Monday, April 19, 2010

On a united opposition and direct representation

Cope parliamentary leader Mvume Dandala.

IT is time for all non-racial opposition parties to unite against the ANC ahead of the next municipal elections in 2011. Doing away with the party-dominated proportional representation system would be a bonus.

I submitted this letter to the Sunday Times on the issue. What are the chances of it being used? Very slim, I’d guess, if Winnie Mandela submits another tome like the one they ran on Sunday, which took up nearly half the available space.

Anyway, here is the piece I’ve submitted (and it was in fact used):

THE problems raised by Eusebius McKaiser can be partially ascribed to our political system of proportional representation (“National debate? More like the clash of ignorant armies”, Sunday Times, April 18).

If there is one thing the “old South Africa” was good at it was debates in parliament. Who will ever forget the courageous one-woman stand of Helen Suzman against apartheid? And when the Progressive Federal Party was formed, people like Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine joined her in exposing the worst excesses of that system.

The bottom line was that each MP first had to win election by a specific constituency. This meant a personal election campaign against one or more opponents from other parties. If elected, he or she was accountable to a specific geographical constituency, and also, of course, to the party they stood for.

There are drawbacks to this “first past the post” system of direct representation, including the marginalisation of smaller parties, but the positives are huge.

Instead of MPs being entirely beholden to the party whip, each has his or her own powerbase, the constituency which they represent. They can even resign and stand for election as independents should the party not be happy with them.

But in the current system each party, and the massive ANC majority makes this pivotal, chooses a list of candidates, and the less independent-minded you are, the higher up on the list your party bosses are likely to place you. Blind loyalty to the party, irrespective of morality, is the requirement. Which is why, especially in the ANC, there is a dearth of leadership figures. No-one is willing to risk his or her political future by, for instance, challenging the party line – under Mbeki’s reign – on Zimbabwe and Aids. Today, no-one in the ANC will challenge the Zuma regime on the widespread corruption and nepotism we see around us.

Indeed, such corruption seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. While service delivery fails and town and city infrastructure crumbles, the incidents of ANC politicians and their friends using their positions to fill their purses is steadily on the increase. The latest example, following Armsgate, is what one could call Eskomgate, in which the ANC investment arm, Chancellor House, stands to siphon off billions to the ANC’s coffers through a form of insider trading in the construction of a new power station.

Imagine an election based entirely on constituencies? You might even get people interested in politics again, with meetings held in halls in each constituency as candidates try to woo voters. You may even see your candidate walking the streets and knocking on doors, canvassing for support. Today all we have are those stage-managed tours of the country before each election by the party leadership.

I’m not hankering for the past, having personally worked with the PFP in my youth in a bid to rid this country of apartheid. But I do think that the old system of direct representation gave our politics more character and meaning. The debates in parliament today are pretty much charades, as the ANC, with its huge majority, steamrollers legislation through while, at best ignoring, if not openly disparaging the opposition. How else does one interpret Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s treatment of Cope leader Mvume Dandala, when he tabled a motion of no-confidence?

While McKaiser says her attitude shows “either a basic lack of understanding about the rules of parliament, or a pernicious attempt to ignore them”, I believe at heart our proportional representation political system is to blame. There is something reassuringly humbling about the old way in which MPs were identified as “the member for Durban North”, or whatever. It gave the debates a sense of context. Sisulu may be a minister, but she should also have a constituency, where voters can actually vote her out of office if they are dissatisfied with how she performs. And, given her treatment of the Reverend Dandala, a gracious, caring man, I believe most people, even in the heart of Soweto, are downright unhappy with how she has used her position to disparage him and his party.

It is surely high time that Cope, for all its unpleasant links with the Mbeki past, joined forces with the DA to give the ANC a real run for its money. With the help of the IFP and the Independent Democrats, this grouping could surely win several ANC-held municipalities in next year’s municipal election.

And at least in local government elections there is greater accountability, with candidates standing in actual geographical wards, although some councillors are still appointed on a PR list.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Can Democratic Alliance stop the slide?

Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille. Does her party hold the key to a successful future for South Africa?

IN speaking truth to power, it is not just to the very powerful that we must look.

In reality, more power is often wielded by politicians at a local level. Consider, for instance, how during the Nazi occupation of Europe it was mean, evil apparatchiks at town, even village level, who were responsible for some of the most horrendous atrocities.

Similarly, during the Rwanda genocide, it took only one evil madman with political clout to turn an entire village into a gang of marauding murderers.

I’m not suggesting we in South Africa have reached that point yet, although the attacks on exiles a few years back suggests there is a thin veneer of respectability that can very easily be stripped away.

How to keep things together? How to ensure that the centre holds, and things don’t fall apart? That is the key issue, and it is ironic that in 2010 we have probably seen, at a seemingly trivial level, just ahead of the World Cup, very real signs of the ANC-run municipality in Port Elizabeth allowing things to simply run down.

It is as if they don’t have the will to do the basics right anymore. With a drought threatening the very existence of the city, there are regular reports of people informing the authorities about massively wasteful water leaks, and nothing gets done about it. For days, millions of litres of water are squandered.

We have had ongoing examples of our traffic officers failing to do their work. They are rarely seen – except when barricading freeways in protest over some or other pay dispute. Minibus taxis, whose drivers are rarely brought to book, have become a law unto themselves, breaking every rule of the road with impunity.

Streets with a story

Just some of the gutters in Port Elizabeth where leaves are accumulating. In many, weeds and grass have taken a foothold, as the municipality seems to have stopped caring about maintenance of our infrastructure.

Alfred Terrace in Central, Port Elizabeth, back in the days when gutters were kept clean and some of our key heritage buildings hadn't been allowed to fall into disrepair by cynical, uncaring property speculators.

Okay I know there’s a drought on, so the beautification plans in terms of public gardens are pretty much on hold. But there can be no excuse for the neglect of such basic services as sweeping gutters and weeding sidewalks. It is not only about beautifying the city ahead of the Cup. The city’s gutters are filled with leaves and twigs, in which weeds and grass are establishing major footholds. In time, the infestation will be such that weeds and grass start to crack up both gutters and tarred roads.

Then, of course, when the heavy rains finally come, flooding will ensue as all that detritus in the gutters is finally washed down into the storm water drains, blocking them.

The new regime seems to be largely oblivious of the need to perform ongoing maintenance of the generally fine infrastructure bequeathed to it after 1994. But the rot has only really set in this year in terms of this city’s gutters. In the past, the municipality employed street sweepers, hundreds of them, apparently on a fairly informal basis. Then some bigwigs in Cosatu decided the fact that such people were employed through labour brokers was wrong. These, Cosatu argued, aren’t “proper” jobs, so let’s do away with them. So hundreds lost their jobs, and we no longer see men sweeping those gutters and preventing the growth of weeds. The result: general decay. Okay, sure, a few weeks ago a big yellow machine came past our house and suctioned up some of the matter lying in the gutters. But this is no substitute for manual labour; for a person physically cleaning gutters and removing weeds.

So, at a time when we are supposed to be labour-intensive, a Cosatu demand has seen a machine or two take over the work of hundreds – and of course fail to do the job properly.

A week’s light, but steady rain in the city has now also left a legacy of grass verges and traffic islands that are starting to resemble small jungles. One wonders where the municipal employees all are.

Oh yes, I’ve just remembered. They’re all on strike – though often it’s hard to tell these days. Except, of course, that the black bags pile up and are split open by dogs and vagrants, waiting for the next cold front to bring a gale which will spread the waste matter far and wide. Which makes you wonder why people are so foolish as to put out their rubbish for collection when they know – if they read their newspaper or watch telly – that a strike is on.

There is a national local government election next year. Most of the people who pay rates in our towns and cities probably support the opposition Democratic Alliance. The majority who don’t pay, or pay very little, vote ANC, which then takes those rates and either wastes them on parties and perks, or uses them to subsidise the free electricity and water which “indigent” township dwellers receive.

One would not wish to see poor people deprived of these handouts because, like pensions and grants, they provide the livelihoods on which so many depend.

However, I believe – as Cape Town and the Western Cape have shown – it would be wise to vote into power people who represent those who actually pay the rates that keep cities running. At the moment the ANC operates in a vacuum where they do as they please with money largely provided by people who did not vote for them. If all Cope and other opposition supporters simply voted DA, we might see other cities again start being run properly.

Just a thought.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Putting Pinky in her place

The Chapman, one of the ships which brought the 1820 Settlers to South Africa from Britain. About 5000 settlers arrived in Algoa Bay that year. Now, 190 years later, their impact and that of their descendants on the development of South Africa, is evident across the country.

Speaking truth to power

IN speaking truth to power, it is not only politicians one must consider as having a major influence on the affairs of state. Consider the impact which a misguided columnist in a newspaper with a readership of over four million has.

I have submitted the first seven paragraphs of this article to the Sunday Times for publication. What are the chances they will use the piece? Anyway, herewith my entire argument in response to what I consider a decidedly slanted bit of journalism.

Putting Pinky in her place

EVEN as she seeks to condemn racism, Sunday Times columnist Pinky Khoabane actively endorses anti-white racism. In “Mr President, don’t condone the racists” (April 11), she quotes from a report in The Economist which apparently said “only a quarter of black people accounted for the 4% richest people in this country”.

She adds that whites “still account for three-quarters of senior positions in the work place. Of the 295 companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, only 4% have black chief executive officers”. “In short, Mr President” she concludes in her open letter to Jacob Zuma, “it is business as usual for whites in this country.”

Isn’t it time black people started thanking their lucky stars there are still skilled white people willing to invest their lives and futures in a country where they are continually disparaged? I would suggest Khoabane should be grateful that white people are still around to make this economy work. Does she not realise what would happen if four million white people got up and left? This place would fall apart. If things look a little threadbare now, after 16 years of ANC rule, imagine how bad they’d be had the racists got their way completely and all whites had emigrated.

Colonialism was a global reality. It happened over hundreds of years around the world. And it wasn’t all bad.

Where would this country have been without the skills and expertise the European immigrants brought with them? Where would this country be without the first-world trade and business links (think mining, medicine, industry, agriculture) the settlers brought with them? A simple “tour” of South Africa via Google Earth shows you the template of some 350 years of partnership between white and black in this country. It is an awesome achievement.

European settlers may have, as they did around the world, subjugated the local population, but they also ensured that today we have a relatively advanced economy on the tip of a continent which generally is desperately poor.

So instead of ranting against the role of whites, Khoabane should be counting her blessings they are still here, keeping businesses afloat and competitive in a tough global economy. Indeed, she should actively campaign for the scrapping of BEE, affirmative action and the Employment Equity Act, which openly discriminate against white people and, I am sure, are contrary to the UN’s human rights clauses.

Khoabane should be less concerned about the colour of those at the top of the business pile than about what is becoming of those areas now run predominantly by black South Africans – namely the public sector. It is no secret that service delivery has been atrocious over the past decade, with many municipalities crumbling under a sea of leaking sewage, pot-holed roads, failing water purification plants, weed-riddled pavements and gutters and widespread corruption and ineptitude. If the former white suburbs are looking bad, I hate to think how the townships are faring.

Black people should embrace their white compatriates and get the ANC to scrap immediately the clause in the bill of rights of the Constitution which allows for so-called “fair discrimination” in favour of the “previously disadvantaged”. I kid you not, there is such a clause which is used to justify all those racist, anti-white laws which everyone so blithely accepts in the name of “redressing” the inequities of the past.

This is Africa. Three quarters of the continent live in poverty. If the ANC want this country to join the likes of Zimbabwe as a failed state, then carry on complaining like Khoabane is doing about whites who successfully run profitable businesses. Where are the great new enterprises started by skilled black people during one of the longest periods of economic growth in our modern history just prior to the current recession? I’m not talking about all the suits in boardrooms who got there on the strength of their colour and BEE/AA/EEA. I’m talking about real entrepreneurship.

Creating wealth is not easy. Like Khoabane, I am a mere journalist. We are in second-tier jobs, arising from the establishment of cities by the original generators of wealth in commerce, industry and agriculture. I suggest she, and ANC cadres generally, humble themselves and look at what it takes to run a successful farm or factory, hospital or airport, you name it, before they condemn those who do so because they happen to be white.

They might discover that it is easier to criticise than it is to put in the long hours of hard work which are a prerequisite for such enterprises to succeed.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A trip for Malema

A section of the many citrus orchards at Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape.

THERE is a very humbling experience which every South African politician, but especially those from the ANC, needs to go through. But before I divulge what it is, a bit of background.

It is all too easy for those in power to become isolated from “the people” – to ignore the role played by that august body of humanity who constitute our nation.

These are the folk whose everyday lives ensure that the economy keeps on rolling, and it is with their taxes that the politicians and their vast hordes of hangers-on are paid.

I think, in particular, of the likes of Julius Malema, president of the ANC Youth League, who loves to sing a “struggle song” which exhorts his followers to “shoot the boer”. Of course this is not far removed from President Jacob Zuma’s song in which he calls for his machine gun.

Before divulging the full nature of the “humbling experience” I believe the likes of Malema and Zuma should be subjected to, let’s for a moment consider Malema’s credentials as a struggle veteran. You cannot tell me that a man aged 29 was part of “the struggle”. He would have been about nine when Madiba was freed, and 13 when democracy arrived.

But judging from his recent outbursts in Zimbabwe it is clear Malema believes “aluta continua”, and that the struggle aims will only have been achieved once everything owned by white South Africans has been nationalised. He wants to “take” white-owned farms and “give” them to black people. The same applies to mines and, no doubt, all businesses and, eventually all private property. Makes you wonder why he isn’t the Communist Party’s biggest hero, since this surely will be a socialist utopia.

Or will it?

Malema obviously has not followed the course of events in Zimbabwe over the past 10 years. The former Rhodesia was once a prosperous nation, with a strong agriculture sector built around its commercial farmers, making it the envy of many and the breadbasket of the region.

Once the white-owned farms were seized and ceased to be productive, the economy simply imploded.

But let’s return to that vision Malema has, whereby white farms are, to use a Zanu-PF term, “indiginised” – which of course ignores the fact that many whites in that country had roots going back several generations to those who established the then Rhodesia in the late 19th century. In this country most of the “boers” – Afrikaners – can trace their African heritage back to not long after Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape in 1652. That’s over 350 years.

For many English-speaking whites, me included, our African presence dates back to the 19th century, with 5000 settlers having arrived from Britain in 1820.

But, of course, for the likes of Malema this attachment to South Africa is irrelevant – except in so far as it “proves” that this influx of settlers, which over the centuries has seen over four million people of European extraction come to live in South Africa, only did obnoxious things: like exploit and pillage the locals.

As someone who grew up opposing apartheid, I am the last to defend the way black South Africans were treated, especially under apartheid after 1948, when our leaders should have known better. But the colonisation of this country was part of a global phenomenon. It may not have been moral, but it happened in various ways around the world as European nations flexed their muscles. We have now to decide whether our joint futures should forever be determined by which “side” of the colonial divide we are perceived to be a part, or whether we can look beyond our differences to a joint nationhood.

Surely, with a black government having now been in power for 16 years, we need to work together to build this country and create masses of new jobs to reduce unemployment and tackle poverty, thereby hopefully reducing crime.

Which brings me back to that humbling experience. It is a simple process – in my case thanks to having finally acquired unlimited home-based internet access.

I challenge Malema, Zuma and all the other ANC leaders to get onto Google Earth and simply explore this great land of ours.

I started by trying to find the dams built before the advent of democracy to supply Port Elizabeth’s water needs. I found the Kouga dam amid spectacular mountains in the Baviaanskloof area. I also noticed that along the river were incredible irrigated farmlands, a delicate patchwork of rectangles and perfect circles – which look so impressive from the air.

Then I moved to the Kirkwood area, and was flabbergasted at just how many separate orchards full of citrus trees there are along the Sundays River valley.

I traced the canal which was built to supply irrigation water to these farms, and then travelled inland up the river into the Karoo. I was startled by just how many perfectly laid out farms, all meticulously surveyed, flank this river. In fact, virtually every river, every small tributary, that I looked at showed evidence of how enterprising farmers have used their expertise, and determination, to grow food on a commercial basis. Elsewhere, larger farms are home to livestock – dairy, beef, wool, mohair, mutton ...

The landmark Teebus and Koffiebus koppies near Steynsburg in the Karoo, with irrigated lands nearby.

I “travelled” north, to the Gariep dam, built in 1971 at the height of apartheid. It is an impressive expanse of water, and some of it is tapped, via the 82.8km Orange-Fish River Tunnel (opened in 1975) under the Suurberg mountain plateau to a place called Teebus near Steynsburg. According to Wikipedia, it is the longest continuous enclosed aqueduct in the southern hemisphere and the third-longest water supply tunnel in the world. It has a diameter of 5.3 metres and ranges in depth from 80 metres to 380 metres. Construction started in 1966 and the tunnel opened in 1975. Wikipedia says when the tunnel was completed “it was the longest continuous enclosed aqueduct in the southern hemisphere and the second-longest water supply tunnel in the world”.

Anyway, from Teebus, the Orange River water travels along various rivers till it reaches the Sundays River valley canal system. And we in Port Elizabeth, in turn, draw water from there to supplement our dwindling supplies from the dams to our west.

I also took myself into the Western Cape winelands and wheatlands, to the sprawling maize fields of the Free State ...

It is in the rural heartland of this country that you discover why it is so great. Destroy this, and like Zimbabwe you cut off its lifeblood.

Now I am not citing all this as a form of white boasting. Throughout our history, things have been built jointly between white and black. The partnership may not always have been equal, just or fair, but in the end this country was developed to be the relative African powerhouse it is today.

What I hope such a virtual tour of this country might give our ANC leaders is a sense of perspective. The message it sends me, who can stake no claim to have contributed to such marvels, is that there is so much to aspire to if our young people acquire an education and the skills needed to participate in our economy.

I remember watching a schools rugby match last year on SuperSport between two agricultural colleges, Marlow from Cradock, and the other from Riviersonderend. What saddened me was there was hardly a black face to be seen – either on the stands or in the teams.

If black people are to become fully integrated into this country’s economy, they need to acquire the relevant skills to do so – not simply hope to get there on the back of BEE, affirmative action and employment equity laws. These artificial bits of social engineering have inculcated an instant-riches syndrome which is bedevelling our future.

Had the ANC adopted the view at the outset that people should be given a sound education, instead of experimenting for 15 years with unworkable outcomes-based education, the process of broad-based black upliftment would by now have been firmly established.

Tragically, a handful of connected cadres have got filthy rich, often only thanks to widespread corruption and nepotism, while millions still wallow in poverty. The hoped-for broad black middle class has not become the force many had hoped for.

A first-world economy, as this Google Earth tour of South Africa’s agricultural heartland shows, is a hugely complex thing. And there is no easy entree to its fruits – you need to acquire the relevant skills and then commit yourself to a lifetime of hard work in order to achieve your dreams.

But instant, race-based gratification of the Robert Mugabe and Julius Malema variety is a recipe for disaster.