October 30, 2004

Louis on the loose

Louis van Schoor, East London's most famous racist serial killer has been released from prison. I remember the horrific stories that used to fly around town about this ruthless man. He was notorious well before he was arrested (East London is a small place, after all).

I saw him once - he came to watch a rugby game at my school in 1992 just before he went to prison. I remember shuddering as I recognised him. He was sitting menacingly on the sideline, a giant of a man with a long flowing beard and dark, dark eyes. He was the epitome of evil.

To me, van Schoor represents the dark, ugly face of apartheid and what it can do to people. I hope there has been a change of heart in prison, but I'm doubtful. Some people, like Eugene Terreblanche, never change.

Only in Oxford

I've just been pulled over by the police...on my bicycle. I was winding my way up the road at midnight, well inebriated, when a guy in a lumo yellow jacket waved me over. Now I've come to learn that riding your bicycle while under the influence is a crimial offence in England, so I was rather nervous. The police officer said:

"I'd just like to congratulate you on having lights on both the front and the back [which I have], unlike the poor fellow behind you who is about to get a £30 fine. You are free to go."

And with a massive sigh of relief I meandered my way back home. The English police are so polite. Can you believe it?!! R340 for riding your bike without lights?!!! Geez. I'm glad I was only pissed.

October 27, 2004

COSATU kicked out of Zim

...but I just had to blog on this!

It seems that COSATU's fact-finding mission to Zim to report on their labour and human rights culture was not acceptable to the powers that be, so they kicked them out. Of coures, it's because they're working for Tony Blair! This has got to raise some eyebrows amongst South Africa's working class, many of whom still praise Mugabe as the hero of the people for his land redistribution programme - if they hear about it, that is. So far the only state response from the SA Department of Home Affairs is that it defends Zimbabwe's right to "determine and apply its own immigration laws as it may deem appropriate" - predictable. Though it seems COSATU is keen to put pressure on the government to react.

Still, it is amusing to see the DA jumping up and down to defend COSATU.


Apologies for the lack of posting, but this week is a bit insane work-wise. I have 30 000 (coherent) words to write by Monday, so writing in any form that is not my thesis is unjustifiable. Aish.

October 22, 2004

Home Affairs

This is quite funny.

October 21, 2004

Political Compass

I've just taken the Political Compass test pointed out at Vaz's Lube. It is an interesting test with some questions that really get you thinking about what you believe. I wasn't too surprised to come out as a way-out lefty with 8/10 on the economic scale and a 5/10 moderate libertarian on the social scale.

(Not to brag or anything, but as I scrolled down the page I was quite chuffed to see that the famous figure closest to me on the political compass was none other than Madiba himself!)

October 19, 2004

South African High Commissioner in Oxford

I have just attended a lecture by the South African High Commissioner to the UK (i.e. the South African ambassador), Ms Lindiwe Mabuza, and thought I’d share my impressions (sorry, this is going to be a long one…)

Most of the lecture was very boring and was aimed at patting the British on the back for all the help during the anti-apartheid struggle and describing all of the “10 Years of Democracy” celebrations held this year with “old friends”. Then she turned to talking about the issues facing South Africa and, quite surprisingly, decided to tackle the two issues of HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe head on. I suppose it was to pre-empt some prickly situations during question time.

On HIV/AIDS, she begun by saying that she needs to “dispel the myth” that President Mbeki ever doubted the link between HIV and AIDS. She said, straight out, that Mbeki never, ever made any “official statement” denying the link. Honest. I couldn’t believe it either. She then went on to describe how the government’s programme of nutrition provision was endorsed by the WHO, and how condoms are universally available in South African clinics. Not a word about anti-retrovirals.

On Zimbabwe, her comments were unsurprising. She stated that under no circumstances would South Africa ever militarily intervene in Zimbabwe or contemplate cutting off its electricity or any other resources - this was “quite frankly, illegal”. She promoted the use of the UN, the encouragement of the Zimbabwean people to sort out their own problems, and perhaps a quiet word to Mugabe from Mbeki because “they actually get on”.

The interesting bits came during question time. The first question, from a South African student, questioned that if Mbeki had never denied the link between HIV and AIDS, why had he never confirmed it? Surely the people of South Africa deserved this? She remained steadfast that Mbeki had been consistent in his views.

The second questioner, another young South African student, basically directly accused her of lying and quoted Mbeki out of a Time Magazine article saying that he doubted the link between HIV and AIDS. She brushed this off as not understanding how it related to his official stance, which is unchanged. His question to her was whether the South African government believed that the election that returned Mugabe to power in 2000 was “free and fair”. She replied that the observers only knew what they saw and what they saw indicated that that it was legitimate, so that was the government’s official position.

The third question, from me, was as follows:

“Given that you have said South African will never intervene militarily in Zimbabwe, and given that you said South Africa’s greatest challenges now relate to poverty, could you elaborate on the direct threat to our country that has prompted the government to spend more money on hi-tech weapons than it does on housing?”

[long silence]

High Commissioner’s response (as best I can remember):
“I cannot comment on how much government spends on housing, or health, or education, or whatever else... [pause]. We fought hard for our democracy, and now it must be protected. [and I’m thinking, “From whom?!!”]. We must protect it from attack. It can be attacked from anywhere…from the sea…you may have heard about some trawlers that were captured off the coast…”

[Another long pause during which she (and many others) just stares at me]

Chairman: “Is that all you are going to say?”

High Commissioner: “Yes, that’s all I’m going to say”

Super. All my fears of government corruption and crony capitalism seeping into the higher echelons of the liberation government have now been allayed. It is quite clear that we justifiably bought R66 billion (or more?) worth of jet fighters, submarines, Corvettes, and whatever else, so our fish will forever be safe from Taiwanese trawlers. Fantastic. I’ll sleep better tonight.

The rest of the questions were mostly from British ex-anti-apartheid movement people patting the government (and themselves) on the back for doing so much for South Africa, and asking what they could do to continue helping the government with its good work. Yawn.

It struck me that there may be a fundamental difference between the way that the “apartheid generation” and the youth of South Africa view the country and its issues. While the older generation constantly looks back to the struggle and how things have or have not changed, the new generation is looking forward. We are looking at current actions and decision that affect the future of our country. We speak out about the failures and the imperfections and we look positively towards solving them in the future.

Now I am the first person to say that apartheid should never be forgotten, and that its effects will continue to be felt in our country for many generations. However, the history of our country cannot act as a buffer with which those in power defer responsibility to act on current issues. We can relish in our history and our successes over the last 10 years, but don’t let self-congratulation get in the way of progress.

Achebe shuns Nigerian honour

I was interested to see this article about world-famous Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe. Achebe, who became famous for his insights into the impact of colonialism on African culture in Things Fall Apart, has turned to point the finger at the mess that has been created by his own country's government. He has rejected Nigeria's second highest honour as a "wake-up call" to the government, saying:

"Nigeria is a country that does not work:Schools, universities, roads, hospitals, water, the economy, security, life."

I really respect him for doing this. So often, 'Western' commentators point fingers at African countries, without really getting to grips with the challenges that the continent has to face. The legacy of colonialism and continued exploitation of Africa by the West, as well as the lack of responsibility they have for the consequences of any action taken, means that the authority of their voices is greatly reduced in the eyes of African politicians. So I think it is up to significant African figures like Achebe to stand up and do the pointing when it is clearly necessary. I hope African leaders sit up and take notice.

October 18, 2004

Quote for the day

“Only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding, can lead to discovery; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or programme, but straight from the heart.”
Albert Einstein

October 16, 2004

Low-cost banking coming to SA

It seems that all the banks are trying to break into the low-income market with the new Mzansi Account. It is a positive trend, but I still don't thinnk that banks are doing anything serious to alter their approach to the poor. To me, it seems like a PR excercise to attract more people to banking, rather than providing a product that actually helps.

October 15, 2004

How the poor get into debt

I recently got an email responding to my earlier posts about consumerism and debt. It came from a friend who's opinion I respect greatly and who is eminently qualified to comment on such matters. I have posted his extensive comments as I believe they provide a very valuable dignosis of the problem.

"Your column on consumerism is one where I am well positioned to give comment. I live in the deep, dark murky waters of credit to the underserved, and as such have observed several trends. There is no doubt that SA is overindebted, and the efforts to regulate this are getting dictated by big business. Here is basically how the poor are generated into a poor and over-indebted bunch with ruined credit records.

1) We have a large working class base, who cannot afford to buy all of the things the retailers want to sell them ( fancy clothes are as much a problem as the furniture and appliance pulls that you mention). Simple solution - give them credit - some of it is secured, but much of it is "on account", not h.p.

H.P. in itself is not particularly bad - I have no problem with it. In a place where a savings culture is non-existent and financial literacy is low, the only way these people will ever be able to afford this kind of stuff is through HP. And the interest rates are not too bad - prime + 5 I think is the max. The only place where HP goes wrong is in making sure that the people can actually afford the repayments on the stuff they buy, but that is common to all retailers(see below)

2)So the reatilers want to give credit - what are the criteria they use? First they check that they getting some sort of salary, and calculate the maximum the customer can afford. Then they check the credit bureau and make sure he is not bad. Then they give him the ability to spend up to the max of his "affordability" in their store. If he does not stop paying, they allow him to take more. On the surface this all looks fine and dandy. However there are several retail groups (Edgars, Foschini, Woolworths, Truworths etc) And they all do this. And many of them offer interest free periods so that you don't feel the pinch until 6 months down the line.

3) The result is that middle to lower class South Africans have on average 3-4 store cards - essentially credit cards. And because the stores do not take into acct lines of credit extended by other retailers when figuring out how much a person can afford to pay back, people end up with credit 3-4 times higher than they can realistically afford. In fact, if the person has credit with a competitor, the incentive is to give them as much, if not more, credit with yourself to encourage them to buy from you.

4) It would seem at this stage that the pack of cards would all fall down, and the retailers would lose a whole bunch of money, and wise up to their faults (most clothing is unsecured, and that is where credit is granted most freely). However, there are two things that push the spiral further out. Firstly the clothing guys are making 50-100% markup on the stuff they sell. This means they can absorb higher than normal losses on money lent, and financially still justify the sale. (give me a whiteboard, and half an hour to explain the nuts and bolts of this). Secondly, they contribute to the Credit Bureaus. If someone goes bad with one of the retailers, this goes to the bureau, and the common misconception is that they are "blacklisted" (which I suppose they sort of are). Their credit record takes a knock and their ability to ever get credit again is lost, and more importantly, they will lose their ability to buy clothes etc. So rather than face that, many of the people go and take microloans to pay the retailers.

5) Microlending is an alledgedly formalised and regulated industry - it is a space where the govt, in its infinite wisdom, decided to make an exception to the Usury Act (where limits of prime plus 5 are in place) and allow interest rates up to ten times prime (some actually charge more). You don't need me to expound on how this can become a problem, and trust me it is. You end up with 15% of the population getting charged "reasonable rates" for credit and then a massive chasm to the microlending sphere (60-120% a year on 24 month loans, cash loans up to 500% a year). At this point affordability of payments is regulated, and without the buffer of having made a packet on selling them clothes, it is actually in the lenders best interest to make sure the person can afford to pay them back.

6)However the damage is done, and trying to climb back up the credit ladder is also tricky - lenders only contribute negative info to the credit bureaus, so trying to rebuild a credit record is tough, and most of these people will have picked up a judgment or adverse with one of their accounts (12% of the adult SA pop has judgments, a process that is also seriously flawed).

Anyway, not sure how much of that you understood - my viewpoint is that the primary cause for the debt problem are the clothing retailers, and if their lending is not properly regulated, this problem is not going to go away. A new credit bill is being put through govt. now that should address this, but if it is going to impact the retailers, they will no doubt squash regulations that will inhibit them. To read up on the whole microlending/microsaving topic ( this also deals a lot with housing type stuff which should interest you) go to the Finmark trust web site."

I'll respond to this as soon as I have the time.

The forward French

Yesterday I was standing on the beach in Dover with France barely visible 30-odd kms away through the haze of the English Channel. Suddenly my cellphone beeped with an sms from a French cellphone network welcoming me to France! I presume this is because the French signal is stronger than the local UK signal. The Brits must be highly offended by this French invasion of their airwaves, particularly the people who live in the area. If I made a call would I have been charged an international rate? I wonder. This problem must be so much worse in continental Europe where you're never too far from a border and a potentially forward neighbour.

October 12, 2004

Local government in Africa

In state theory, debates on the local state revolve around the role and powers of the state, on the one hand, and the autonomy of the local state from the central state on the other. I have been looking into this latter question with regards to Africa and have come to the conclusion that autonomy of the local state is a function of the perceived political security of the central state.

Decentralisation of state power and functions to lower levels of government have accompanied the democratisation process the world over. This devolution of power is generally considered to be a positive process; many functions are achieved more efficiently at the local level, legitimacy is improved through increased representation and participation, and state interventions can be altered and negotiated to suit the local context. South Africa is in the process of empowering local state, but why is a strong local government not being created in the rest of Africa?

I believe it has to do with the wide-spread political instability in Africa. If powers are delegated to the local level within a decentralised democratic system, the local state is able, to a certain degree, to challenge the central state. I think it is true to say that in many African countries the most enlightened political involvement takes place in the cities and this is where challenges to corrupt regimes generally originate. Autocrats tend to get there power from lesser-educated rural majorities. So it makes perfect sense that politically unstable governments with a weak track record would want to withhold political and administrative power from the local government.

Zimbabwe is a good example of this. In 1980, Zim did what all other newly independent countries did and drew all the power to the central state to consolidate a fragile new nation. However, this caused a crisis in service delivery for the towns and cities, and in the late 1980s they had to make reforms to allow for the efficient running of the place. They developed a strong local government as a major element of their development strategy and Zim was praised for this bold step in the way of democracy. However, notice that this only happened after Mugabe had crushed the Ndebele and consolidated his power. He felt secure enough to release some power to the local state. Now jump forward to 2000 when ZANU-PF received a serious challenge for power from the MDC – mostly originating in Bulawayo and other urban centres. What does Mugabe do? He withdraws all the power to the central state: autocratic decisions start to be made and the cities fall into a crisis of service delivery.

South Africa is finally building a strong, developmental local government largely because the ANC no longer feels threatened by challenges from the local level. Most of Africa does not have this luxury. So I guess it is a Catch-22 situation. You need a politically secure central state to democratise local government, but you need this decentralisation to ensure legitimacy.

Happy happy

Yes, yes, it is my birthday today - happy 22!

October 10, 2004

Consumerism continued

When I re-read my post below, I remembered something that I read the other day. In 1994, negotiations were held at the National Housing Forum to determine the new national housing policy in South Africa. One of the arguments put forward for the mass delivery of formal 'RDP' housing was that if more people had proper homes, the demand for 'white goods' (fridges, stoves, microwaves, etc) would go up, thereby stimulating the local economy (this policy was subsequently adopted and implemented).

What kind of logic is this?!! Get the poorest of the poor, who can't even afford to provide shelter for themselves, to buy appliances they can't afford so that mysterious entity "the local economy" can benefit! Meanwhile the poor get in to bottomless debt and have to sell their houses. I would guess that one of the most common sources of bad debt and garnishee orders amongst the poor is the hire-purchase of furniture and 'white goods'. It probably right up there with cellphones. But how do you stop people buying things they can't afford? Well, I suppose you could start by not deliberately designing national policy to get people to spend money they don't have.

October 07, 2004

White guilt and privilege

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my pet interests is exploring issues of white guilt in South Africa. I read an interesting quote the other day that got me thinking on this topic once again:

"South Africa’s value system is changing, in ways largely independent of the mood of racial rapprochement and egalitarianism associated with the end of apartheid. These changes, including the consolidation of free-market ideology, the profit motive, privatisation and the commodification of popular culture, may work against the very values which the overthrow of apartheid was supposed to promote, instead exacerbating the individualistic hedonism characteristic of the privileged minority"

- DM Smith (1999) Social justice and the ethics of development in post-apartheid South Africa, Ethics, Vol. 2(2), pp 157-177.

I was chatting to a black colleague about two months ago when I was working at the City of Cape Town. We were discussing all things material: cars, cellphones, houses etc. It was fascinating for me to hear his perspective on wealth and materialism, coming from a completely different place from me. He told me that when he left school in the township and first went to Tech, that was the day he decided that he would never travel by train or by taxi ever again. He got himself into debt and bought a nice car. It was both a matter of pride and a determined desire never to go back to the conditions he had come from. And so he will never live in a township again. His goal in life is to drive a yellow Lamborghini – to be the first black guy in town to do so.

Then the conversation turned to me and he was rather surprised to hear that I don’t own a car, or a house, and I have a pretty basic cellphone. I explained that I didn’t really need a car right now, but that I will probably need one next year. “With the salary you’ll be getting, you could easily afford [payments for] a new Golf or something”, he assured me. “Actually, I’ll probably just get a second-hand Tazz”, I replied. He was shocked.

There is a fundamental difference to the way we view wealth, and it has, for me, a lot to do with white guilt. You see, for him wealth and status symbols represent accessing opportunities that were formerly deprived of him, his family and his ‘people’ (his term, not mine). This is a totally understandable position. On the other hand, as a self-consciously white South African I am embarrassed by outward displays of wealth. I feel that so much of white South Africa’s prosperity has been (and still is) gained at the expense of South Africans of colour, that flaunting it is a bit crass. The continuing inequality in South Africa also means that these displays fuel the feelings of resentment that the poor still have against whites. That so many whites can shamelessly celebrate their wealth, in my opinion, indicates how they blissfully choose to ignore the realities in our country. It is fairly simple to link white wealth to our privileged position in society. Our wealth is, in most cases, gained from inheritance or attributable to the social capital that was afforded to us through access to superior education and job opportunities. You cannot simply argue that apartheid is now over and everyone now has equal opportunities.

This rambling post may seem to be a bit of self-flagellation, or a hypocritical attempt to shun materialism, but it is all part of a process of coming to terms with what it means to be a white South Africa and about finding a place in our society. I am also not judging those previously disadvantaged South Africans who are embracing the opportunities to accumulate wealth. However, I have seen what damage a consumerist culture can do and the dangers of debt in a materialist world are real and potentially life-destroying. The “individualistic hedonism” referred to in the quote above is certainly not a positive force in our country.

The myth of the black Oppenheimers

Great article from Jeremy Cronin in the Mail & Guardian (subscription required). He argues that the only reason why white big business is pushing for the establishment of a black elite (such as through BEE deals) is so that they can sell the capitalist ideals to the government. They can sell the idea that "cold, marketplace logic" should supersede political social agendas. A de-racialised boardroom means that one can forget the means through which South Africa gained its wealth. I believe that to be true, but would also argue that the government has wholeheartedly adopted capitalist ideals already; very little persuasion is required. Not so, eh Cyril?

October 06, 2004

South African outlooks

I found this photo essay on the BBC website. It gives the comments of eight South Africans on how life has changed after a decade of democracy. Of course an anecdotal snapshot like this can never be representative and could be biased in so many ways. I thought the BBC did a fair job of trying to get a wide range of perspectives. I can relate to all the people and where they are coming from, but I was a bit disappointed that the outlook was not a bit more positive. Then again, I guess my overly-rosy, highly enthusiastic perspective on South Africa is somewhat atypical. I often fool myself in to thinking that it is not.

October 03, 2004

Quote for the day

"When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'let us close our eyes and pray'. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land."
- Desmond Tutu

100 Greatest South Africans

Rethabile at On Lesotho has posted about the results of the SABC's recent poll to determine the 100 Greatest South Africans. I agree with him, and with Max du Preez - it was an opportunity lost. The list is a joke with Hedrik Verwoerd, Steve Hofmeyer, PW Botha, Alan Boesak and Jeremy Mansfield (!) cracking the nod. Meanwhile, people like JM Coetzee, Moshoeshoe I and Braam Fischer don't make it in. Unbelievable.

What makes this a fascinating, if disappointing, exercise, is the amazing mix of people on the list. The juxtapositions are so ironic, for example: Chris Hani next to Hendrik Verwoerd, Steve Hofmeyer sandwiched between Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, Eugene Terreblanche next to (and above) Helen Suzman, and Mamphela Ramphele next to Cecil Rhodes. For me, the greatest point that this list proves is that the diversity in South Africa is, at present, far from unifying - as claimed on our national coat of arms - and we still have a long way to go before South Africans can identify around common cultural icons.