May 26, 2004

Circumcision Caucus

A meeting of traditional leaders is being held in Cape Town to discuss the issue of circucision. It will be very interesting to see what the result is for a number of reasons. Firstly, it represents a clash of traditional values and culture versus the technology and ‘arrogance’ of Western medicine and ideas. Secondly, the fact that the situation has got out of control is an indication of the declining power of these leaders in their areas – not being able to regulate the intiation schools and practices. I hope a compromise can be found in which traditional culture can be maintained without endangering the lives of the initiates.


It was interesting to see the SABC News screening an insert on Monday night that was harshly critical of the national Health Department for holding up R1 billion of AIDS funding. Then last night they reported that Minister Tshablala-Msimang flatly denied that this was the case and would be writing a letter to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria telling them off. What has been achieved, however, is that now everybody knows about the allegations, and if Tshablala-Msimang is going to deny it, she is going to have to prove it. Well done to the SABC.

Here’s an interesting article on the vuvuzela – the official instrument of soccer, and (I’m guessing) soon to be of South Africa. I live next to Newlands Stadium and I have to say that these things really bugged me at first. But in chorus, they’re actually quite cool and sound like a swarm of bees, not to mention the fact that the’re helluva satisfying to blast. Now I’ve got my own one; do you?

Mad Bob

Thanks to Gauteng Blog for pointing this out. Calling Tutu “an angry, evil and embittered little bishop” has got to be the most ridiculous thing Mugabe’s ever said. Surely people have got to see that he’s finally gone nuts.

Privatisation Reply

Well, well, it seems that my anti-privatisation post seems to have caused quite a stir. It seems like even a hint of socialist thought unsettles (threatens?) much of the right-wing discussion in this bloggosphere. It needed a bit of dilution anyway. I am going to try and avoid turing this into a war of words between myself and the guys at Commentary, so I’ll just clarify some things and move on.

Yes, Laurence, you are a capitalist and I am a socialist. I think anyone reading this would have figured this out. Lets move on then, shall we. It is a pity that Laurence doesn’t share Wayne’s economic logic, so I’ll focus my comments on Wayne’s post.

My issue with economic growth not necessarily meaning an improvement in living standards needs to be qualified. I meant an improvement in the lives of the majority of South Africans, who happen to be poor and earn only a fraction of the country’s GDP. The question is how you measure an increase in the standard of living. If it is by per capita income, then that hides any amount of inequality. A true measure of increase in living standards can only be made by using a whole range of qualitative and quantitative variables, over and above income, like social security, personal security, access to resources, relative inequality, access to employment, etc.

So if the rich are getting richer, with a simultaneous growth in the Gini coefficient, then we are no better off than when we started. My argument is simple. One can have economic growth without the improvement in the living standard of the poor (yes, even if the growth is higher than the population growth) and one can have an improvement in the standard of living of the poor without major economic growth – but in order to achieve this one needs to follow a socialist economic model.

It seems we do agree on a couple of issues: firstly, that some state functions should remain in the public sector. Wayne suggests public education and health care as well as “some form of minimal welfare system”. To this, and he would probably disagree, I would add service utilities, housing (I will write more about this another time) and transport networks that serve the lowest economic group. This excludes SAA which serves an elite group and as such should not be state-owned. I also agree with Wayne and StrawDog that Telkom is inefficient and its monopoly needs to be broken. Fortunately the government is showing signs of backing down on that one.

The final point on which we agree is that some sort of a compromise needs to be made to avoid the nonsensical blowing of hot air from the extremes of the political spectrum. That was the main issue I was dealing with in my previous post – that right-wingers are so keen to jump up and shout as soon as privatisation gets raised without looking at some valid reasons for public assets. In the same light, lefties like me get all hot under the collar as soon as they hear the trigger word “privatisation”. I’ve enjoyed the healthy debate and now we all know where we stand. Now we can wait and see what happens to Transnet and whether Spoornet can get their act together before the 2010 World Cup.

May 21, 2004

Privatisation bollocks

A couple of days ago, Wayne Wides at Commentary.co.za wrote about the inefficiency of state corporations and felt it necessary to perpetuate the privatisation myth. He is completely entitled to his opinion, but in the same vein, the word “privatisation” moves me to counter this narrow view.

Wayne writes that:

“the extensive strangehold such corporations hold on the asset base of the country retards economic growth. This ultimately prevents a faster increase in per capita incomes, as well job growth in the private sector.”

Let’s just examine the assumptions behind this statement. It is assumed that Privatisation = efficiency = higher profits = economic growth = higher per capita income = good news for everyone.

While I will not dispute the fact that state corporations may be inefficient, they serve other purposes as well. These sectors can be classified as “strategic” (the reason why the apartheid state retained a stranglehold over Iskor, Eskom and Sasol) and thus can be used for the states advantage and protection. The reasons for this are obvious, but South Africa’s bargaining power gained through selling electricity to the rest of Africa illustrates this well enough. This power is lost through privatisation.

The biggest issue I have here is the assumption hidden behind the words “per capita income”. Higher profits in the private sector mean bonuses for top management, increase in share price and perhaps higher dividend payouts for shareholders (while higher turnover does mean an increase in state revenue through taxes, if you are in the right wing camp you will probably be arguing for tax cuts at the same time). The fact that when these income gains are averaged out across the entire population, a higher “per capita” figure is produced, is the biggest lie of capitalist development theory. The simple truth is that the rich get richer and the poor get left out. But then again, with the individualistic outlook of the liberal capitalist that wouldn’t really matter now, would it?

Even though I don’t believe the case for privatisation has ever been valid, it is particularly not the case in South Africa at present. The government’s extended capital works program relies heavily on these agencies, parastatals and its internal departments to provide jobs that are not necessarily in the best interests of capital and profit. What are the first steps that would be taken if these corporations became private? Management would “rationalise” the workforce replacing labour with capital wherever possible and causualising the unskilled workforce to cut costs and avoid union action. They would then be able to outsource contracts and even top management positions to foreign companies. Great news for South Africa’s unemployed. Utilities would stop providing free services to the indigent because there are no profits to be had and no incentives to maintain these services. Experience of privatisation in South America has shown this time and time again and the South African experience of privatising Gauteng’s water supply to Rand Water echoes this. Great news for South Africa’s poor.

It is rather sad that people can cling on to the debunked philosophy of “trickle-down” economics just because it serves their interests and preserves the status quo. Economic growth does not equal a general improvement in the standard of living. The government’s realisation that it does not work in a country with gross inequality is evident through its shift from the principles of GEAR towards is People’s Contract for large-scale employment. Knee-jerk reactions to support privatisation just because you subscribe to neo-liberal economic dogma are not particularly helpful: open your eyes to the context.

Taxi Transformation

A while ago I wrote quite a cynical post taking a cheap shot at taxi drivers in Cape Town. I know have an entirely different perspective.

Until two weeks ago I’d never been on a minibus taxi. An American friend of mine was visiting and, as I don’t have a car, I decided to give him (and me) a truly South African experience and catch a taxi into town. We both found it incredibly efficient and enjoyable. The gaardjie (the guy who shouts out the window and collects money) was incredible to watch. Between soliciting business he was rearranging people in their seats according to where one was getting out, collecting money, remembering exactly who was going where and whether the had paid, and even helping passengers carry their shopping bags and children. I am ashamed of being a neurotic whitey and never having used them before. I now catch a taxi to and from work every day. I get picked up right outside my house and taken to within 100m of my work – a 10km journey that costs R4! What a deal! I’ll never hoot and swear at another taxi again.

May 18, 2004

Just added Gauteng Blog to my links - interesting stuff. Who needs to surf the net when you've got guys like this trawling for useless information - keep it coming!

May 17, 2004

Proudly South African

Anyone watching a lot of South African TV over the last month or two will have noticed the significant increase in “Positive South Africa” advertising. These have undoubtedly been stimulated by the landmark events of 10 years of democracy and the World Cup bid. The cynics may label this opportunistic advertising, but I think it’s great. Almost every night one sees those spine-tingling ads that used to be the restricted to Castle Lager, and that made one proud to be South African. From the big business ads of Telkom and Eskom, to an SABC Education insert on the origin of the SA flag, to an inspiring clip from the Marketing Board of South Africa, and even a rather surprising ad from the Ministry of Intelligence reminding us that SA is much safer than it could be – it’s all very positive stuff. South African advertising has long been up there with the best in the world and that it has turned to make a positive contribution to perceptions in this country gives even more kudos to them.

UPDATE: Anyone who saw Thabo Mbeki’s response to winning the World Cup bid on Tuesday night in between “The Weakest Link” will see what I’m talking about. You can hardly call yourself South African if it didn’t move you. For the full text of Mbeki's epic speech "Iam an African" read during the ad, check out fodder and CherryFlava

Tampering with Transparency

Farrel comments on the ANC’s appointment of an ANC member of parliament to chair the Standing Committee on Public accounts (SCOPA). I must agree with Max du Preez, writing in The Star last week, that this is a clear example of the ANC's growing authoritarianism. The ANC provides a weak retort, claiming that two terms of an opposition party chair does not constitute a tradition, and that there is no evidence to suggest an opposition chair would be any more non-partisan than a member of the ANC.

I have no problem with the ANC gaining 70% of the public’s free and fair vote, but clamping down on transparency in public spending is questionable to say the least. In addition they appointed Vincent Smith, the man who allegedly prevented SCOPA from ever providing clarity on the arms fiasco – undeniably the biggest misuse of public funds to date. Smith’s appointment gets added to that of the Public Protector, the National Director of Public Prosecutions, the South African Revenue Service Commissioner and Secretary to Parliament as posts filled by ANC affiliates. Surely Mbeki must have foreseen that this was going to cause an uproar amongst the opposition, so what message is he trying to convey? That the internal dealings of the ANC and the government are nobody else’s business? That the end of social upliftment justifies the means, no matter how many back-handers are involved? Even if, as the ANC claims, the appointments that were “filled in accordance with the relevant procedure, consistent with the law and constitution of the Republic of South Africa”, a little transparency wouldn’t hurt in order to promote political goodwill from the opposition.

African Asylum

Fodder provides a convincing argument as to why Jean-Bertrand Aristide should be granted asylum in South Africa, provided a number of conditions apply. What is not questioned, however, are Mbeki’s motives in accepting Aristide, and indeed, in getting involved with him in the first place. It is all part of Mbeki’s growing Africanist agenda: promoting solidarity amongst African nations (which, somewhat questionably, includes Haiti). Thus, what worries me is not whether Aristide stays in South Africa indefinitely or not, but what further lengths Mbeki might go to, and what kind of denial be led into regarding the character of certain African leaders, before the African Renaissance implodes from the rot of cronyism.