Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Development & effective delivery requires cooperation between social partners

Government should be doing more to enrol civil society as it struggles to overcome massive backlogs and a surge of new demands for delivery of services.

Government policy frameworks and the constitution require that government meets a wide range of basic human needs or – if it cannot do so immediately – produce plans for their progressive realisation. In addition to socio-economic services, government also has the obligation to ensure access to justice, community participation in shaping society and the effective functioning of democratic systems.

In a developing country context, it is a heavy load for government to carry, even if government was working well on all fronts.

Civil society organisations such as NGOs and CBOs represent a national resource. They are as much a part of South African fabric as the new government, and in their work and existence preceded the democratic government. Most want to see changes in people’s lives – and are prepared to work to bring it about. They can play a bigger role in advancing development objectives.

There are those on opposite ends of the spectrum who will not be in favour of government and civil society organisations (CSOs) working together to realise development objectives.

Conservative forces within government would advise government and the ruling party to stay clear of CSOs. Government is in charge and should just press ahead, working directly with communities. In the spirit of a strong and developmental state, government should just go ahead and implement as it sees fit, or so that view goes.

Leftwingers would argue that any collaboration with government would be “doing the work of government”. It would be supporting the right wing ideology that argues that the state should play a smaller role in national development.

But the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Problems in development countries are huge but headway can be made if sectors work to find common ground. Furthermore, the constitution, in its understanding of governance, envisages that we all combine our efforts to achieve developmental objectives.

Government spokespersons will no doubt enumerate their own requirements for partnering. However in my engagement with CSOs, they emphasize the following about partnership:
  • Collaboration should not be premised on the idea that CSOs must give up their voice and right to undertake advocacy. In fact, governance could benefit if there was more proactive and critical feedback from CSOs rather than eruptions of grassroots protests that sometimes turn violent.
  • There should be an acceptance that CSOs have different strategies and that a CSO may use different strategies at different times. CSOs acknowledge that government is not monolithic and one government department may be more open to collaboration on projects while another may be hostile to the idea of co-operation.
  • Some CSOs desire no role in implementation; preferring to focus on advocacy and campaigns. For example Equal Education, although it is involved in establishing libraries in schools, puts the emphasis on campaigns. NGOs that adopt such positions should be respected and form a vital part of civil society.
  • For CSOs, there are many ways to collaborate beyond being entangled in implementation; CSOs can assume roles in monitoring, in data gathering and research, in programme formulation and as participants in oversight bodies set up by departments.'

Of course, relationships will not always be plain sailing. In a society plagued by race and class conflict and where fierce intra-party and inter-party rivalries coexist with daily community protests, CSOs and government will also have tense standoffs.

Nonetheless, there are many areas in which specific government departments and CSOs can work together – or increase collaboration – as partners to find solutions and advance objectives set out in the Freedom Charter. 

We can draw lessons from, and possibly expand on, interesting examples of collaboration such as these:

– The Department of Labour in some provinces engages community-based advice offices to ensure workers get access to information and assistance related to labour rights.
– The Department of Social Development and its provincial counterparts works with CBOs to roll out victim empowerment services to those affected by rape and domestic violence. (Sadly, however, government keeps slicing away at NPO funding for critical activities such as post-rape services while government's own unit costs for such service continues to climb).
– During the recent xenophobic violence in Durban, NGOs and government had to work together in providing relief. Many NGOs were first on the scene and spent days and nights working to provide assistance to victims. Furthermore, government must work through CSOs in rolling out community-level campaigns to raise consciousness and counter xenophobia.
– NGOs and some units based at universities play a sterling role alongside CBOs supporting farmworker struggles and providing information about labour and tenure rights.
– In health, the Treatment Action Campaign plays a role in monitoring services to people living with HIV and Aids. The Black Sash is similarly is engaged in a joint programme with national government to monitor service delivery at provincial levels.

Outside of collaboration on specific programmes and issues, our constitution envisages a broader interdependency between CSOs and government. Civil society organisations should for example have a voice in national discussions on key policy issues and future direction, in the same way that trade unions and the private sector do. This could be done through apex organisations (network bodies) supplemented by good representation of organisations that directly represent the views and spirit of the grassroots. In this regard, there are huge gaps partly based on dismissive attitudes in many parts of government and on fragmentation and the scarcity of strong networks within civil society.

The need for such strategic-level engagement must be addressed, even as attention is paid to gaps in partnership at local and provincial levels.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

New poetry book launched: Unfettered Days

I make a contribution to Book Week 2015 by launching my poetry book, Unfettered Days. In this work, I continue to grapple with private and public concerns and to foster deeper understandings by trying to grasp truth and understanding by examining of the particular.

In the book's afterword, poet and cultural commentator Lisa Combrinck notes that the poetry’s strength lies in “seemingly insignificant observations” that  “provide the reader with an intimacy that leaves an unease yet also, strange as it may seem, a feeling of deep fulfillment.” She also writes that: “The small revelations are what give the poetry great inner strength and significance”. Read all of Combrinck's comments in the afterword here: http://tinyurl.com/o9uqg8w .

Unfettered Days contains poems about jazz music, the landscapes of childhood, the fluid nature of memory, images of nature and the connections between urban and rural spaces.

Copies of the book can be obtained through the Melville branch of Bookdealers (www.bookdealers.co.za).
Frank Meintjies



Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sharp criticism levelled at SA's book industry and its bias against black writing

The issue of the literary system and the bias against black writers has been in the spotlight since the Franschoek Literary Fair in May. It was again the subject of intense discussion at Wits University on 9 May when Thando Mgqolozana, Siphiwo Mahala and others took part in a panel discussion. The event was organised by Jacana and was under the heading 'Decolonising the Literary Landscape'.

Mgqolozana told the meeting that, after seven years, he was tired of working towards acceptance by the establishment. Referring to a comment by another speaker that it was important for blacks to attend these festivals, he said he hated hearing the words "we need you". He said by putting them on the programme, the organisers were creating a space for "performance of black rage". 

He also argued that black people "do read" and that it should be recognised that every book purchased by a black person was read by many people. The problem was a lack of access "to reading material". Most bookstores were in white areas, and the only one in black area -- at Maponya Mall -- had closed down because the offering too closely resembled what was sold at Sandton branches of the same bookstore. In addition, books were expensive when seen in relation to average household income.

Mgqolozana called for reading to be viewed as a basic need and for government to scrap VAT on the sale of books.

Mgqolozana said he hoped to break free away from discussing white people and how they responded. It was much more important to "├»magine an alternative book industry". Although he would not attend any more festivals, for now he had no option but to still rely on white controlled publishing houses and bookstores. 

Writer and Department of Arts and Culture official Mahala said he decided in 2011 to stop attending events like the Franschoek Literary Festival. He described Franschoek as an initiative set up by private individuals linked to the white establishment who then invited black writers because they "needed black monkeys to entertain them".  Mahala deplored the fact that all aspects of the publishing business – from editing to sales to reviews –  was under white control.

During discussion many audience members prefaced their comments with the words "I am angry". Several of the young black audience members lambasted another speaker, Corina van der Spoel of Wits University, for stating that, due to the damage caused by apartheid, blacks do not read and that the black elite should buy more books. The audience members argued that it was not her place to make such remarks. "I use my money to buy books and I have been doing so since high school", another student said, adding that as far as he knew, young white people also needed to be encouraged to read.

Van der Spoel's input generated repartee from the young black audience. At one stage, van der Spoel asked "where is the Huisgenoot for the black community?" to which audience members shouted, "Bona, Bona".

In discussions such as these, of course, defining the problem is easier than finding solutions.

One of the audience members, Allan Horwitz of Botsotso Publishing, tried to provide a different perspective. He argued that the problem was the capitalist system and that socialist approaches were needed.  In his view, the democratic government should do more to curb the profit motive in the book publishing and distribution system. He also called on government to make sure libraries held books of local writers and hosted regular events where writers could discuss their work with community members.

Some in the audience strongly favoured "blacks only" literary festivals (although Mahala spoke out against this). Mgqolozana wondered whether writers should release and sell their work chapter by chapter, which would make literature easier to buy. Speaking from the audience, academic Pumla Gqola argued that greater use should be made of alternative distribution strategies, making use of new communications technologies which put more power in the hands of citizens. She also reminded people of how kwaito music emerged outside the formal system for music production and distribution. 

The panel discussion leaves many more questions than answers. On the one hand, there appears to be wide agreement that, 20 years on, the publishing industry has made too little progress in terms of transformation. On the other hand, it is unclear who will lead a new push for fundamental changes.  It remains to be seen which institutions or coalitions of organisations will step up to drive a new agenda of radical change in the publishing industry.


Frank Meintjies

Monday, 18 May 2015

The evil that men boast about & issues of accountabilty

Alistair Sparks’ Verwoerdian slip gives me an opportunity to pick up on the issues of accountability, including accountability for our apartheid past.

Evil people know what they are doing. Indirectly, Sparks draws attention to how intentional and bloody-minded the architects and key implementers of apartheid were.
And so they must be held accountable. They must face judgement; they must be subjected to a process where all is laid bare and clear findings are made about their deeds. Even though ‘tactics of transition’ and political considerations may in the end influence the actual punishment, they must be made to answer in public for the system they imposed.

My take is that Sparks’ action in praising Verwoerd was not an accident. He is clever enough to know what the fallout would be, but I don’t think he could stop himself. He was venting his bitterness or what talk show host Hajra Omarjee called “his hostility towards the ANC”. But in doing so, he became less careful, artful or gaurded about his attitudes and consciousness regarding a thoroughly dehumanising and violent system.

His comments also reflect a general sense of disengagement from black people.

Sparks has done us a favour. He has reminded us that black people – together with ardent democrats and anti-racists from other groups – are sometimes and in some senses on their own. 

In this regard, it cannot be taken for granted that everyone who happens to be liberal understands the depths of apartheid. It cannot be assumed that, at some points, those of liberal bent do not dismiss or miss the utter seriousness of what happened.

This is not about blame. If I were born into a white and 'liberal' context, I would be in the same boat – unless I proactively opened myself to authentic engagement with black people about the pain of racism. It is about taking responsibility for the present; it relates to seeing things as they are and taking responsibility to work for deeper levels of transformation than we have had so far. 

This brings me to the man who is sometimes regarded as the superspook, Niel Barnard and his new book Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss. I again reference Sparks when I say Barnard knew very well and precisely the evil of the apartheid system. He was advisor to the highest decision-makers of the apartheid system, and typically provided the information on which executive decisions regarding repression were based. He played this role in the repressive eighties. This was the period when the Cradock four were killed, when massacres took place, when apartheid assassins roamed at night and when government fuelled the bloodbath between Inkatha and the UDF.

Barnard presents an urbane and sugar-coated view of those times, even as he does concede, when pressed, that he saw the need for a “tough security hand maintaining stability” and the need to “keep the country under control” in those times. As Barnard sees it, he and PW Botha should actually be viewed as the icons of negotiation. He plays up the role that he played in negotiations – it was he rather than De Klerk who was there from the beginning.

The Sparks issue also allows me to refer again to the big men of the old order whose likeness and form are captured in stone or bronze. There are people who would have us believe that the misdeeds of these men can be ascribed to “the times”. In those days, as one caller to a radio station put it, many people were doing it – seizing land, killing off people and treating black people as inferior (a la Cecil John Rhodes). So Rhodes should not be judged by what this caller termed “standards of today”.  

But it isn’t true that those driving colonial domination were innocent or naive. People had choices then as they have now. This is why Olive Schreiner condemned Rhodes. She saw him for what he was, a man who knowingly perpetrated evil in the form of atrocities, enslavement and plunder. A man who built his own power through robbing others of their humanity and their lives.

Considering the numbers of people involved in implementing apartheid’s harsher measures, one can ask: why were so few people made to account via the Truth and Reconciliation process or through the application of the criminal justice system. Why is there so much impunity? Small wonder that, according to a report in The New Age recently, Eugene de Kock once said: “(I) just want other people to be here with me (in prison). I don’t deserve to be outside, they deserve to be here. We all deserve to be here”.

Although I use Alistair Sparks’ comments to advance my concerns about accountability, I concur with those who have expressed disgust at his remarks. I deplore the fact that, of all South Africa’s leaders, Sparks chose to doff his hat to Verwoerd, and that he cites only white people among those he considers clever politicians.

I align myself with columnist Onkgopotse Tabane when he tells Sparks in an open letter: “You probably also have no idea what the fuss is about when people are outraged at the Wits SRC President stating that he admires Hitler for his ‘organisational skills’. Your statement is a version of the same.” 

When liberals are under pressure and forced to surrender their privileges, (for some) a great gulf develops between their liberalism and their actions in the present. Others, thank heaven, find a deeper meaning of true liberalism – one that aligns with the marginalised, one that calls for sharing of the country’s wealth and one that demands redress for historical wrongs.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Year of government since elections: buffeted by crises and lacking a sense of urgency

The government elected in 2014 has faced inordinately tough conditions in its first year. Worse, these conditions come at a time when South Africa's ruling party seems less agile, affected by the sins of incumbency.

This year has been very busy in political terms. The Eskom crisis hit, affecting all South Africans and pushing up the levels of frustration. Government faced an unprecedented situation in Parliament, where new Economic Freedom Fighters disrupted the normal way of doing things and gained significant public support for it.

The economy continued to be afflicted by poor performance. Global factors are largely to blame, but our omissions and mismanagement with respect to Eskom also play a part. As a result of electricity supply problems, one economist cut his GDP growth forecast from 2.9 to 1.9.

Government has also encountered problems in parastatals, generally. The problems at South African Airways do not impact on South Africans broadly (although the costly bailout will affect all in unseen ways). Not so the Post Office (where services broke down due to strike action) and SASSA (where for-profit service providers continue to unlawfully strip money out of bank accounts of grant beneficiaries).   

At the same time, protests of different types continue to flare up. There are the numerous community protests that erupt and die out. There are also student protests and several waves of xenophobic violence. All this upheaval points to an increased demand for redistribution or for more dramatic transformation.

Faced with such challenges, government departments cannot operate at the usual tempo. They have to accelerate on all fronts if government aspires to notions of responsiveness and effective governance.
In several key areas, we see bold ideas and innovation. In relation to both the Department of Cooperative Governance and SALGA, we have seen strong moves to ensure better management and less misuse of government resources in local government. Despite negative responses from many mayors, Pravin Gordhan has put the need for urgent reform at the top of the agenda. SALGA is pressing ahead with key measures. It wants to ensure there are “consequences” for managers and other staff who fail in their duties at local government level. It also wants to see stronger community oversight over key projects.

In health, Aaron Motsoaledi continues to work tirelessly to improve hospital services, to chip away at inequality in the health sector and to lead health promotion campaigns.  

The Gauteng Province also stands out as a government unit that is formulating bold plans to overcome problems of delayed redress. The premier David Makhura launched his programme for revitalising township economics and its Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has unveiled ambitious plans to improve schooling in the province.

Numerous civil servants and government units are continuing to do important work. Daily, hundreds of South Africans get their identity documents and passports in good time (even though the department concerned is sluggish when processing permit applications for migrants and refugees). The Department of Basic Education continues to provide daily learning to over 13 million learners in over 30 000 schools. Without denying the massive infrastructure gaps (many sustained by provincial shortcomings), the national department is pushing programmes to help teachers implement the new curriculum and to face up to shortcomings.

Nonetheless, the surge of disenchantment from unemployed youth, those waiting for RDP homes and those caught between rising costs and modest wage increases means that performing at the same pace is not enough. It means the old level of service delivery, even from good departments, will not be sufficiently recognised. For hundreds of thousands of South Africans – many of them angry – business as usual does not cut it.

And if governance means ‘the capacity to formulate and implement sound policies and systems that reflect the interests of local citizens’, continuing in the current mode translates into deepening of governance problems.

The ANC government has several policy options that it could use to respond to tackle the pressures, but it does not implement them fast enough. For example, government is winding down delivery of RDP houses and is, at least in policy terms, ramping up the provision of rental housing. It has, again and again, vowed to increase beneficiation and has most likely considered making selective use of tariffs to nurture certain economic sectors. In relation to electricity, government has aeons ago talked about facilitating access to equipment that would allow hundreds of thousands to make greater use of solar energy. Government has gained brownie points for reopening the land claims process, but the surge of new applicants will add to backlogs.

Even where there are good ideas that can have transformative impact, implementation is usually far too slow. Often implementation is held up by squabbles between competing interests (the set top box story), by massive costs overruns (building costs for schools in the Eastern Cape), by constant changes in key staff (various departments) and by a widespread and politically-motivated unwillingness to hold functionaries accountable.

During the last year, government has come face to face with major fiscal constraints. Many government programmes are inadequately funded. Many departments and municipalities try to manage this by slowing down delivery and waiting for further funding rounds.

As the ruling party, the ANC’s main challenge is to get ahead of the game. With looming problems in the labour arena, frequent conflict in parliament, an upsurge in xenophobia, ongoing community protests and infighting in the security cluster, it is easy to be constantly distracted. It would be easy, especially with over 60% support in the last national elections, to rely on a few good departments to keep government support up in perception surveys. But a more effective strategy would be to increase the number of bold, transformative initiatives and to push government departments to implement their many good plans with a much greater sense of urgency.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Something lighter on statues ...

Had enough of the normal debates on statues? Follow the link for a poem on statues and which employs the sms language so widely used by the youth.



Frank Meintjies 

Racism and the debate around statues

I have listened closely to debates around the statues in our country on various media platforms. In many of these is very little mention of racism. There is talk of statues being ‘offensive’. A great deal is said about ‘history and heritage’. There is also reference to notions such as ‘inclusion’ and ‘social cohesion’.

But if we want just and sustainable solutions to this issue, we need to discuss racism and call it by name. From there, we can jointly find the road to a more through-going transformation. At UCT, even though a full discussion of racism was not held, it was easier to find a workable resolution because the UCT vice-chancellor openly acknowledged that racism (both past and current) afflicts the institution. Max Price realises that listening to the students and dealing with exponents and heroes of white superiority is the least that UCT can do.

But for wider society, and the broader issue of these landmarks, it is difficult to get wide agreement (including larger numbers of white people) because many do not see that removing the busts of these past champions of white superiority is the least that society can do. It is therefore imperative to make racism a focal point of current discussions.

In the rest of this article, I will discuss racism as well as issues of racist oppression memory work. Thereafter I return to the debate around the removal of statues in the context of the need to oppose and root out racism.

It is true that ‘racism’ is sometimes used to refer to discrimination by one person against another based on colour or ethnic origin.

In this article, it is used in the sense used by Ashok Ohri, Margaret Legum and Basil Manning, renowned anti-racist workers in South Africa and Britain. Racism in this sense is an ideology of group supremacy, is practiced over generations and enters the culture of both the oppressed and oppressor. It entails denial on a massive scale of resources, opportunities, dignity.

In our case, white racism has led to systematic human rights abuses and denial of rights that will affect us for generations to come. Black people suffered immense loss – including the loss of lives.

In relation to racism and memory work, a critical step in transformation is acknowledgment by perpetrators and those who benefitted. Verne Harris and Chandre Gold, in an official paper for the Nelson Mandela Foundation state that dealing with oppressive past requires “people to take responsibility for violations done in their name”.

They also take a tough line on perpetrators. In this regard they say that “a blanket amnesty for the perpetrators of violation can never be justified” and could lead to “resilient cultures of impunity, lack of accountability, and societal rage.”

In current debates, some like Steve Hofmeyr and Sunette Bridges, would not like to foreground racism. Such people want to chain themselves to their heritage – but what are they saying about racism and allegiance to a system declared a crime against humanity?

Others are calling for “negotiations” on the issue of statues. Some, including a spokesperson for the Freedom Front Plus, have called for keeping all the old statues and simply adding ones that depict liberation heroes. Can you imagine the scenario: five old-guard statues and five statues of anti-apartheid activists in every town, and double that in each city? Can you imagine if such an approach were used in Germany after the end of Nazism? This is exactly what we get if we try to sidestep the racism issue.  

A few white people have called on those demanding the removal of the statues concerned to consider the biographies of the particular “hero”. “How many people did Rhodes kill,” one caller to a radio station asked this week, demanding that the offending statue be left alone. This caller fails to realise that the campaign to dethrone “old guard” statues is actually a drive to end “denial”; to bring home to South Africans the hypocrisy of claiming to be free of racism and yet glorifying those who crafted, propagated and entrenched the system of domination.

Finally, some in the white community believe that removing the offending statues is a sign to white people that they have no place in South Africa. But the opposite is true. People like Max Price and other progressive white people know that this is not about some kind of reversal of white-black racial discrimination. Many of those who support the idea of bringing down the stone figure of Rhodes would welcome statues of, for example, Beyers Naude, Helen Suzman and Liberal Party stalwart Peter Brown. In this regard, as statues go, the dividing line is the distinction between champions of an evil system and those who fought against it.

Despite our fights, white and black people can face the future together. But a basic requirement is acknowledgement of racism and taking responsibility for what happened in the past.

Frank Meintjies

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Vavi's dismissal: a new phase of political change & realignment

The dismissal of Zwelinzima Vavi foreshadows another huge dip in the decline of COSATU – a federation that has split into two camps, become a feeble voice in national affairs and recently parted ways with one of its most powerful industrial unions.

Many ardent progressives, democrats and supporters of the trade union movement are saddened by the turn of events.

In commentary, one cannot help but repeat certain points made in the past. At the same time, new perspectives about the consequences come to the fore.

It is best to see the COSATU split at this stage through several connected observations – and to let readers draw a picture of where things might be headed based on their needs and interests.

Firstly, we need to note that the split is between those who see COSATU as an equal partner in the alliance and those who want COSATU to be obedient to the ANC on political matters. In terms of the latter view, Cosatu is free to express its views, but once the father body takes a decision, the federation must fall into line.

But a sober view would realise that an alliance between a political party and a trade union federation will always involve tension and robust debate. There will never be agreement on everything, especially as (in this case) the ANC is a broad church and federation embraces socialism.

On joining the alliance, COSATU managed internal critics to the marriage by insisting on the right to differ and space for continual discussion of socialist imperatives. On both sides, skilful and astute leadership facilitated the building of a strong alliance, tensions notwithstanding.

But in recent years, some influential in both the ANC and COSATU have displayed a desire for all-out ANC control of COSATU. They have become greedy for control. This group includes those in COSATU who see trade unions as a stepping stone to positions in the ANC and political office.

Leaders like ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe opposed this total control agenda; he challenged moves by his comrades to crush troublesome voices in Cosatu and equally opposed threats by anti-alliance unions to withdraw from COSATU. Mantashe appealed for balance, but was in the end left on the sidelines by an influential few who were champed at the bit to bounce NUMSA and Vavi out of the federation.

From Mantashe’s reaction, it is clear that some union leaders – in a bid to ingratiate themselves with the ruling party – want to be more ANC than the ANC itself. These role-players would do well to listen to Mantashe's comments about COSATU, issued last week: “In their rush to hurt each other, these leaders in Cosatu may find there will be nothing left of it”.

The split in COSATU will weaken the other alliance partners and the alliance itself. The Communist Party stands to lose massive ground. The party sees itself as influencing the mass of workers to support the ANC in elections. In this regard, it sees itself as working politically – especially near elections – to persuade the worker bodies in society to formally support the ANC.

A split in COSATU will thus have an adverse affect on the party’s influence in the ANC. In addition, the Alliance will be weakened, especially if Vavi throws his weight behind another political party, or if large numbers of workers change their political allegiances in response to Vavi’s dismissal.

Emerging political formations – those hoping to build an additional political voice to the left of the ANC – appear to be happy about Vavi’s dismissal. Almost all of them have tried to recruit him to their cause. These formations need Vavi not just to strengthen their popular appeal, but also to help in strategy formation. Left groups are often afflicted by narrowness and simplistic understandings of the link between national liberation and class issues. Vavi would help them build a broad base and identify campaigns that will have broad societal appeal.

But, for now, none of them know which way Vavi will go. Sources claim that Vavi will shun the role of alternative political leader – that he is more likely to lead a move to build a new federation, one that unites Numsa, the seven pro-Vavi COSATU unions and various other labour bodies.

Even if Vavi does not join any of their initiatives, leaders of the new left-leaning forces welcome the developments. They feel it signals a new phase in their bid to exert a leftward pull on the political system. As they see it, untold thousands of workers, angered by Vavi’s dismissal may look for new political homes and may turn to these new role players.

And Cosatu? The days ahead look cheerless for COSATU. If the federation continues in the mode it has up to now – inward looking, largely silent on national affairs, struggling to raise subs from member unions and limited policy impact  – its decline will accelerate. In the light of such challenges, taking a decision to dismiss Vavi is akin to a non-decision – to fiddling while Rome burns.

For workers, meantime, there is still no let up to the pressures they face. In the last few years, workers share of national income has declined and, as Dennis George of Fedusa has pointed out, this has decreased workers’ spending power and led to greater inequality. As Stats South Africa reported in 2010, half of all workers earn less than R2500 a month. At the same time, we have seen the rise of informal and vulnerable workers – an estimated one third of the workforce are employed as casual workers. Such workers earn low wages, are denied basic benefits, have no trade union representation and are deprived of the chance of advancement in their lives. In this context, the latest shenanigans in Cosatu constitute a further setback to workers.

No-one knows exactly what will happen – for example mass-level responses, new alignments and other breakaways – as a result of Vavi’s dismissal from Cosatu. But we can be sure of this: more flux and change in the political landscape which in turn will fuel shifts in voting patterns in future elections.  

Frank Meintjies

Friday, 27 March 2015

Tackling racism through dialogue and dealing with the past must continue

Racism is very much in the news these days. The pundits will debate whether there is a spike in racism or not, but it has always been present at sustained levels.  Just because we declare apartheid over does not mean it is gone. The real source of racism is the beliefs that lurk deep in the unconscious, embedded there over many decades.   

I see the racism in South Africa in terms of a triangle of three aspects: The need for open-minded discussion; issues of memory and the past, and; current incidents. These parts of the triangle don’t always interact well – and those who are averse to systemic change will seek to maintain a disconnect between them. But a good way forward is to tackle racism in a co-ordinated manner, focusing on dialogue, truth about the past and preventive action.

Regarding the need for open conversation, there has in the last 20 years not always been conducive space for it. Space was often constricted by a number of factors including the reconciliation narrative, the view that racism only happened in the past, and collusion by an elite or aspirational group of blacks who feel discussion of racism can be an obstacle to their intentions to get included in the system as it stands. Now it's opened up.

Good discussion of race has to be honest. It has to give space to those viewed as the “other”. It must be strengthened by information or undisputed facts. Given our history, dialogue has to be painful – to deal with pain and trigger painful emotions.

So I can understand that many people feel unsettled by the current flare up in discussion of racial issues. But sometimes what manifests as ‘bad’ now is actually good for all in the long run. The open discussion is already leading to an improvement in ‘listening’ in institutions such as UCT and Rhodes University, to greater institutional acknowledgements and awareness, and to government support for robust engagement on race.

It has also led to positive responses among some white people – as in the case of Jessica Breakey who last week told UCT students in her blog that the protest against the Rhodes statue was an act of “contradictory beauty” and “a catalyst of a movement”. She told fellow white students: “The conversation on privilege has been drastically stunted by the focus on class and the somewhat narrow focus of only addressing what we’ve termed as poverty and inequality, thinking that our charity work should be martyred and praised.”

Regarding issues of memory, we need to deal with the unresolved issues from our recent past. Dealing with this past is never easy – questions of restitution, restoration and atonement come to the fore. This is why there is so much resistance to continuing with the necessary work of dealing with the past. In January, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory released a statement (based on work with international partners) on the objectives of memory work.  Under the title of Reckoning with Oppressive Pasts, the document says good memory work:
  • must respond to the call of justice, and should recognise that “redress and reparation is essential to the empowerment of the violated”.
  • troubles those who want to “replicate the prevailing power relations”.
  • creates spaces of healing and seeks to prevent recurrence
  • strives “to create a shared future for descendants of victims and perpetrators”. 
  • enables people to take responsibility for violations undertaken in their name.
  • lays “the foundation for sustainable cross-generational action that leads to societal change and transformation”.
Regarding racist incidents, we must move beyond knee jerk reactions and expressions of outrage that lasts for a short time. Such responses blind us to the possibility of taking action that is preventative or properly corrective. We can begin by looking for patterns and explore underlying norms and relations that give rise to incidents.  

We need to know if there are hotspots – for instance, higher education campuses. We need to explore different manifestations of racism, for example in different provinces. This will also give us a chance to see the distinction and the link between racism by those with power – which results in denial of resources, opportunity and rights – and racial discrimination within the working class where the main impact is denial of dignity.
These are some of the actions we can take to strengthen prevention: 
  • Government should strengthen the Human Rights Commission, providing increased resources to fight discrimination. 
  •  Donors such as the Foundation for Human Rights and others should be encouraged to support organisations doing anti-racism work.
  • Institutions should be proactive and audit themselves, and then take appropriate action to change the norms and practices which allow racism to thrive.
  • The media can go further than reporting incidents; they can investigate certain environments in the same manner that Henry Nxumalo went undercover to expose conditions on potato farms in the 1960s.
  • Citizens can play an active role: we should make greater use of the equality courts, which are easy to use and are set up precisely to combat unfair discrimination.
Let’s move forward on dealing with racism. Let’s create spaces for dialogue. Let’s continue to deal with the past and its consequences, which can then inform a more sustainable and shared future. And let’s take targeted action, especially in environments which are conducive to racist discrimination.

Frank Meintjies
This article first appeared in the press on 27 March 2015.


Friday, 20 March 2015

De Kock - a fairer application of transitional justice is needed

The story of Eugene De Kock’s release on parole is a signal moment; it brings together conflicting emotions, perspectives and questions about the failures and gains of South Africa’s transition process.

De Kock committed heinous crimes, including a series of murders. One is tempted to write that no one has sunk deeper perpetrating apartheid violence in South Africa than him. But then one remembers the collective violence that has been visited on black people over centuries. And one recalls those who gave the orders and those who turned a blind eye while hit squads terrorised communities and wiped out numerous black lives. But, when it comes to killing with your bare hands and literally smelling the blood of your victims, De Kock stands out.

I cannot argue with De Kock’s parole. By all accounts he has studied the technical requirements for parole and gone to great lengths to meet them. De Kock has also worked tirelessly – in a calculated manner, if you like – to cultivate support among those who could help his case.

On reading Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book, A Human Being Died That Night, one sees the different sides of De Kock. There is the part of him that is willing – at specific moments – to open up, to make himself vulnerable and to face up to his evil deeds. But there is also the De Kock who is guarded, measured and who studiously avoids revealing too much about himself. This one shrinks from accessing the dark place that drove him to do his reprehensible deeds. In his latter mode, he worked methodically towards being granted parole.

There is disagreement in South Africa about De Kock’s impending release. On one side is the deep pain of the victims’ families, the scars that haven’t healed and those who lack closure.

Jane Quin, whose sister Jackie was killed by De Kock, is opposed to the parole decision, arguing that there is no basis for punishment to be shortened.

The family of Japie Maponya have indicated that, although they do not question the granting of parole, they will not give it their blessing. They say they will not forgive De Kock. Maponye was taken by De Kock to a remote area to be killed; although another officer shot him, De Kock hit him twice over the head with a spade. De Kock told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the body could not be buried because the ground was too hard and the body was dumped “under debris”.  

On the other side are those who choose the path of forgiveness. Some families of De Kock’s other victims supported his release. In addition, key public voices had called for De Kock’s release. In 2011, Andile Mngxitima – then a civil society activist – argued that De Kock was a Christ-like figure who paid the price of jail so that members of the white community could continue to enjoy their gains from the apartheid system. De Kock was a scapegoat and should be released, he said. Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela made the case that “releasing De Kock would open up the possibility of a movement towards a new politics of remembrance, one that would help invigorate dialogue about the kind of future we want and the future of young South Africans”.

De Kock’s parole is now a fact and he walks out of prison a free man. But his release – set against the reality of De Kock's crimes and the generosity of many in the black community – rekindles the demand for a fairer and more equitable application of transitional justice .... for a better balancing of the books. In this regard, it is imperative that authorities take the following actions:

·        We need a better resolution of the reparations issue. Government needs to sit down with those who received the modest reparations payout, most of whom remain unhappy about the reparations process, and other victims of gross violations still demanding their share. This group of people, organised through the Khulumani Support Group, constitute a key voice among those who faced the sharp end of repression. Even if it means using honest brokers such as Archbishop Tutu or Yasmeen Sooka, government needs to find a lasting conclusion to the reparations issue.

·        One of government’s investigating units should probe De Kock’s claims that top leaders in the apartheid government knew about his activities. Are de Kock’s claims false or do they have merit – government has the resources to establish the truth and provide a definitive report to the nation. De Kock should assist in providing evidence to back his claims that De Klerk, PW Botha were aware of or tacitly approved De Kock’s actions in cold-bloodedly targeting enemies of apartheid.

·        Government needs to proceed with the prosecution of those who did not seek or were denied amnesty. Against a background of hit squads, assassinations, poisonings, letter bombs and the many known persons that were involved in such deeds, Government has generally failed to follow through and press charges against perpetrators who still need to fully account.

Reconciliation should always be implemented in a manner that allows and welcomes contrary or questioning voices. South Africa generally celebrates those who have chosen to forgive apartheid’s torturers and killers. But we should equally honour and respect those like Jane Quin or the Maponye family, whose sense of culture and principle lead them to demand that forgiveness be denied or delayed. Both responses form part of a new South Africa based on compassion (especially for the vulnerable and most marginalised), attempts at reconciliation, human rights and the absence of impunity. 


(This article first appeared in the press on 6 February 2015).
Frank Meintjies
 

Friday, 13 February 2015

The xenophobic violence speaks volumes about who we are

The xenophobic violence we witnessed recently across Gauteng tells us a great deal about ourselves.
Of course, in human rights terms the violence and looting targeting non-South African shop owners is fundamentally unacceptable. Beyond this, it is worth reflecting on the possible meanings of and the type of thinking that informs this outbreak of violence and aggression.
Firstly, our communities seem to be in two minds about ‘acceptance and rejection’ of the traders that hail from other countries. At one level, the community gives many indications of acceptance, ranging from opening accounts with traders, to renting shop space to opting to primarily use these immigrant-run shops. Then, out of the blue during January and February 2015, scores of community members go on the rampage against these shops, looting and vandalising.
Secondly, many among us seem confused about formality and informality. On the one hand, many of us rely on and support informality as a way of making a living. In our minds, not all informal activity is illegal. In line with the World Bank and United Nations, we acknowledge the livelihood opportunities that spring from the informal sector. But then, when it suits us, we lambast foreign-owned spaza shop-owners for not being registered – offering this as our justification for plundering these stores.
Thirdly, we seem to be undecided about whether we love or hate the prices and services we get from immigrant traders. We toyi toyi and demand that immigrants who run the small township shops “get out” - implying that life would be better with the old South African owned spaza shops back. Some of us argue that it is unfair that such shops sell goods at lower prices. But after the violence subsides, we line the streets and tell members of the media a different story. We want the “friends” to return. We yearn for their cheaper goods, their longer opening hours and the fact they seem to stock many of the small things we need at short notice.
Fourthly, we seem to be schizophrenic in our attitudes to townships. We rejected them as dormitory townships in which we were forced to stay. We took up Oliver Tambo’s call that we move out of these camps and start putting our stamp on other areas even as we continue community-building in the locations. But, with the attacks on foreign spaza owners, we appear to be asserting a jealous love of these townships. One clearly got the sense from many Gauteng community members that they draw the line with "coming to compete in our own backyard". 
This looting and violence targeting immigrant-owned shops raises questions about how we understand ourselves and who we are. It raises questions about our own identity and issues of belonging –  and points to confusion about how we want to respond to refugees that have found a safe haven in South Africa. Are we decent people (with values about society-building) or bullies who use thuggish behaviour to get our way… or a mixture of both? Do we prefer speech and articulation (of things we feel) or do we favour acting out in the form of aggressive and intimidating conduct? Are we ambiguous about human rights -- do we emphasize rights when we have to claim them for ourselves but forget about the responsibility we have to live out these rights in our relationships with other humans we come across in our daily lives.
We seem to be unsure about ourselves – as indicated by our inconsistent responses.
In addition, although South Africans view ourselves as proactive citizens able to engage to advance our own interests, we are not – it seems – empowered and organised enough to speak to the spaza shop owners or their association about issues that perturb us. Rather, we allow anger to simmer for long periods and then surprise them by breaking into their shops and helping ourselves to their stock. Do we not have confidence in our ability to raise issues, assert our needs and then craft lasting solutions with other stakeholders?
The violent attacks also tell us something about the patterns of power and disempowerment. Power is often analysed vertically – focusing on how power relations should be analysed between those who are dominant and those who are forced into the role of the oppressed or exploited. But the xenophobic attacks remind us that power should also be analysed in terms of how it plays out horizontally.
In this regard, the xenophobic violence is an expression of conflict between poor versus poor. In our communities, weighed down by frustration and intractable economic problems, (in this case) we lash out at the nearer target of people we consider the “other” but who can in no way be described as wealthy and powerful. These targets are easier to reach, It is much more difficult, and would take greater planning and organisation, to confront the captains of industry and those who continue to ensure the production and retail systems remain in the hands of  a racially defined few.
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o wrote the book Decolonising the Minds, a book that has wide application in post-colonial Africa. If indeed we ‘decolonised our minds’, would responses in our communities to developments around spaza shops be different? If indeed we were able, through organisation, to make more meaningful interventions to change the economic system, would we find other entry points for change?
Where are we headed, what are our objectives (what do we really want?) – these are the questions that come to haunt us in the wake of the unlawful and violent actions against non-South African shop owners trading in townships.
Frank Meintjies

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Management lessons from the Eskom debacle

Eskom’s current woes provide good case study material for keen students of business management. What are the management lessons to take away? Whose advice went unheeded in preceding years? What cardinal sins were committed – not in relation to policy or politics or shareholder and parliamentary omission over the last 20 years – but in terms of management?
 
The first broad observation to make by way of background is to assert that the energy sector is distinctive. Perhaps more than any other sector, it relies in a fundamental way on long term planning. It is no wonder, then, that scenario planning came out of the energy sector – out of the work of transnational corporations such as Shell who realised that looking far into the distance was critical to setting today’s management priorities.
 
The second background point is that the buck (or a large part of the buck) always stops with management. It is true that a range of other role players may override management decisions. It is also true that shareholders, politicians and even powerful legal advisors may prevent top management from doing what they know is right.
 
But the high-powered decision-makers in top management must be able to answer and account for themselves. To maintain their own standing as management practitioners doing their jobs and fulfilling their fiduciary duties, they must be able to show they spotted major risks and gave advice at the critical moments. Those operating in the civil service ultimately have to comply with the directives issued by a political head - but they can place their views on record; they can discuss risks and give their professional advice through instruments such as memos and emails.

In the case of a powerful public body with a large budget and with a mandate rooted in legislation, there is a far greater obligation. If a politically-motivated decision that will have disastrous consequences has been imposed on such a body, it should clearly indicate misgiving and concerns in its accountability to parliamentary committees and through annual reports. These is how things should be in a democracy.

A range of key management points arise from the crisis at the electricity giant, including:
·       To what extent is Eskom an environment where underperformance or major management errors are met with consequences? Or is it a place that practices management without consequences? What internal action has been taken for major omissions that led to the current situation? If, as the CEO Tshediso Matona implied, some managers took bad decisions (or failed to act) on the issue maintenance, what action has been taken? With regard to the Kusile and Medupe projects, has any top manager faced consequences for failure to miss targets by such a wide margin?

·       How does Eskom use its reward system to sustain optimal performance? In change management terms, the reward system is a key lever for encouraging the desired conduct in line with key organisational priorities and ‘ways of working’. What evidence is available that, if one takes the issues of bonuses alone, the reward system has been used to try and address organisational shortcomings?

·       Have any individuals over the last 15 years or more raised the red flag about the sidelining of critical goals such as long-term planning or effective maintenance? Or does ‘group think’ reign at Eskom? Is Eskom afflicted by a perverse culture in that prescribes that once one or two top dogs have spoken, everyone else merely echoes the official line?

·       Do Eskom managers belong to any discipline, sector bodies or communities of practice? If so, to what extent – in their publications and journals – did sector practitioners debate what was taking place at Eskom and how this would impact on performance? One of the key advantages of belonging to a professional association is ‘shared learning’. Such shared learning in turn promotes innovation in the field and helps managers remain fully attuned to their roles and responsibilities as professionals.

·       What role did external advisors play? Consultants are paid to provide new perspective but the question can rightly be asked: do external advisors often play it safe and say only what the client wants to hear. Very often external advisors, once they have discerned that the client is resistant to change, focus on small incremental improvements in situations where a dose of fundamental change is needed. It would be interesting to see what issues were raised in external assessments by technical advisers and auditors over the years.

·       What is the current mood and climate in the organisation? What are staff members’ opinions of working in a huge public organisation that has failed to meet important objectives such as thinking ahead and effective maintenance? How does it affect managers’ identity to work in a company that is campaigning to encouraging people to use less of its product – or that has managed to plunge an entire country into darkness?
 
There are other important questions, such as how top management accounts to external stakeholders. On this, the CEO has stepped up to the plate and last week took the public into his confidence about the depth of problems at the parastatal. One hopes this signals a move to greater openness in management reports to parliamentary committees, to the shareholder and – by extension – to the public.
 
In the literature, there is talk about the concept of 'public value’ as a way of evaluating the performance of state bodies. In this regard, public value revolves around value-add and  what citizens value most. In the case of electricity (as with matric results) citizens have a very clear idea of the outcomes and impact they expect.

It is in this context that management comes under close scrutiny. Huge parastatals such as Eskom have a clutch of high-powered managers. Their top jobs come with power and status – rooted in big budgets, abundant perks and many people to order around – but also with immense responsibility.
 
There is great opportunity for those doing work in the field of management to extract lessons and insights from the Eskom debacle. There they will find rich seams of information as they probe Eskom’s culture and examine how the parastal  – the new CEO aside – came to externalise the reason for its failures.
 
Frank Meintjies
(This article first appeared in the press on 23 January 2015)

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A turbulent year ahead, marked by ungovernability

All indications are that 2015 will be a tough year on many fronts.
 
The economic issues will fire up our current affairs, making engagements in the political sphere all the more charged. At the level of the of the broader economy there will be continued frustration as the economy continues to underperform, hobbled by a new constraints such as Eskom, continuing shocks from the global economy and old impediments such as the education system. The pressure will come as both the middle class and the working class feel the squeeze and demand that government and industry do more to implement of job-creation plans.
 
In the social sphere, 2015 will be the year where there will be even less social cohesion. At one level, this will manifest in a continuation of high levels of crime. Fuelled by unemployment and lack of hope, petty crime will be sustained while, syndicates will find new avenues to undermine society and gender violence will continue to cast its shadow over us. Any improvements in policing – and there are no indications that they will be sufficient – will be undermined by worsening conditions in our settlements and a rise in inequality.  

Lack of cohesion will also manifest in the form of an ongoing rupture between those governing and the governed.
 
One is likely to see an increase in ungovernability. We have already witnessed rowdy behaviour by political parties, an increase in conflict in the industrial relation arena and an average over 1000 community protests a month. Although there are many factors behind a breakdown in relations between government and citizens, anger about corruption will still be a major trigger for eruptions of ungovernability. In parliament and at community levels, we have seen how corruption mobilises divergent groups into strident and unified protest action.
 
Institutional factors will also contribute to making next year difficult – one that is filled with a sense of uncertainty and instability. On the one hand, we see that the ANC – a key institution that has acted as an engine for positive change during the transition – is weakened and, as President Jacob Zuma has noted, “in trouble”. In addition, South Africans are losing faith in public institutions. The Institute of Justice and Reconciliation reported this week that only 50 percent of South Africans who took part in a representative survey had faith in the country’s institutions. Because institutions help to channel differences and conflict, any significant loss of respect for them contributes to turbulence.  
 
Of course, this kind of assessment can be one-dimensional. It focuses necessarily on that which is deteriorating or tending towards atrophy. However, another part of reality will be that many elements will go on as before, including the dynamism that exists in our society. Although many small businesses will be under pressure, many entrepreneurs around the country will find gaps in the market and markets in the gaps. A few corporates will keep their commitment to create jobs and run supplier programmes with an affirmative action slant. Many educational institutions, including schools, will pursue and attain excellence. A few government departments will rally the troops and go the extra mile to reach delivery targets. There will continue to be leadership and resilience in communities. And numerous civil society organisations will soldier on, working close to communities, assisting them with immediate needs or to claim their rights.
 
It is also important to remember that, despite the many objective factors weighing down on us, we can influence many aspects of our reality. In this sense, the degree of turbulence is under our control. We can decide to find solutions, hold each other accountable, work harder to ensure implementation of election promises and be more focused on addressing the needs of the masses.
 
What if anything can be done? The following actions won’t prevent a bumpy ride in 2015, but could help us turn the corner and create conditions for better prospects (and greater common purpose) in the period thereafter.
 
The first task lies at the door of the ANC. In this regard, it is true, as President Zuma implied, that as the ANC goes, so goes the state. This is no place to fully analyse the problems of the ruling party. However, it urgently needs to address (a) its failure to get government to deliver according to its mandate, (b) the gap between itself and a wider base supportive of national democratic change and (c) its loss of the moral high ground. It must take steps to ensure we do not get to the explosion that Langston Hughes said comes after the “dream deferred”.

In addition, we as South Africans should consider the following actions as a response to the pressure that will face us in 2015:

·       There needs to be a firm commitment from the powers that be to open rather than close down the space for debate and discussion about national problems and solutions.

·       Citizens should become more active in getting closer to their specific representatives and supporting them where they perform and holding them accountable where they are just party hacks, sleep on the job or serve their own interests.

·       Citizens should step into spaces of engagement. Especially at local level – with regard to municipal issues and on issues such as community safety and school education. Although getting involved is difficult and often discouraged, we should know that we can only build a strong democracy if there is democracy at the base.

·       We must tirelessly build hope for the youth. Every company, non-profit organisation and quasi-state institution should commit to enrolling young people for internships and work experience.

·       Violence against women is such a fault line and a grim indicator of the state of things; we need to unite in action against it. We are involved as perpetrators, colluders and survivors. There is thus a great opportunity to bring South Africans from different classes and population groups ­together in sustained citizen campaigns on this issue.  

·       With the help of the CCMA, more companies and unions should work together to find models of management that allow workers and bosses to share in the ups and downs of company performance. Where such models already exist, we should promote them.
 
(This article first appeared in the press on 8 December 2014)
Frank Meintjies