from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: the unfolding dynamic of schools

July 27. One continuum for national decision-making and leadership stretches from responsible, informed choice to thoughtless compliance with centralised edicts.

The one end embodies the freedom of choice and the other control, coercion and compliance. The Covid19 pandemic has uncovered where South Africa can currently be located along this continuum. The process of unlocking the economy and critical institutions such as schools within it reflects where we are on this spectrum. The policy formulation has many cross pressures in it including; vocal organised labour, the so-called Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) political party (advocating closure until after Covid19 passes), cautious business community, the ANC government Minister, a consensus seeking President and the DA opposition with its Cape basis of successful governance.

Government, specifically the High Court, decided that private, independent schools shall reopen on the 8th of July. This decision has now been shifted to 31st July 2020.The inequality in South Africa also segments education into a dual-logic system. Poorly run public (government) schooling and at the same time, world-class private schools funded by parents. One would imaging that a sensible government would try and emulate world-class education. Instead, the impulse of politicians seems to be to bring down good schools to the level of public government schooling. Educator Jonathan Jansen is recommending that because of the disruption by Covid19, the Minister should cancel this year of schooling including examinations and start again in 2021.

At the same time, the school daughter Rachel is part of, Cornwall Hill College (CHC), has been preparing for almost three years to switch to digital learning. Digital learning is also being called “homeschooling” and suits Grade 9 Rachel’s style of learning. No wonder she is reluctant to return and be exposed to viral infection. The risks of exposing pupils and teachers to viral infection compel school leadership to be cautious. There are now isolated infections of both teachers and pupils. All the necessary precautions have been taken such as the issue of linen masks, sanitisation stations, one hundred per cent daily monitoring of body temperature and deep cleaning and sterilisation of the entire school or part thereof in the event of viral infection. A visit by the Department of Health to inspect the level of compliance. “As a result of this, all grades in the Preparatory School and High School will be allowed to return following the decision by the High Court”. Regulation of safety has its purpose, however responsible local leaders at CHC have probably been making better decisions as they pre-emptively respond to local conditions.

One scenario for the unfolding dynamic could be that the school opens and when infection enters, it closes and deep cleans. Once it is safe, the pupils and teachers are allowed back based on the judgement of executive management. This cycle could continue until a stable situation evolves. This could be where E-learning emerges as the dominant form of tuition with some exceptions such as grades 7 and 12 where personal tuition could be chosen to ensure a successful outcome for important grade examination. The pupils at school could practice safe distancing because of the space left by pupils opting for E-learning. E-Learning has been massively accelerated by the Covid19 pandemic. Some estimates say that we have doe in two months what would normally take two years. This dynamic and the investment it takes can best be managed locally as it requires responsible, evidence-based judgement by local decision-makers.

In all revolutions, there is damage, in South Africa, the damage has been to the quality of thinking. A wise observation by an industry leader. So it seems with the ANC government decision-making. Voters have yet to discover the power of their votes. For now, they wait for the government to tell them what to do and hail any sign of leadership by President Ramaphosa, however transient as messianic.

On a more positive note, one of the unintended consequences of social distancing is that E-learning has received a major boost. With a minor drop in quality of face to face education, pupils can stay safely out of the way of the Covid19 demon. Judging by the overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents, the first flush of positive feedback would constitute a successful Beta-test for its E-Learning capability. This may encourage the entrepreneurial spirit amongst the school leadership. They could launch into the waiting market for digital learning. Quality E-Learning opens the reach for a school into the whole of Africa and beyond.

from Louis in Johannesburg: Fracture Lines …

It has become a truism that Covid19 has exposed many of the fracture lines and contradictions in South African society. The inequality across SA society has become much more visible and prominent. There are stark provincial differences in dealing with the crisis. Ideologues persist in shunning the private sector, which at the same time are providing a far more efficient basis for testing services to stem the pandemic tide. Prevention measures remain better than cure.

There can be no mistaking a capable state with a clear strategy, leadership that takes a stand for their strategic priorities and relentless delivery of quality services. In Gauteng province where I live, we have gone in the last few weeks, from the expectation of a massive wave of infections to the reality of infection levels that may well overwhelm the medical facilities available.

The stated intent by the ANC government of “flattening the curve” was to buy time to expand medical facilities such as testing and tracking as well as increasing beds available for those in most in need of intensive care. The official reason given was “to save lives” This government mantra reminds me of the  mini-speech/presentation delivered on take-off about “the unlikely event of an emergency landing etc.” The best part is the “life-jacket under your seat” part, especially in the event of an emergency sea landing. With large jet engines hanging off the wings which will be the first to touch the water surface in an emergency landing, does this not cause the aircraft to cartwheel out of control killing all on board! Safety regulations being what they are, they shall be obeyed even if they do not make sense. Politicians being what they are, they must be seen to be doing their best even if their leadership does not make sense. In defence of political leadership, much has yet to be understood about the behaviour of the Covid19 virus. A curious comparative African statistic  on 4th of July 2020 raises many questions.

South Africa: Population 59,312,107 Total deaths 2,952, Full lockdown, Unemployment rate 30.1%, GDP Growth -7.2% in 2020.

Tanzania: Population: 59,727,695, Total deaths 21, No lockdown, Unemployment rate: 1.98%, GDP Growth 2.5% in 2020.

The Democratic Party-run Western Cape Province is the only province that has done this. The eight other Provinces seem to have postponed the inevitable tsunami and squandered the time created by lockdown by a lack of implementation, leaving very few options. It is emerging that lives lost through the loss of jobs may be substantial; some estimates place the economic consequences at R1.2 Trillion and counting. Testing by the government takes at least six days to obtain results. My Covid19 test took six hours in a private sector facility. The ANC Government insists on working separately from the private sector while it is clear where efficiencies lie. An ideological bias towards a statist policy creates a manifest learning disability. ANC politicians continuously refer to expected surges trying to create the impression that they are in control, while the opposite is true. Professor Alex van den Heever of the Wits School of governance said recently that the government now needs to seriously change tack and begin to do its job-rather then just pretending. The Western Cape’s response to Covid19 should be recognised and replicated because it represents best practice.

I’m not holding my breath. There seems to be a deep inability to learn within the ANC government. Other examples exist but are ignored. Much yet to be desired for evidence based policy and modern government.

Cape Town was the first Metro to conduct a full virtual council sitting where it passed an adjusted budget with an R3 billion social support package. This was made possible by the City’s history of responsible, clean financial management. It offered the most comprehensive services to homeless people of any metro during the initial hard lockdown providing temporary emergency facilities housing 2,000 people: providing meals, shelter, blankets, sanitation and psychosocial services including assistance with getting identity documentation and registering for social programmes.

President Ramaphosa, who has recently been compared to Churchill, admonished the population not to stigmatise of people testing positive for Covid19. He commanded that it “must stop.” Stigmatisation seems to be a throwback to one of the responses to HIV/Aids infection. A kind of denial of existence. In his defence, he has prioritised the lack of capability in government. However, a general lack of follow-through by government, now also in the case of flattening the curve tactics. The time between early lockdown and exponential infections seems to have been squandered in all provices where the ANC rules.

Capability can be seen and appreciated in Japanese industries, during the quality revolution stretching from the1940s to the 1980s. In Singapore, the government scenario planning unit anticipated, amongst other dynamics, a viral attack and prepared plans accordingly. More recently, China has demonstrated its capability to build medical facilities at a breath-taking pace. The capability of these government organisations is unmistakable. This capability has taken years of steady investment to build.

from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: Presidential Leadership

14 May. The Presidential leadership in SA is now being compared to Churchill. That has to be in comparison to his predecessors Zuma and including the Mbeki Presidency where paranoia and fear of conspiracy typified decision-making driven amongst other figments by the loss of SA sovereignty to the IMF, the World Bank or some such Western bogeyman. Dealing with the COVID19 virus was initially impaled on the horns of a dilemma of “doing too little too late and doing too much too soon”. Social media, as well as mainstream media with few exceptions, basing some of the more dire mortality scenarios on flimsy evidence and so-called models, scared decision-makers and panicked citizens at scale. Decision-makers at a national presidential level should have their eyes set on a 20 to 25 planning time horizon as that is how long it takes for policy and decision at that level to prove itself right or wrong aka Elliott Jaques’ “time span of discretion”. This principle is one of the few scientific facts in the so-called management sciences.

The lockdown decision in SA was taken with very little consideration for how the unlock would be achieved. This lack of looking beyond the immediate is also real for schools and many of the other institutions directly in the path of lockdown. The presidency is now once again in reactive mode attempting to deal with another dilemma between saving lives with lockdown and saving lives impacted by economic destruction with unlocking the lockdown. Only a government genuinely committed to centralised command politics could have any faith that once it was ready the decision to restart the economy would actually start the complex interconnected web, which is an economic system. The so-called Command Council an extra-parliamentary body to lead the campaign against the COVID19 viral attack is now itself under attack and its local constitutional standing in question. In the background, the IMF offers low-interest loans to economies in difficulty in these times of widespread global economic distress. Public servants who bear no risk of organisational failure have insisted on generous, higher than inflation salary increases modelled on the private sector.

In SA critics are finally questioning whether “Saving lives from COVID19  is more important than 5 million joining the unemployed?” So far, the decision has been lopsided in the direction of preserving lives at the cost of between 3 and 5 million people losing their jobs. The enterprises employing them will either go bankrupt or be forced to scale down significantly. Politicians may categorise this cost as an unintended consequence or some such. Two consequences come to mind:

-widespread hunger and potential loss of livelihoods and lives from an imploding economy, and

-patients with cancer and other dread diseases taken out of hospitals and ICUs to make room for incoming COVID19 patients.

President Ramphosa’s presidential decision to lock down is now being labelled as “Nongqause II”. Nongqause I is indelibly etched in the history of the AmaXhosa. It was where the infamous, self-inflicted cattle-killing amongst the Xhosa in the mid 19th century resulted in catastrophic famine and death. It took the Xhosa decades to recover from the widespread hunger and starvation brought about by Nongqause I. On may 5th in Durban the president blamed COVID19 for dealing the economy “a heavy blow.” This statement is not true or balanced. This government has lauded itself for following the best scientific advice. The question now is if it ever considered the scientific basis for recovering the collapsed economy and the impact of trampling on freedom during lockdown would do to the dignity, livelihood and well-being of the population.

Guest contribution: From Christopher Merrett in Pietermaritzburg: a creeping coup in South Africa?

a casspir (mine-protected armoured personnel carrier)

April 26, 2020. Sharp Thoughts. South Africa is currently run by big fat people with guns and an attitude to match. Seeing pictures of a casspir entering a Cape Town township, an entire wedding arrested in KwaZulu-Natal, and heavily armed troops storming into Alexandra (allegedly killing Collins Khosa on his property on 10 April and assaulting people in the street and forcing them to do humiliating physical exercises) brought back haunting and disturbing memories of the emergency years of the apartheid-era. Judging by the broadcast traffic report there are numerous roadblocks. Ten thousand people have reportedly been arrested in KwaZulu-Natal alone.

Using the armed forces to police civilians is always an extremely bad idea. Soldiers are trained in aggression and to kill, not to ensure co-operation from citizens. They have no policing skills and sooner or later, by the very order of things, someone will die. High-ranking army officers appearing before the parliamentary joint standing committee on defence justified the potentially murderous behaviour of their troops on the grounds that they were ‘provoked’ by people ‘insulting’ their commander-in-chief (i.e., the president of South Africa). This would apparently ‘not be tolerated’. It is clearly news to them that provocation is not a crime, nor is insulting the president unless a charge is laid and the courts find otherwise; but parliament acted in its customary limp-wristed fashion and issued no rebuke. 

Soldiers instinctively look for an enemy and in the case of South Africa there they are: legions of increasingly hungry, angry and demonstrative people. The government evaded responsibility for the Marikana massacre of miners in August 2012, but the consequences of another bloodbath, this time in a busy township or crowded informal settlement rather than among some remote koppies, will be dire.

From the very outset the ANC government has treated a global public health threat in a militaristic way. The term ‘state of disaster’ is a misnomer: there is no disaster – yet – especially in comparison with other ongoing calamities like the murder rate, road fatalities, and deaths from HIV/AIDS and TB. This is no war, but a military approach suits the ANC’s collective psyche. Command centres, whatever they might be, resonate with the idea of a ruling party issuing orders, not an accountable government. They also tap into a tradition of so-called centralised democracy in which a group of chosen cadres debate an issue and then instruct everyone else on the non-negotiable ‘line’. Similarly, there are echoes of armed struggle when power issued from the barrel of a gun.

This may sound fanciful, and maybe is, but there is a sense that a coup is underway in South Africa: strange things have happened before under cover of public health emergencies when the citizenry is faced with an existential threat and there are ruthless authoritarians looking for opportunities. Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, described Khosa’s death as no more than ‘unfortunate’. This is an alleged murder of a civilian on his property but the case has been referred to the military ombudsman. The family has courageously gone to Constitutional Court to establish their rights to due process as citizens of a democracy. 

There is an air of enduring paternalism about the ANC; the phrase ‘our people’ being a big giveaway when describing the citizenry. The party has many members of intelligence and ability, but the factionalism and patronage that are now its essential nature do not favour the thoughtful and rational. They nurture and promote limited people with loud voices and a predisposition to command rather than reason, plan and explain. The ANC approached this looming crisis with a clear desire to appear tough and muscular and in some senses this seems to have worked. Many South Africans are still under the illusion that they are ahead of the world and that life will soon get back to normal rather than the reality that an epidemic is soon to descend. It is an unfortunate consequence also of a nation that basks in sporting metaphor rather than a more cerebral approach to problems. This will not be another Rugby World Cup victory.

South Africa has all the fine trappings of democracy; but it is dysfunctional. The institutions designed to protect it have either never performed adequately (for instance, parliament) or have been deliberately hollowed out to allow free rein for racketeers and looters. If the rule of law were in operation, many of those in government would be behind bars wearing orange outfits. Damaged and compromised public institutions and an economy already on the edge of a cliff before anyone had heard of Covid-19 have now been joined by draconian regulations (there is nothing more severe than being told you cannot earn a living by other people on big fat salaries) enforced by authoritarian security forces.

If it were not already the case, this is a recipe for violent upheaval. Even if that is avoided, there are serious concerns about the most basic of future freedoms. We are currently told that authoritarian measures are required for our collective good, to save lives (although intelligent commentators are increasingly vocal about saving livelihoods as well). A staged relaxation of regulations is planned from 1 May that may include provincial and regional variations, but this could last many months. And just as we as individuals are getting used to new modes of behaviour that will become the norm in future, the ANC is also becoming comfortable with new autocratic methods of government. Fortunately, the judiciary is one of few national institutions that remain largely uncompromised, but civil society organisations and the Constitutional Court are going to need to be very alert and active in defence of democracy in future. Economic decline means that the ANC presides over an increasingly failed state and it will search desperately for means to maintain power. Covid-19 has handed it an authoritarian opportunity on a plate.

Suspicions about this have been further raised by the news that 73,000 more defence force personnel are to be deployed (or employed as the government likes to describe it) until 26 June, making over 75,000 in all. Many of these are medical, engineering, transport and logistical staff, but a large number will join those already in full combat gear and moving around our streets with R5 assault rifles. It is now clear that this extra deployment did not correctly follow parliamentary procedure by first involving the presiding officers and is presumably unconstitutional.

Cyril Ramaphosa is the reasonable face of the ANC. Even within his party it is reckoned that but for him it might have lost the 2019 general election, largely through abstentions. He is now saddled with a Cabinet that is a state of disaster in itself. Given the bleak national outlook on all fronts why does he not demonstrate that he is a true leader of South Africa? There is already anecdotal evidence that the presidency and some government departments are open to ideas beyond the stale ideology of the ANC that all too frequently reeks of eastern Europe circa 1970 and is totally disengaged from the present-day realities and needs of South Africa. Why does he not assemble a high-profile advisory council (no, not another command centre) of the intelligent and competent from opposition political parties, civil society and the professions to encourage a free flow of ideas that could feed into government decision making? 

A war-like approach will neither defeat the virus, nor preserve a viable nation. The old mantras of the ANC look more and more flimsy in an increasingly volatile situation and Ramaphosa now has a virus-created gap to introduce new approaches and attitudes. Or will he allow the camouflage-coloured minds of his Cabinet hawks and the security cluster to steer the country into an authoritarian future?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid-19 and Human Rights

April 25th

Apart from the permitted ‘one form of exercise a day’, spent preparing the ground for planting when the rain comes, the day has largely been spent reviewing bids for grants for ‘arctivist’ projects.  The grants are for monies, to a maximum of £3000, from a fund whose objective is ‘to support activists and artists across the world responding to the outbreak of Covid-19 and its implications for human rights defenders, activism, and shrinking civic and political space.’  The very imaginative initiative to bring activists and artists together to this end is the brainchild of the Centre of Applied Human Rights (CAHR) at the University of York, with the funding coming from the Open Society Foundations.  I have been engaged in the engrossing process of going through the first twenty of an unknown number of bids, to be reviewed on a rolling basis, in my capacity as a representative on the four-person selection committee of CAHR’s Advisory Board, which I have the good fortune to chair.

The bids provide rich insights into the wide range of responses to Covid-19 across the globe.  The first group to be considered via a Zoom meeting on Monday come from activists from as far afield as Columbia to the West and Indonesia to the East, and ranges from funding for the production and publication of cartoons satirizing the response to the virus of the state in Kyrgyzstan, to the painting of a mural on a wall close to a police station in Kenya asking the police to be kinder to the people they are supposed to be serving.  Good luck with that.  At the time when the bid was submitted the police had allegedly killed more people in Kenya in the process of cracking down on those not obeying the lockdown regulations, mainly small traders, than had died from Covid-19.   One of the factors that will need to be taken into account is the widely differing situation where Human Rights are concerned in the different countries from where the bids originate.   One obvious example is the contrast between South Africa, where Cyril Ramaphosa’s outstanding leadership where Covid-19 is concerned has put the buffoonery of two of our most prominent western leaders to shame, and next-door Zimbabwe where the Human Rights situation remains atrocious.

Reading through these bids is far less harrowing than the annual process of selecting applicants for CAHR’s protective fellowship scheme, which enables human rights defenders who are ‘at risk’ to come to York for six months to undertake Human Rights research, to take courses on, for example, personal and cyber security, and to have a period of respite from the intense stress of their daily lives.  Over the past ten years over 70 fellows from more than 40 countries have benefited from this fellowship.  Many had experienced arrest, imprisonment and torture and were suffering to a greater of lesser extent from post traumatic stress disorder, so reading through applicants’ stories and trying to choose between them is sometimes very difficult.   I had assumed that the ‘artivist’ process would also be a lot quicker, as the bids were restricted to two pages of text. But that was naïve.  Apart from one bid that resorted to the cunning plan of reducing the font size to the point where one could barely read it without a magnifying glass, the others almost all offered supplementary material to bolster their bids in the form of web-sites where we can access examples of the artists’ work: films, murals, cartoons, songs, you name it.  The stand-out from the many highlights of my day was a beautiful Chichewa song, improbably enough about flood defences in Malawi, sung by a soprano with an exquisite voice whom I would never in a hundred years have come across otherwise.  What better way to broaden one’s horizons and transport oneself beyond the very restricted world of locked-down York?

from Louis in Johannesburg: South Africa – first lockdown …

19 April. South Africa has passed through the first lock-down tranche of 21 days. In light of infection numbers not being fully arrested a further tranche of 20 days has been declared by President Ramaphosa and his most visible advisor Dr Zweli Mkhize now Minister of health. Today registered the highest jump of 251 new infection of a total base pf 3,304.  Mkhize has clearly learn from his experience with HIV and AIDS where he stared down Past President Mbeki and his cookie ideas. From behind this political face of the pandemic has surfaced the authoritative Professor Salim Abdool Karim, affectionately called “Slim”, immunologist, infectious disease specialist from Uni of Kwazulu-Natal. Also an activist during the apartheid era. He cautions: its not over yet, SA has all the conditions for an explosion in infection levels. The data are not there to yet be sure of the actual levels of infection let alone the growth of infections in hot spots. He also cautions against lifting the lockdown prematurely.

Another virus seems to have migrated from the apartheid era into specific ministers and members of the SAPS. Police brutality persists within pockets of a generally helpful SA Police Service. The Minister of police forbids couples to kiss, huh? The social media has roundly ridiculed this. The so-called Red Ants have selectively demolished shacks in Khayelitsha. Thankfully the Gift of the Givers has erected a shelter for these now homeless people. Pitiful tales are now emerging from informal settlements reporting children who have not had a meal in three and more days. Protests and looting have broken out in numerous parts of SA with the root cause, hunger. These incidents have been exacerbated by the Politicians in the ANC doing their selfish selective distribution to party members first. There seems to be a general lack of capacity to distribute food to those in need. Bureaucracy also delays and politicises food distribution.

On a more positive note a “Centre for Analytics and Behaviour Change” CABC at Uni of Cape Town to report on trends in the above incidents but also to cement positive change as it emerges.  Renewed efforts to supply water to townships via newly-built trucking systems free of corruption and price gouging dependent, poor residents. There are calls for the unity that existed across communities during the apartheid era, aka Ubuntu. The CABC is focussing on solutions to the emerging post Covid19 dynamics suggesting basic income grants UIF funding efficiency and more. Their espoused aim is to track and counter mis- and disinformation, fake news and divisive polarising rhetoric that undermines social cohesion, democratic integrity and stability. A positive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is there is a growing realisation that we have not delivered the promises of 1994. The constant reminder of the desperate plight of the poor, homeless and unemployed, exposed by the pandemic remind us of this. Some say the Coronavirus provides us with a new beginning. The emergence of the CABC is a start to ensuring this trend continues.