Disc Dem

Disc Dem

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.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Please talk to me not @ me

Our current crop of politicians have yet to show even the smallest glimmer of the vision needed to take our country forward: EFF leadership can’t think beyond State ownership of everything, a socialist experiment that has failed spectacularly everywhere it has been tried. Their fallback position of promoting racial division indicates they also believe their Marxist/Leninist/Fanonian dogma is not receiving sufficient support from “the masses”, so it is unsurprising they have resorted to this more blatant populist platform. Dali Mpophu’s claim that their refusal to recognise Jacob Zuma is “visionary” also tells us a lot about the EFF’s capacity for original thinking. 

The somewhat schizophrenic DA still has to show they can envision solutions that don’t require them to run to court every time they hit a political challenge, and the divisions within their party that also appear to run along racial lines, are again indicative of a lack of visionary leadership. How can we believe they can heal the country when they can’t seem to manage this critical issue within the ranks of their own party?

The clearest signal that South Africa is devoid of visionary leadership came when Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk felt confident enough to re-emerge from relative obscurity to authoritatively tell us what is wrong with the country. Two former Presidents of the Republic taking the leadership vacuum as an opportunity to whitewash their own contributions to the Constitutional mess we find ourselves in today. 

While FW fully deserves the plaudits he earned for his display of courage in confronting right wing opposition to a democratic dispensation for South Africa, he spoiled it somewhat by leaving behind a legislatively defective Constitution that provided Jacob Zuma with all the loopholes he needed to capture the State. As for Thabo Mbeki, his perceived arrogance in 2007 was probably the most significant contributing factor towards Jacob Zuma’s rise to the Presidency. Can we really take them seriously?

A few days ago, while I was scrolling through on-line media posts pursuing a line of research into potential solutions to our current political conundrum, LM Radio played a song titled “Everybody’s Talking”. Written by Fred Niel in 1966, it was made famous by Harry Nilsson when used as a featured song in the 1969 movie “Midnight Cowboy” starring Dustin Hoffman and John Voight. 

Stopping what I was doing to listen, it struck me that the opening three lines of the song:  “Everybody's talking at me, I don't hear a word they're saying, only the echoes of my mind”, perfectly defines South Africa’s socio-political situation as reflected in mainstream media reports and on-line social media posts. It also stimulated a thought that perhaps a primary curse of the internet is that we are continually talking “@” each other and not “to” each other. This is especially true of politicians who are so focused on delivering their messages “@” us that they don’t listen, and they don’t listen because they don’t want to hear a contradictory word anyone says.  This intellectual affliction is also aligned with a tendency to only respond to the thoughts of likeminded individuals who simply serve to reinforce these messages without question or further debate. As a result, erroneous assumptions often become the entrenched foundation of misguided causes. 

The echoes of apartheid also stubbornly reverberate through these interchanges, echoes amplified and sometimes deliberately distorted by those very same politicians who have no vision beyond grabbing the levers of power in 2019. Their unchallenged and blinkered rhetoric is also primarily responsible for cementing the evil of racial stereotyping into our national psyche. 

Take a look at social media interchanges between politicians and their followers, or read the comments section of any politically charged article, and the frightening extent of racial stereotyping becomes clear - too many people believing that every White person is wealthy and racist and too many others thinking that every Black person is lazy and stupid. Both sides fomenting an unnecessary societal division based on mutual ignorance of each other’s real-world existence. 

The question therefore remains, who can we turn to for visionary leadership and guidance? Where are the leaders who are able to separate the facts from populist fiction for us within the current political and social cacophony? 

What is patently clear is that our answers do not lie within the political arena. Another imperative is that we stop talking at each other, and start talking to each other. While we can all identify what the problems are in South Africa, a major difficulty I have with the plethora of calls for a new national dialogue, whether from “yesterday’s men” or newly formed civil organisations, is that they all want to rush straight into discussing solutions without seemingly addressing the underlying causes.

My analytical background makes me want to shout out that bypassing causes and jumping straight into “quick-fix” solutions only results, at best, in temporary relief. Lasting solutions can only come from permanently fixing the cause, or causes of problems. The first step in this process is to admit that problems have generally recognisable causes and, in my view, this is where our politicoholics make their first mistake.  They will not admit there are problems with our Constitution, the basic foundation of our society. Many others will also say “What problems? We have the most advanced and admired Constitution in the world”, but look at the following example that follows a simple Problem/Cause/Solution approach, and then please tell me if you still think there are no problems.

Problem: Jacob Zuma remains President of the Republic, even though he has been judged by the highest court in the land to have broken his oath of office.

Cause: There are no defined penalties for breaching the Constitution. It relies entirely upon the integrity of the individual, or the conscience of Parliament.

Solution: Amend the Constitution to include defined sanctions for breach.  As we have not been able to rely on either the integrity of the individual or the conscience of parliament, the outcome must be taken out of their hands.

There are other legislative defects that need to be examined but when it comes to Constitutional issues, we could do worse than ask for advice from Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, and past Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. These two highly ethical individuals will know better than anyone where weaknesses lie in our Constitution.

However in my opinion our foremost priority is not only the need to force JZ to step down, it is to put an end to the seemingly endless cycle of poverty that many of our people face every day. It may seem attractive to take my land and redistribute it to the poorest of the poor, or tax me out of existence in order to hand over wads of cash, but if the recipients do not have the necessary education or skills to build on those handouts, it will end up being a short-term exercise in futility. Radical Economic Transformation can only ride on the back of an educated and skilled population.  So the problem within a problem is that we first need to radically transform the education system and, even if we do this tomorrow, it will still mean waiting at least another two or three generations before any benefits will start to filter through. We simply do not have that amount of time before the powder keg of poverty blows up in all our faces.

It is therefore a national imperative that we find innovative ways to bring presently unemployed people into the mainstream economy as quickly as possible while, in parallel, we rebuild the educational and skills programme needed for the future. I will share some ideas of how this might be achieved in a future post as this one is already too long!

In closing, we must keep in the forefront of our minds that we are all South Africans. You owe it to your children and grandchildren to build a prosperous and cohesive society that uses all its talents to ensure that no-one is excluded, or deprived of opportunity. I am really confident that if we bring the politicians to heel, there is sufficient goodwill and talent out there in civil society to make a positive contribution towards rediscovering the lost ethos of our “Rainbow Nation”.