from Louis in Johannesburg: life under lockdown …

June 29. Life under lockdown in South Africa has settled into a routine. These routines have been stripped of the jarring interruptions from another way of life where the clock and the time it keeps rules. Electric lights still extend the day beyond what is a healthy cycle. I prefer this rhythm. The rooster’s crow as the sun rises is one signal of dawn breaking. The playful bark of our small dogs starts their announcement of a new day. No better, non-violent alarm system, self-adjusting to solar time. Going into Southern Hemisphere winter in May, nights are lengthening and days shorter. Our little natural system is geared to track this shift. I am the beneficiary of that shift for now. Time to feed the dogs, and the chickens and also to collect any eggs for breakfast. Enjoying an egg this fresh tends to make one judgemental about the so-called fresh eggs from the local supermarket

Then into my workspace to continue working on the writing and other matters of developing an income in this time of lock-down. I am committed to converting a thesis to a readable piece of writing for practitioners interested in rebuilding towns and cities as the next phase of my so-called career. This diary has recently taken second place to my plan to leverage my modest process-consulting business of scenario-based strategy and executive education (aka capacity-building) during and after this lock-down. I appreciate the privilege we enjoy working from a home office. Commuting to the office is a one minute stroll down the corridor gets me into my “office.” From there Zoom and Google meeting connects me to a scenario session in New Hampshire and a family friend’s funeral in Dublin in the same day.

Since 1990 when I left the corporate world, I have enjoyed the benefit of knowledge work. Long may it continue. In the early 2000s an Irish Life assurance company engaged us to develop scenarios for a viral attack and its consequences. That’s where I learnt that a viral attack similar to the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu was inevitable. The timing was unknowable. Since the Spanish Flu we have seen a succession of viral attacks on the human species. A number of other “inevitable surprises” spurred me to consider what a sustainable, robust plan for our home in Midrand would look like.

We live in a community of 450 families. Together we have pooled our resources to ensure that criminal elements cannot enter to make or lives a misery. Our security manager, an ex-cop with sound relationships with the South African Police Services (SAPS), understands that criminals are not deterred by the consequences of their actions but by being tracked around and within our community. In these days of extended lock-down our community support grows by the day. Sean from Homestead Meats delivers bacon, sausage and steaks later today. His meat processing is down the road from our home. Sara brought in eggs by the dozen a couple of days ago. She is down the road as well. We support both these home-based entrepreneurs in their efforts to sustain their families in these times. Back to creating a sustainable home, we installed solar water-heating and grid tied, generator-assisted electricity, which hedges us against our faltering national electricity supplier and its predatory pricing. We have been off the water grid for years but receive regular “accounts” from Joburg water. The so-called accounts seem to be based on some poor soul extending last month’s reading and rendering an account based on that estimate.

Our organic garden delivers, spinach, pumpkins, gem squashes, basil, rosemary and other herbs for kitchen cooking. “Flattening the curve” between growing your own veggies and the demand in the kitchen takes on a whole new meaning. Suddenly the importance of curried beans, frozen veggies and surplus pesto to absorb an overproduction of basil highlights the complexity of farming where supply and demand must be matched to avoid wastage.  We are constantly and painfully aware of our privileged life and remain engaged in assisting in the broader community at an interpersonal and project levels.

A local car guard, from the DRC whom we have befriended, receives a monthly stipend to sustain his six children and spouse. Another person, a Malawian, receives food parcels and monthly payment regularly as he stays in isolation. During the hurricane/typhoon last year in Mozambique, Marie moved 32 tons of clothing and food into Mozambique via the Charitas faith-based network to help the needy there. Currently she is again coordinating the Charitas efforts to assist people in need as result of the Covid19 pandemic. 

Over the past four years, I have coordinated a blanket-fund as part of a men’s group. We raised funds, acquired and distributed more than 4,000 blankets to the poorest of the poor. My engagement in various poorer communities has indelibly changed my perspective on township life in our province and how to support the needy. For instance, balancing the quality of blankets purchased and distributed, with the context of the recipients is critical. Too high quality and they are sold to buy food. Too low quality and they are discarded on the refuse dump where I understood they are harvested by other people lower down the needs chain. Zero wastage in poorer communities. This, besides raising money for numerous other donations to orphans in distress in an underfunded orphanage and a mission station for abused women and their families to name a few. In these ways we ensure that as a family we maintain an ethical balance between our relative comfort and those in need in this country fraught by the greatest inequality anywhere. Dwelling on how corrupt politicians blatantly steal food parcels destined for the poor or use their power over the starving to extort votes for food seems “just how it is here” for now.

My hope is that as the Covid19 exposes the political opportunists and fracture lines in the SA society opportunities for policy improvement will open up. The imminent entry by the IMF to fund the national deficit will eliminate short-sighted ideology-based decisions and encourage pragmatism in terms of evidence-based economic policy. According to the Institute of Race Relations’ surveys, the average South African simply wants government to create jobs, reduce criminality, provide education for their children and medical care for the sick. Expropriation of property without compensation is ranked last in a list of ten top priorities. The ideological blinkers worn by the socialist/Marxist national political leadership of the ANC prevent them from seeing the priorities of the average person in the street. Never were Prime Minster Thatcher’s words more prescient; socialists are politicians that run out of other people’s money.  Every Rand paid by the taxpayer devotes 58 cents to servicing foreign debt. Many of the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are technically insolvent. Eskom now owes R500 Bn which is state guaranteed. Ministers are trying to recover South African Airways (SAA) which is also technically insolvent. This in a climate where airlines in general are struggling to survive.

For the first time in memory, government is turning to the much maligned private sector vilified as “white monopoly capital” (WMC) as a potential source of further borrowings. LOL. Attention is gradually shifting towards unlocking the economy and restarting organisations which have been dormant during lockdown. The extent to which society has adapted to social distancing, and other behaviour required to keep safe, is astounding. Many now prefer this mode. School children in high school now prefer what they call home-schooling via computer link. Teachers have made the investment in digitally delivered provision. The adjustment may be permanent, with typically the higher grades preferring this mode while the lower grades, which need careful supervision by parents at home prefer a back to school choice.

Many of the private schools have been accused of racism amidst the global wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM). In South Africa its history predisposes this society to ingrained racist practice which is often invisible to itself. Transformation usually begins with non-racial policy and due process to deal with behaviour that violates policy and agreements between parents, pupils and schools. However, behaviour of pupils is shaped by the attitudes and values formed in the family context. Prejudice and stereotyping persists in families long after the need for societal transformation is seen to be essential. Schools as institutions are also being called out for individual racist behaviour under the current our cry for BLM.    

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Prince Phillip again.

Prince Phillip

June 15.  This is the same story told by David Maughan Brown on June 10, from the same perspective.

I too was a Deputy Vice Chancellor when the Royals came to my university.  I too ended up spending time with the Duke of Edinburgh (we both occupied, after all, the same rung in our organisations).

There was some flummery.  Ladies in Waiting really exist, and are indeed well-dressed women who stand around waiting to be useful.  One of them told me that the Queen was excited about the bus we had hired to transport her from one side of the campus to the other, because she had never in her life travelled on one.  Perhaps Ladies in Waiting have a hidden sense of humour.  I was gravely instructed in how to ask the Queen if she wanted to use the loo.  Unfortunately, I have now forgotten the exact form of words, but as she and I are now in perpetual lockdown, the occasion is unlikely to arise in the future.

After an opening ceremony, we divided our forces.  The Vice Chancellor, Janet Finch, took the Queen to see some new buildings, and I escorted Prince Philip to inspect a display of work by staff. He treated them as equals, interrogating the meaning of graphs, demanding to know the evidence for their conclusions.  Aggressive, but in the way that academics are to each other.

Then I walked him down to our main hall.  ‘Has the campus ever been planned?’ he asked me.  I told him that not initially, but a master-plan was developed in 1962.  ‘Are its results showing yet?’ he asked (this was now four decades later).  Fair question if you know the Keele campus.

We entered the hall, in which were gathered a hundred local dignitaries, standing around in groups of ten.  We had arrived before the Queen, but Philip suggested we tour the room without her.  I had a crib sheet and introduced him to each individual in turn.  ‘This is Mr. Blenkinsop of Allied Ball Bearings, this is Mr. Greatbach of the Greatbach Pottery …’. When we got to the end, the Queen appeared, and Philip said he would show her round, leaving the crib sheet with me.  He introduced the Queen to Mr. Blenkinsop and every subsequent person, without missing a name.  I was astonished at this feat of memory in a man who was by then well into his seventies.  ‘How did you do that?’ I asked him.  ‘Ties’ he said.  ‘I remember each tie and the name and activity attached to it.’

I think now, as I thought then, that this was a display of professional competence of a high order.  A little like that shown by nurses and doctors and social workers and teachers as they go about their business in the coronavirus crisis.  Quite unlike that displayed by our political leaders, the product of a democratic system which we thought was a better form of government than royalty.

And I say that as a life-long republican.

Dickens and Sundays, note 1.

The Guardian, as it happened, ran a piece by Peter Fiennes the day after mine, on Dickens and Little Dorrit and the lockdown.  It broadened out into a discussion of his way of life at the time, with the beginning of his public readings, a walking tour of the Lake District, his constant pacing of the London streets.  ‘Dickens of 1857’, it concludes, ‘would have had trouble enduring the lockdown.’

Dickens and Sundays, note 2

It was reported in the Times on Saturday Boris Johnson ‘is facing a cabinet backlash over plans to suspend Sunday trading laws after three ministers, including the chief whip, warned against it.’  Another of those three was the nanny-raised Jacob Rees-Mogg, in his capacity as Leader of the House of Commons.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: on National Pride …

April 21stBritish readers will recall the carefully crafted address by the Queen on 5th April.  It studiously avoided saying anything about the Government whose leader had so embarrassed her over the proroguing of Parliament last Autumn.  Instead it concentrated on national character:

I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.  And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.

The question of whether we still have any right to take a national pride in the response to coronavirus has been thrown into relief by the revelations in the press over the weekend, particularly the 5,000-word piece in the Sunday Times.

The generalised ‘attributes of self-discipline, quiet good-humoured resolve and fellow-feeling’ remain valid.  Indeed, they have proved stronger than the Government initially feared as it hesitated about imposing a lock-down.  The street protests against restrictions on movement in the USA reported this week demonstrates what can happen in the absence of such resolve.  That said, there are also worrying reports about a sudden growth of domestic abuse inside closed-down families which may yet disfigure the celebration of fellow-feeling.

In terms of public policy, however, shame is the more appropriate sentiment.  Just ask yourself this question, of all the countries fighting the pandemic, which are seen as a model to be followed?  South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany and some others.  No-one is viewing the daily British news conferences for lessons about what they should be doing.

It is not as though we have no inherited strengths.  We have an economy strong enough to withstand emergency bail-outs worth many billions of pounds.  We have a sophisticated production and distribution system which has ensured, unlike many developing countries, that there is still food in the shops.  We have a health service which, in contrast to Trump’s America, covers the whole population.  And once we led the world in the specific field of pandemic resolution.  No longer.  According to the Sunday Times:

“Several emergency planners and scientists said that the plans to protect the UK in a pandemic had once been a priority and had been well funded for the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But then austerity cuts struck. “We were the envy of the world,” the source said, “but pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years, when there were more pressing needs.”  [to judge from a TV interview I saw, that ‘source’ is Sir David King, a former Chief Scientific Officer]

The planning had atrophied.  The funding had been cut.  And once the crisis began, the wrong decisions were taken by a Cabinet whose members had been appointed solely on the basis of their attitude to Brexit.  Its leader fulfilled all the expectations which his career had predicted:

“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” the adviser said. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”

What we still have is a world-class scientific community (though universities, including Imperial, are going to be very hard hit by a combination of the pandemic and Brexit).  It may yet be that those working on a vaccine at Oxford and elsewhere will come up with the solution that will save the world.  Then, and only then, will we have a cause for national pride in how we responded.