not for ourselves, then at least for the sake of future generations. Must the whole country burn before we realise that we are in this together, that we must find solutions together, and that we can no longer afford to let politicians continue stealing from us while feeding the flames of hatred?

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Hamster Wheel of SA Politics

In the wild, hamsters will run for several miles in a single night, but they obviously can’t do this when confined to a cage. So does the wheel dupe them into believing they are still free, or are they really so dumb they will run around in the same circle for eternity? The answer is they are not so dumb - running is in their DNA so they will use whatever is available to ensure their survival - but what about our own metaphorical hamster wheel, the one that keeps us going around and around in the same circles, doing the same things again and again with the same results?

How many more disappointments is it going to take before we realise that a different strategy is needed to counter Jacob Zuma’s State Capture project? All efforts to date have been directed at removing him as President of the Republic, whether through the High Court, Constitutional Court, Parliament (6 times with one pending), or the ANC’s own NEC (twice). All failing to achieve their objective, with little chance that further legal or political challenges targeted directly at him will enjoy any greater degree of success.

One certainty is that we do not have the luxury of enough time to play a waiting game. We cannot just hope that alles sal reg kom if the ANC lose the next election, so put the “Roll on 2019” mantra back in its box for a while. If Zuma can’t be removed as seems to be the case, then we desperately need an alternative strategy that will at least neutralise some of the damage being done. We need to start thinking differently, and creative thinker Edward de Bono hit the nail on the head when he said “We may need to solve problems not by removing the cause, but by designing the way forward even if the cause remains in place.”

There are many South Africans capable of finding creative solutions if they put their minds to it, but let me get the ball rolling. It is fairly certain that in the upcoming parliamentary vote of no confidence, ANC MP’s are again likely to toe the party line, secret ballot or not, leaving Zuma in place to continue  plundering the country’s financial resources while decimating social cohesion. Thinking beyond this eventuality, he still needs his captured apparatchiks in place to give effect to his plans. Without compliant ministers he will be frustrated, so is there a way to remove the captured or incompetent ones without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? I believe there may be.

Section 102 (1) of the Constitution says: If the National Assembly, by a vote supported by a majority of its members, passes a motion of no confidence in the Cabinet excluding the President, the President must reconstitute the Cabinet

The Constitutional question is did the writers really intend this clause to be inclusive of the entire Cabinet, or could it perhaps be interpreted to apply to a single member of Cabinet? After all, it does seem a bit silly, does it not, to have to reconstitute the entire Cabinet if it is only a single minister at fault? The thing is, we can be fairly certain that going after Zuma directly is an exercise in futility, but is it possible that a sufficient number of ANC MP’s might be willing to propose or support a vote of no confidence in, for example, Mosebenzi Zwane or Nomvula Mokonyane, Faith Muthambi or Bathabile Dlamini, Lynne Brown or Malusi Gigaba, thereby cutting off the potential for direct access to State resources? It would certainly be less risky for them to depose an incompetent or possibly captured minister rather than the main man, and they can also earn some kudos by being seen to be making a contribution to halting the rot.

Of course, Zuma will just replace deposed ministers with other sycophants, but if anti-Zuma MP’s remain steadfast, at some point the Zupta’s will be fighting on so many fronts, that they must eventually run out of willing sycophants and this war of attrition will be won.

Is it Constitutionally viable?  I don’t know.  Only a Constitutional lawyer can offer an opinion on that, and the Concourt itself is the obvious final arbiter. Will sufficient numbers of ANC MP’s be prepared to grasp this nettle? Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that we have to find ways to circumvent our apparently unassailable president, and I refuse to believe we are dumber than a hamster.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Time for Work

In my last post I promised to share some ideas on how the plight of the unemployed might be addressed, emphasising that education and skills training can play a vital role in easing this rapidly escalating problem.  The urgency of our need to find solutions cannot be overstated, particularly in light of the recent explosion in violence against women. Read any report on the issue of gender based violence perpetrated by men and you will find low self-esteem, caused by lack of education or low income, features among the primary causes. There are, of course, other social factors that contribute to our particular problem, but addressing the self-esteem issue by offering higher earnings potential through improved access to education will be a big step forward.

So where has it all gone wrong? After an initial obvious conclusion that the ANC have allowed SADTU to systematically reduce South African basic education to farcical levels of incompetence and ineptitude, it would seem there are other insurmountable obstacles awaiting those who manage to overcome this educational deficiency. Why, after making it this far, do so many students not take advantage of more advanced educational opportunities? There are Universities, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges, and also industry-based opportunities facilitated by Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETA’s), yet the numbers of unqualified and unemployable people keeps growing. It appears that all the fancy names in the world cannot overcome the fundamental handbrake to progress - money, or rather the apparent lack of it.

You are all well-enough acquainted with the financial issues facing university students emanating from 2016 #FeesMustFall movement, but are you as acutely aware of the costs students have to bear to attend TVET Colleges? While less than university fees, costs for TVET courses are still high enough to exclude many otherwise deserving students. This keeps us on track to substantiate the next “obvious” conclusion: that a lack of sufficient funding is the main exclusionary factor for many people who simply cannot afford to further their academic education or practical skills training.

SETA’s, though, function quite differently and are the exception that proves the rule - but perhaps not in a way you might think. Operationally, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) conveniently collects a 1% Skills Development Levy (SDL) from employers based on the total amount paid in salaries to employees (including overtime payments, leave pay, bonuses, commissions and lump sum payments). These levies are then distributed to the various Sector Authorities, who are tasked with allocating education and training grants to qualifying businesses within their predefined business sectors. There are 21 such Authorities, starting with the Agricultural SETA, and ending with the Wholesale & Retail SETA.  Of these, 2 (Culture/Arts/Tourism/Hospitality & Sports, and scarily, Safety & Security) were so dysfunctional they were under administration for the 2015/16 financial year. Of the remaining 19, 3 received qualified audit opinions, and a further 11 had material misstatements in their performance reports. Excluding the 2 under administration, the other 19 each had its own Board of Directors, with its own Executive Management team, and a variety of other operational duplications costing over R1.63 billion.

Apart from lifting the lid on a ridiculous structure that requires over 300 Board Members, multiple CEO’s, CFO’s and COO’s to provide what should be a nationally integrated education and training solution, the really interesting outcome of my basic research is bottom-line SETA economics.

If the amount of R14.1 billion doesn’t immediately grab your attention, then let me throw in another R13.85 billion. The first amount of R14.1 billion is the combined annual revenue of 21 SETA’s for the 2015/16 financial year.  The second amount of R13.85 billion represents their combined reserves – in other words, money they have accumulated but not spent. Their only mission-critical task is to promote and nurture education and skills development, so why have they failed to spend all of the money allocated to them? The short answer is that a combination of over-regulation of labour markets, coupled with a distressed economy, has served to deter corporate investment in employee recruitment and training. As a result, ever diminishing numbers of grant applications were received from businesses where the costs associated with employee recruitment and training exceeded the value of the applicable grant.  Whatever the reasons, the facts remain that these Sector Education and Training Authorities are not fulfilling their mandate, have outlived their useful lives, and are sitting on a substantial amount of money lying unused in their investment accounts.

Keeping the Skills Development Levy in place while disbanding SETA’s in order to create a National Education and Training Authority is a much NETA solution (sorry about that, just couldn’t resist the pun). It then becomes a question of how to allocate the revenues generated, and how best to employ the capital sum accruing from liquidated reserves. This will require some serious critical and creative thinking.

As we cannot simply ignore the existing pool of unemployed people, perhaps some of the money can be used to establish “mature student” facilities within each municipality, where 25-40 year olds can be taught some skills that will provide them with self-employment opportunities. I am fairly certain there is a pool of retired people, or people who just want to give something back to the community, who will be prepared to volunteer their skills as trainers, so the cost of staffing these facilities will be minimal. The only issue this raises is that a level of deregulation will be required.

Why not also set aside an amount from the R13.85bn reserves for the purpose of making “Impact Investments” - low or no interest repayable loans of typically no more than say R1,000 to kick-start micro-businesses.

The balance of reserves could be used to improve the existing TVET network of colleges, with revenues perhaps being used to provide additional relief to university undergraduates, taking the form of loans that are automatically converted to grants on passing each year’s curriculum. Failure requires repayment of the loan.

Will these ideas work? Are they creative? I am sure there are many people out there with lots of creative ideas on how we might alleviate the unemployment tragedy, so let’s start putting them on the table. Your start point is R13.85bn capital, and R14.1bn in annual revenues. An absolute certainty is that we have to stop spinning on the hamster-wheel of political inactivity and rhetoric, and jump onto the roller coaster ride of rapid job creation, so let’s get working on it.