From David Maughan Brown in York: So much for democracy

October 31st

It will be apparent to outside observers, even if it apparently isn’t to many of our own citizens, that in UK we are currently trying to contend with two simultaneous, and in some ways related, crises.   On the one hand, we have a health crisis occasioned by the Covid pandemic, with all the economic stresses that entails; on the other hand, we have a political crisis occasioned by the election of a blindly ideological and helplessly incompetent government that cannot be effectively held to account by a terminally divided opposition that spends so much time tearing itself apart that it is barely level with the government in the polls instead of being the 20 to 30 points ahead that it should be.    Both are cause for despair, but at least there is some hope on the distant horizon that an effective vaccine might one day be developed where Covid is concerned.   I very much doubt that a vaccine will ever be developed that will inoculate politicians against ideological blindness and self-harm, or that a remedy can be found for our seemingly terminally ailing democracy.

The immediate occasion for the Labour Party’s fresh round of self-laceration has been a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission forcefully condemning the way the party, and the leadership of the party in particular, has handled complaints of anti-Semitism in recent years.  Jeremy Corbyn, the immediately past leader of the party, who was implicitly held to be at fault for the mishandling, responded to the report by saying that even a single anti-Semite in the party was one too many, but that the incidence of anti-Semitism in the party as a whole had been very significantly overstated.  Corbyn was summarily suspended from the party for being “in denial” about anti-Semitism, and his suspension, equally instantly and all too predictably, resulted in the long-standing divisions in the party revealing themselves again in all their ugliness.

Anyone who took part in any way in the struggle against apartheid will be profoundly conscious both of the iniquity of racism in any form, and of the strong parallels between the plight of the Palestinians today and the plight of black South Africans under apartheid.   It is common knowledge that the governments of South Africa and Israel worked hand in glove during the 1970s and 1980s on such things as the development of nuclear weapons, and many of their tactics for the repression of opposition have been similar, for example the resort to the selective assassination of leading opponents, and the fomenting of internecine violence between the different factions of their opposition.   The two moral giants of South Africa’s liberation both made the parallel between South Africa and Palestine very directly, as seen from Desmond Tutu’s statement – ‘We in South Africa had a relatively peaceful transition. If our madness could end as it did, it must be possible to do the same everywhere else in the world. If peace could come to South Africa, surely it can come to the Holy Land?’ – and Mandela’s pithier 1997 comment:  ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’   

Where the parallels between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Israel diverge dramatically is that whereas criticism of the evils of apartheid became common cause globally, pro-Israeli propagandists have muddied the waters so successfully where anti-Semitism is concerned that any criticism of the government of Israel’s behavior, no matter how draconian or how internationally unlawful, is liable to be castigated as anti-Semitic.   Any and all racism directed against Jewish people on the grounds of their Jewishness is totally unacceptable; criticism of anything the government of Israel does as a government has, like criticism of any other government, to be permissible.

When the Labour party was catching up in the polls, and snapping at the heels of a callous and indifferent Tory governing party fixated on shrinking the State under the guise of ‘austerity’, it was blindingly obvious that the predominantly right-wing media would exploit any chink in Labour’s armour to the hilt.  The chink it seized on was the incidence of anti-Semitic invective directed at Jewish members of the party by a small minority of members who should unquestionably have been expelled from the party forthwith.  To say, as Corbyn did, that the incidence of anti-Semitism in the party had been overstated was merely to state the patently obvious, as Starmer, being an intelligent man, must clearly know.  But, given a context in which what Corbyn said was bound to be interpreted as downplaying the genuine hurt felt by the members of the party who had been the targets of vitriolic anti-Semitism, it was, to say the least, not a sensible or necessary point to make at the time.   But suspending Corbyn was the last thing anyone who genuinely wanted to unite the Labour Party should have done. Starmer must know that the only way he has any chance of winning power is by leading a united party into the next election.  So as we head into another nation-wide lockdown, once again leaked to the media rather than announced from the podium, let alone discussed in parliament, we find ourselves with a terminally wrong-headed and incompetent government ineffectually confronted by a terminally divided and self-lacerating opposition.  So much for democracy.

From Louis in Johannesburg: Fiddler on the Roof

Having just streamed the launch of Fiddler on the Roof from Brooklyn Theatre here in Pretoria from the comfort of my lounge what they have achieved Covid and unethical landlords notwithstanding, deserves mention on our Blog. Longer story short Brooklyn Theatre (BT) converted to digital format and successfully streamed Fiddler on the Roof: The musical. It launched this past Saturday 17th of October 2020. I had bought tickets in anticipation of the live performance of this classic. Then Covid struck and all hell broke loose with any function where people were gathered in numbers. BT had secured the rights to produce and had faithfully paid the royalty providing the rights to perform Fiddler. 

There was no going back. 

When the owners of the theatre that BT used on aregular basis refused to accommodate BT with a reduction in rental that final straw broke the camel’s back and BT decided to go digital based on nothing but Chutspa and stream the production. They had no experience with digital productions and decided to press on anyway. Rehearsals took place on a regular basis until the production flowed smoothly. Musicians provided backing and support. Here I need to declare my interests: My wife Marie plays Yente the matchmaker and daughter Rachel plays one of Tevye’s five daughters, Shprintze. Having declared my interests you will appreciate how BT and the Fiddler production is worthy of support based purely on what they have achieved during Covid19 lockdown and with extortionist landlords. It truly is an ill wind that brings no good with it.BT has taken the leap of faith and has successfully gone digital with their productions.

 If ever a production was relevant to a society it is Fiddler’s relevance to South African as well as global society in a post-modern era. The original purpose of Opera to remind society of the morals that guide it is also relevant to this wonderful musical production. The plot is well known to many. A traditional Jewish family living in the Ukraine during a Pogrom by the Russian authorities dispossess them. They have to leave for foreign shores after much protestation by Tevye with only the possessions they can carry. The family headed by Tevye and his wife Golde who lament the loss of their traditional way of life. Tevye draws traditions and teachings which inform their day to day lives from “The Good Book”, quoted frequently by him. Tevye and Golde have five daughters (Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze and Beilke) who need to find suitable Jewish husbands, hence the need for a traditional matchmaker (Yente) to facilitate this. To the frustration of the matchmaker, as well as Tevye, in the end the daughters marry for love. The compassion and understanding of their mother, Golde, provides a softer touch. Tevye accepts their choice after due consideration. Humour punctuates this otherwise tragic storyline of a Ukraine Pogrom, which includes, discrimination, loss of property, the disruption of traditions and displacement of people from the land they have long occupied. A reminder of the perils of current society, the role of traditional family morals and the danger of discrimination based on religion and race. Support a worthy cause at www.brooklyntheatre.tv  

Brookly Theatre (BT) will also never be the same again in the Post-Covid world…

From David Maughan Brown in York: A second wave, a second botched response

October 12th

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is now assertively with us in the UK, and the government of England, having apparently learnt nothing whatever from the experience of the first wave, is busy botching its response to the second wave just as badly.  For the past five days the media have been trailing a momentous speech that Boris was due to make in parliament today in response to the rapidly increasing number of infections and hospitalisations, to be followed by the news conference I can hear droning on in the background as I write.   Boris’s unique contribution to the history of governance – government via deliberate leaks to, and covert briefing of, the media – has saved everyone who pays any attention to said media the pain of having to watch him and hear him telling us what, well before this last weekend, we already knew to be coming up the track at us.   After six months of concentrated deliberation by the great minds in Downing St., they have had the bright idea of instituting the kind of tiered lockdown system successfully implemented in South Africa six months ago.  All that today’s grand announcement amounted to, apart from the predicted three-tier system, was the equally well trailed fact that Liverpool is destined to enter Tier 3 – the severest level of restriction, with no social mixing, no pubs open, etc. – on Wednesday, the only area to do so.

The government’s dilemmas as the pandemic threatens to get out of control again, which I don’t envy them, include:  how to balance the competing demands of public health and the economy; how to communicate the extent of the crisis to an increasingly sceptical public; how to establish an appropriate balance between centralised and regionalised decision making; and how to provide the necessary resources to combat the virus in terms both of equipment, person-power and an efficient test and trace system.  

At every level the response is being botched again.  Where the Public Health/Economy dilemma is concerned, the painfully obvious question to ask is, why on a Wednesday start covertly briefing about further restriction measures that won’t be formally announced until the following Monday and only implemented on the Wednesday?  That could only serve as an invitation to anyone who felt so inclined to spend the weekend doing his or her best to contract the virus, with only one possible outcome where the infection statistics are concerned.   And what conceivable logic can there be to introducing exactly the same restrictions for pubs etc. in the Tier 3 areas as in March, but reducing the financial support offered to employers to the point of making both the retention of staff, and meeting the costs of living for any staff who are retained, unviable?  Where communication is concerned, it is probably too late to simplify and improve the desperately poor communication of the past few months with any realistic hope that everyone will listen: too many people in England, in marked contrast to Scotland and Wales, no longer trust government.  After very belatedly waking up to the idea of consulting the leaders of the supposedly devolved regions in ‘the North’ (after already having decided what he intended to do), Boris claims that he now has the agreement of those leaders to his decisions: this, like so much else he says, is untrue, as evidenced by the intention of a group of them to bring legal action against the government for implementing the measures without providing adequate support.  The test and trace system is, in spite of Boris’s boasts and promises, still wholly inadequate – and must have had a part to play in the surge of new infections.  

Associating Boris with botching brought a distant echo to mind, which, when I thought about it, I realised came from very vague memories of reading stories about Billy Bunter (Boris Botcher/Billy Bunter), the corpulent clown of the Lower Fourth Form at Greyfriars School, when I was about ten years old.  For a very quick memory refresher I resorted to Google where one can find Wikipedia listing Billy Bunter’s chief characteristics besides his corpulence. He was, we are told: ‘obtuse, lazy, racist, … deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited’ but combined these with a ‘cheery optimism’ and ‘comically transparent untruthfulness.’   It would be very unfair to imply that Boris is corpulent, given his partly successful efforts to reduce his weight after his hospital experience.

from Louis in Johannesburg: South African (SA) socio/political dynamics-an anthropologist view

September 20.

“Those who were seen dancing, were thought to be insane, by those who couldn’t hear the music.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

During the Democratic Alliance (DA) reign of Mmusi Maimane, Gwen Ngwenya was appointed in 2019 head of policy. Her nonracial policy pronouncements went unheard by the party leadership at the time. Fast forward to September 2020, her policy emerges once more from the DA national convention to an aggressive chorus of condemnation from mainstream media and various members of the commentariat. 

A few voices that criticize Gwen Ngwenya also consider that she may in future be seen as a thought leader: the first person to apply critical thinking to the issue of non-racialist policy. ‘Racist’ being used in a pejorative sense and ‘racialist’ being used in an anthropological sense. At least the current DA leadership seem to be listening.

https://www.da.org.za/why-the-da/values-and-principles

The ruling party in South Africa have yet to reach what may be called “their Magna Carta moment”. England reached this moment in 1215 and laid the foundations for the rule of law and protection of property rights from the vagaries of tribal chiefs and kings. The Charter of the Forest of 1217 a companion document protected the rights of commoners to plant crops for family sustenance, gather fuel and graze their cattle. It was never meant as a basis for possessing large tracks of land as basis for wealth. These foundational documents provide the basis where the spirit and the letter of the constitution hold citizens to account through a process of self-regulation, as well as the rule of law through independent judges and the courts. In South Africa we have a way to go to catch up to England of 1215 and 1217? When we look back from 2040, we may mark this moment as the watershed that took us away from a relativist world of politics and policy implementation to an analytical, evidence-based world of policy.

As the Nationalist Party copied its colonial masters so the ANC alliance has emulated the Nationalist Party government insofar as race-based policies are concerned. No new thinking in sight. So much for ANC non-racialism. One of the ANC founding documents, the Freedom Charter from Kliptown, Soweto in 1955, speaks clearly of non-racialism, non-sexist and a country that belongs to all who live in it. However, the current crop of ANC leaders choose to emulate the apartheid racist policies including racial classification.

A well-known SA industrialist once said, in all revolutions there is damage, in the South African revolution the damage has been to the quality of thinking. We seem to have sunk into a morass of relativist thinking where critical thinking is almost entirely lacking. Even main-stream journalists seem to be in an echo chamber where they pass ignorance around as analysis and insight.

Past President Zuma continues to ask these same journalists “Tell me what have I done wrong?”

What he means is that he has not been found guilty in any court of law of any crime. I think he with many others believe, notwithstanding allegations based on investigations that they are complying with the rule of law, huh?

All of this when critical race theory and a firestorm of cancel culture in the USA the UK and elsewhere in the west, fueled by non-liberal thinking threatens to undermine western democratic foundations. It reminds me of how Mao used the Red Guards to remove any traditional cultural reminders which were in accordance with Maoist philosophy holding society back, so-doing opening the way for the great leap forward.

IMHO Gwen Ngwenya’s non-racial policy offers us the first glimpse of principle-based policy where what may be called radical non-racialism, is central. (Policy Document available on request – health warning 58-page document!). As the beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us there is no African version of principles and values. This may be confusing to many. Ngwenya’s policy document goes unrecognised by mainstream media as thought leadership, for now. So what’s new? Galileo, Darwin, Martin Luther King Junior, van Zyl-Slabbert and Smuts. These visionaries, ahead of their times, had to endure emotional criticism from “those who could not hear the music.”

Classical liberalism reflected in the metrics of The Heritage Foundation, The Fraser institute and the Cato Institute has an undeniable association with wealth creation.

“Classical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom. Closely related to economic liberalism, it developed in the early 19th century, building on ideas from the previous century as a response to urbanisation and to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America (Wikipedia  2020).

from Louis in Johannesburg: Organic Gardening, churches and world leadership

September 14.

The spring has sprung and the crops are in the fertile ground nourished organically by compost from last year’s leaf drop, irrigated from our granite-based spring water.

Spinach in the foreground, cabbage in the RHS distance, onions peeping over the palisade in the LHS, radishes and more. Growing vigorously in the early morning spring sunlight under bird-proof netting. We can’t wait for the harvest in a couple of weeks. Morogo, cole slaw, radishes in the salads, onion relish etc.

Returning to the description of the various places of worship in the vicinity of our small farm and vegetable garden.

I was struck recently by a comment by one of the political commentariat about South Africa being “Russia with a good climate.” A couple of years ago I was visited by Slawa, a Russian friend. His father translated the ship’s log of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama from the Arabic – they were written into Russian. How I wished I could read Russian to trace the early days of discovery of this part of the world. Da Gama is one of the first visitors to Southern Africa in the 1490s.

Slawa wished to attend the celebratory service of St Stephen at the local Russian Orthodox. St Stephen, who’s feast day falls on April 26, is one of the most successful and dynamic missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church. I duly transported him to the exquisite church a few kilometres away across the valley. This beautiful church was built by the Russian community living in Midrand.

The Russian community consists of approximately seven thousand souls living in close proximity to our home in Midrand. Midrand provides equal access to Pretoria and Johannesburg as it is situated approximately halfway between the two cities. Slawa reported in a hushed voice that he had identified a number of KGB agents attending the service as well. Apparently they are easy to spot. I wondered what they pray for?

https://www.st-sergius.info/en/

St Saviour’s church, literally two doors up the road we live in, has a more interesting history. Its building was part of the property developer’s strategy when he developed Randjesfontein in 1980. I moved in in August 1980. St Saviour’s used to be a local church in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal Province now called Kwazulu-Natal (KZN). The St Saviour’s building was acquired for R1 and moved to our suburb where it was rebuilt to its original design. The link below provides easy access to it. One of the annual events I used to arrange during my fifteen year corporate tenure at Eskom was a reception held on our property. One particular year we hired the African Jazz Pioneers to provide music while we celebrated another successful year. There are a number of dams on the property.

On that occasion, we were sitting on the lawns approximately where the vegetable garden in the above pic is now situated. The St Saviour’s church was visible from where we were partying. During one of the breaks in the music flow the trombone player signalled to me to approach him to talk privately.

He said. “I used to live in Pietermaritzburg and walked daily past a church that looked very much like that church up the road on my way to school.”  But, he continued, “I know churches do not move from one city to another.”

I replied hastily, “Well, this one did!”

St Saviour’s has a lovely acoustic amongst the vaulted, yellowwood beams and open ceilings. Many an operatic recital was held in it and art exhibitions in the cloisters adjoining the church with a magical herb garden in its centre. It has become a popular venue for weddings. The graveyard opposite its entrance silently bears witness to its past. The patriarchs of the Erasmus family were laid to rest here in the 1880s. Many generations later the Chaukes and Sitholes also were accommodated in the small cemetery.  The Erasmus family owned vast tracts of land and gave their name to many developments and suburbs in the vicinity such as Erasmusrand, Erasmia and so on. The property now called Randjesfontein Country Estate (RCE) is where we have lived since August 1980. More than 400 families call it home. See link below for details and visuals.

https://www.midchurch.co.za/cp/7243/st-saviours-church

Yesterday, was a red letter day for me marking the 150 anniversary of the passing of Jan Smuts. My family were ardent supporters of Jan Smuts and Louis Botha. We visited the “Big House” he and his family lived in Irene, a twenty minute drive from here. Once again I was awestruck by the colossus of Smuts the polymath. He overshadowed and struck fear into the hearts of the apartheid government who voted him out in 1948 to begin the path to becoming the polecat of the world. South Africa is one of the few countries where Smuts’ contributions to the establishment of the United Nations and other international contributions does not form part of the school curriculum.

The National Party and its adherents systematically continue to erode his legacy in South Africa. He remains relatively unknown in South Africa, his home, to which he regularly returned from abroad. Christ College, Cambridge ranks Smuts with Charles Darwin and John Milton as the three brightest alumni in their history. He later became Chancellor of Cambridge. A new curator to the Smuts House Museum has reorganised exhibitions in the house around the theme of “a boer family and their life at home”. Gratefully Isie his spouse or “Ouma Isie” as she has become affectionately known has been featured prominently. Smuts coined words such as holism (in his writing, “Holism and Evolution” completed in 1927), “commonwealth” to replace “Empire” in a more meaningful way capturing the essence of a post-colonial era.

In the context of the era he lived in, Isie Krige Smuts matched Smuts intellectually and emotionally. She spoke Afrikaans, English, French, German, Spanish, Greek and quoted biblical passages in classical Greek to which Jan Smuts would reply also in classical Greek.

The “Big House” as it is known has been superbly curated and improved. The two centres of the house are Smuts’ library and the kitchen where “Ouma Isie” would cater for a constant flow of guests including royalty from Great Britain and Greece. Reigning King George’s family including a young future Queen Elizabeth visited in 1947.

Smuts did not suffer fools easily. However, he indulged children. One of his feats he would engage them with was to invite them to pick any book from his library of approximately six thousand copies. They were requested to read any two pages from the selected book. He would then tell them the title of the book and recite the two pages back to them word perfect.

Social distancing was absent during the two lectures we attended on Jan Smuts and Ouma Isie. However the passionate curator painted a picture of a modern partnership, even by today’s standards between Isie Krige-Smuts and Jan Smuts. Ouma Isie often stood side by side with Smuts and delivered campaign speeches, translated his writing into other languages and provided support where needed.(see link below for more information)

https://www.smutshouse.co.za/   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Smuts

from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: Small holder organic farming, bartering and trading within suburbia. Thanks Covid19!

August 30. I have been awestruck by the rapid digitally enabled transformation of learning. Rachel is not looking forward to returning to class based schooling which is scheduled to resume soon. She is dreading the exam season which does not suite her learning style and persona. 

Thanks, David for your helpful observations about the shortcomings of exams as they are now structured. The links you provided have also proved insightful and rich, thank you. The beneficial application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be welcomed by Rachel. Hopefully it arrives within the next four years. Klaus Shwab, founder of the WEF, reminds us that 4IR is not value free. There are constructive as well as destructive applications of the disruptive technologies contained in the so-called Fourth Industrial revolution (4IR). The application of AI in examination of knowledge would be constructive application. Smart cities which are rapidly evolving in The People’s Republic of China (PRC) seem to be reinforcing coercion and control by intruding into the private space of its citizens. In due course I expect 4IR technologies will also be used to enhance informed economic choices thus catalysing wealth-creation and democratic processes.

COVID19 has compelled me to stay out of its path – by all accounts I am in its kill zone. That has been a mixed blessing as it has enabled me to not only self-isolate but also turn inward to writing and gardening/farming. A recent visitor commented, once he had seen the various facets of self-isolation on our small holding, that we had prepared for the apocalyptic moment where SA as we know it has collapsed.

In the meantime, back on the ranch (on our self-isolated small holding) in our agriculturally oriented suburb life is changing for the better COVID19 notwithstanding. It is returning to life as I imagine it once existed. This lifestyle is becoming the new normal on our suburb of more than 400 families. Yes, it’s a gated suburb. Ow else could it be crime-free in the current version of SA?

Small businesses developed out of necessity are truly the mother of invention. COVID19 has all but wiped out small businesses. Most restaurant chains have closed many outlets and some franchises have been declared bankrupt. Giant synfuel corporations SASOL reported a R90bn loss last week.  In the meantime Sean, just up the road we live in, has become a supplier of packaged meat products and supplies our needs. He delivers to our front gate, complete with face masks and sanitised bags, thinly sliced smoked bacon, smoked pork-neck, rump and T-bone steaks and topside mince and more.

Other suppliers add Salmon and other fish delicacies to their offerings. All of it at prices well below what the retail chains ask. We have redirected all our purchases to support these businesses. Sarah, also close by, supplies us with fresh farm eggs by the dozen, untouched and virus-free delivered weekly from a farm more than 400 kilometres away. The farmer now has sufficient business from the surrounding suburbs obviating the need to subject herself to the vagaries of the large chains and their unethical manipulation of quality and price of the little supplier. I expect if these initiatives survive beyond COVID19 they will become the new normal.

A WhatsApp group has sprung up amongst the 400 families to put buyers in touch with local suppliers. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ at work! Sarah our egg supplier also supplied us with Spekboom cuttings. The Spekboom, an indigenous succulent from the Eastern Cape, is interesting as it grows easily from slips. It is a very good carbon dioxide sink. It is edible to both browsers as staple feed and humans as a delicious salad ingredient. I have planted a row of these useful plants and intend supplying our kitchen from the growing hedge it will form in our dry garden. More about the broader Midrand context and churches in a future entry.

This morning at dawn, I received a tour of the crops that are growing in the cultivated area of our property by Malawian gardener, Victor Magonja. Onions, Radishes, Spinach, Cabbages, Hubbard Squash thriving as the season turns to spring and summer. Gem Squash planting from seeds harvested selectively from last season’s crop to follow as staggered planting limits the feast and famine cycle of glut and shortage. We tithe our crops with anyone who participates in their cultivation. Spinach is a great favourite, for making traditional African Morogo, amongst our friends and colleagues.

We also make Morogo as a dinner staple in season and freeze surplus for out of season consumption. I can see in my mind’s eye the welcoming, broad smiles from friends and colleagues which greet an armful gift of freshly picked Spinach.

http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/stewed-spinach-greens/

Delani Mthembu, Myelani Holeni and Alex Mabunda and neighbours are the primary beneficiaries. Our pecan nut trees are also harvested delivering 30-40 kgs of nuts per fully grown tree. All crops are organically cultivated, with nutritional compost also from our garden.  

Thanks to Monsanto and others which practice shareholder capitalism (which is in decline and probably failing) seed harvesting is not possible as the GM crops have been modified so that seeds are sterile and cannot be replanted. We found this out with the corn we planted. Unethical capitalists compelled us to buy new seeds instead of harvesting and replanting. We are finding out by trail and error which seeds can be replanted and which can not. We avoid buying GM seeds where we can. Historically, Monsanto registered seed banks in the USA as their intellectual property. One of these seed banks contained 11,000 seeds! Access to these seeds now carry a royalty to Monsanto.(‘Future of Food’ documentary available on DVD made by Garcia’s widow). In Holland we were able to attend public activist citizen gatherings including the Dutch Minister of Agriculture to talk about these matters.

Winter evenings are spent in front of a roaring fire fuelled by recycled invasive Eucalyptus hardwood. Namibian charcoal, made from invasive species, fuels our outdoor cooking when Eskom fails to meet demand and we experience blackouts. Rolling blackouts are now quite common.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A-levels.

August 12th

The omnishambles our impressively incompetent government manages to engineer in every area it is responsible for may be deeply damaging for all those affected, but from time to time the mess it makes opens the possibility that some long-term benefit might nevertheless inadvertently come from it.   The entirely unfunny farce those responsible have made of what they are choosing to call this year’s ‘A-level results’ is a case in point.   How schools, parents and A-level students are supposed to have any confidence whatever that the ‘results’ are any kind of reflection of the students’ ability is anybody’s guess.   Prospective employers can have equally little confidence in the capabilities of students who haven’t been able to go to school for the past five months and are now being made the victims of the pandemic twice-over.  Universities are being told that the ‘results’ they based their selections on may change at the last minute and are being requested to ‘keep places open’ for students, seemingly indefinitely.  Which last makes it clear that those making the request have no idea about how a university runs.   So how could any possible benefit come from this deplorable chaos?  

Whatever uncertainty and stress the shambles is wreaking on those directly affected in 2020, the one thing it is unquestionably doing is focusing a spotlight on the predictive omniscience of A-level results, which, with the notable exception of the Open University, are normally lazily fetishized as the almost exclusive means of determining whether or not students are fit to breathe the rarefied atmosphere of higher education.   This is particularly the case with those universities that like to see themselves, and make sure the media depict them, as the ‘top’ universities, and collude in the development of league-table indices to that end.  This year, for once, all universities are being forced to face the possibility that the highly fluid 2020 A-level results may not be a reliable indicator of a student’s potential to succeed at university.

In 1985 in South Africa, when I became the Dean responsible for admissions to the Faculty of Arts on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, the apartheid system had, very deliberately, made sure that the school-leaving results of black students were almost completely useless as an indicator of university potential.  Apart from anything else, one had to contend with the results from 17 different Departments of Education and national Examination Boards, which all set different school-leaving exams.   To cite just one of countless examples, I arrived back at my office one evening, after a day spent on the university’s campus in Durban, to find a flustered PA and a Zulu-speaking student who had arrived early in the morning, refused to go away without seeing me, and sat himself down on the floor of the corridor outside my office all day to wait for me.  His school leaving results had earned him a total of 13 points from his six subjects in a system which prescribed a minimum requirement of 28 points for admission, barring ‘Dean’s discretion’.   He was highly articulate, obviously highly intelligent, and nothing if not persistent and committed, so I took a chance, and the Dean accordingly exercised his discretion.   The student in question took 13 subjects instead of the required ten, completed the degree in the minimum three years, and never had a result lower than an upper second.   He had obviously been given the wrong candidate’s school-leaving results.   Another Dean, I hoped at a different university, was probably left wondering what on earth could have happened to make the student who received my student’s results fail first year so badly.

So if you couldn’t rely on school-leaving results what could your do to find students who had the potential to do well at university in spite of their schooling? One answer was to set up what we called the Test-Teach-Test programme, TTT for short, which was based on the research of Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli psychologist who developed a theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability.   To grossly oversimplify, the implementation of this theory involved an iterative process of asking a candidate to take a test, ‘teaching’ the right answers and the reasoning behind them, getting the aspirant student to take the same test again, then assessing the difference between the two sets of answers,  and potentially repeating the exercise.  We took in significant numbers of black students on this basis who wouldn’t have had a hope of being admitted otherwise, and many of them justified our faith in them.   The prior question, of course, was who to test.   School results were a good place to start:  if a student had come first out of a class of 160, that fact might be a better indicator than a final mark of, say, 55%.   We wanted rural students as well as urban ones, so we sent people out to villages in the hills and valleys to identify likely candidates for the tests via, among other methods, asking the village elders who they thought were the really bright school-leavers.  And so on.

The situation in UK is obviously vastly different and A-level results are a much better predictor than the results we had to try to deal with.   But rich parents do have their sometimes not very bright students intensively tutored in ways poor parents can’t; the children of highly educated parents generally have resource availability and other advantages over those of less well-educated ones; some children come from broken homes, others have home lives wholly unconducive to study; some schools have better teachers and resources than others; some pupils choose A-level subjects they aren’t suited to, and others choose subjects some universities treat with contempt.  All this is blindingly obvious, but ‘contextual’ factors still seem to play far too insignificant a role in student selection, compared to A-level results, at most universities.  If universities really want to take in the students best suited to university study they need to take such factors much more seriously than they do.   Whatever the outcome of the 2020 A-level omnishambles, it is going to force the university sector as a whole to focus its collective mind on A-level results in a way it hasn’t had to before.   So in this one aspect, at least, this government’s incompetence might have done higher education and future students a favour.   It is also just possible that in the long term the UK university sector might find that in such matters there are one or two things the ‘developed’ world might usefully learn from the ‘developing’ world.

from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: beyond the looting

August 1. As the funds that may be stolen are exhausted, the looting intensifies and becomes desperate. The ransacking of the VBS bank, which housed the life savings of the poor collapsed under the weight of theft, is one indicator of this desperation. The EFF, allegedly involved, has suffered reputational damage as a result. Hopefully, voters will punish them at the forthcoming municipal elections in 2021.The good news is that this looting will stop soon as funds dry up completely. The IMF Covid19 relief fund once it has been plundered will enable the IMF to refuse to provide any further funding. Technology now assists with software that can trace all banking transactions. In the hands of competent journalists transfers into the accounts of politicians and their trusted family members and other surrogates can be traced and published.

In the absence of national leadership and any sign of embarrassment at being caught, thieving will probably continue until all taxpayer’s money has been exhausted. In the face of these dire circumstances, I remain an optimist. The unrecognised work of faith-based organisations such as Caritas, Gift of the Givers and church groups such as the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) provide a basis for trusting the decency of the average South African. Survey after survey demonstrate their priorities for a job, education for their children and decent healthcare. Building trust and cohesion between races in the middle levels of society is the result of the selfless work by the average citizen taking care of their neighbour, also faith-based organisations and churches.

Caritas strives for a world where the voices of the poor are heard and acted upon, where each person is free to flourish and live in peace and dignity and where our natural environment given by God is managed responsibly and sustainably in the interests of the entire human family. While many councillors and other ANC office bearers shamelessly steal food parcels destined for the poor, these organisations ensure that parcels in their hands reach their destination. Selfish politicians, and others that should know better, call for schools to remain closed, forgetting that children receive meals at schools. They now have to find a daily meal in other ways.

I woke up this morning to the Muezzin in the Turkish Mosque in Midrand, calling the Muslim faithful to prayers at dawn. It was the first time I had heard the Muezzin’s call to prayer. The cold morning air and a favourable breeze as well as the absence of traffic noise because of Covid19 curfew probably enabled this experience. The Mosque is situated approximately ten kilometres away on the other side of the massive granite dome midway between Johannesburg and Pretoria. I was both surprised and elated. The additional volume from the Muezzin’s public address system was probably part of the EID celebration. Eid Al-Adha is celebrated on the 10th day of the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar. In 2020, that date falls on July 31.

I was immediately transported back to Istanbul where I lodged for a month in Sultan Ahmed, the oldest part of Istanbul. I was in lodgings in the shadow of the Blue Mosque with its six minarets, in the vicinity of the Hagia Sophia once the largest Christian church building in the world. Built in 537 as the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople, it was the largest Christian church of the eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) and the Eastern Orthodox Church, except during the Latin Empire from 1204 to 1261, when it became the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1453, after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, it was converted into a mosque. In 1935 the secular Turkish Republic established it as a museum. In March 2020, it re-opened as a mosque. I learnt on my month-long stay in Istanbul to value and look forward to the richness of the Muezzin’s call to prayer as part of my soundscape. I was also reminded of working in Mali where we would pause our workshops during the day for prayers of the faithful by our Muslim participants. Praying the Angelus came to mind but few people observe that ritual these days.  

In Midrand where I have lived since 1980, we are the beneficiaries of a number of unique churches, namely, St Saviours an Anglican Church just down the street, the Russian Orthodox church across the valley and the Turkish Mosque close by. More about the former two churches in a future diary entry.

Nizamiye mosque in Midrand, South Africa

The construction of the magnificent, authentic Turkish Mosque in Midrand is the consequence of USA regulation or should I say over-regulation and perhaps prejudice against another Muslim place of worship on their soil. “Uncle Ali” first attempted to find a site for his dream mosque and Islamic School in the USA. When this failed, he approached the South African Government and specifically the Midrand Municipality.

The only stipulation from the Midrand local authority was that if “Uncle Ali” built the Mosque in Midrand it would be open to all who wished to visit it. Informal sources assert that “Uncle Ali” invested nearly one Billion Rand, constructing a scaled-down version of a Turkish mosque designed by one of the finest Islamic Architects. “Uncle Ali”, as he is affectionately known, personally supervised its construction and the Islamic School next to it from his caravan parked close by. The Islamic school boasts a number of its pupils graduating with distinctions in ten subjects when only seven passes are required for admission to universities in SA.

The Imam provided me with a personal tour of these magnificent buildings, resplendent with imported ceramic tiles, paintings and other internal adornments, honouring Allah. Shining marble floors, convenient foot-baths and suspended lights complement the spiritual atmosphere and Muslim ritual. Four Minarets and a copper-clad dome stand out on the horizon announcing the presence of an important Islamic place of worship and the presence of a community of the faithful who worship in this Mosque. Ironically, the Muslim-owned Mia property on which this mosque is built was situated far out of town in 1934. As Johannesburg and Pretoria have become one metropolis this Muslim community now finds itself at the confluence of two cities.

Testimony to the spiritual diversity of Midrand it has been constructed in a corner of a vast Muslim-owned, 2000 hectare property straddling the Juskei River which is being developed into a R30bn multi-purpose zone. The four floodlit minarets subtly shift colour against the night sky, hypnotically changing from luminous green to cobalt blue. The physical beauty is accompanied by active, positive community engagement. The Islamic Gift of the Givers Foundation is the largest disaster response non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent. The essence of its presence is to bring hope and restore dignity to the most vulnerable. It has played an important part in providing material relief in the form of food, blankets and shelter amongst the poorest of the poor during the Covid19 lockdown. At times it has been the only lifeline between ISIS captives in Mali, Central African Republic. Nigeria and other African states and their families.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Black Lives Matter

July 28th

One of the items on this morning’s BBC Today programme was a Mishal Husain  interview with Mina Agyepong who told her about a police raid on her house late on the evening of 17th July, after a passer-by had told the police that a ‘non-white man’ with a hand-gun had been seen in the house.   The ‘hand-gun’ was an entirely legal BB pistol that belonged to her 12 year-old son, Kai, and was visible in the living-room from outside the house.  Ms Agyepong, who was asleep on the couch, was woken by a commotion outside, Kai went to open the door, half a dozen (reports vary) police burst in carrying rifles which they trained on the heads of Ms Agyepong, her two daughters and Kai, who had their hands up.  The police refused to lower their rifles in spite of the fact that Ms Agyepong explained that the clearly visible ‘hand-gun’ was a toy (which any trained firearms officer would have recognized instantly).  The police proceeded to arrest Kai, handcuff him and lead him away, after which Ms Agyepong and her two daughters were led singly out of the house at gun-point and held outside while the police searched their house for over an hour.   When the police couldn’t find anything other than the toy gun, Kai was ‘unarrested’ and the police left.   His mother said that Kai had been traumatised and was now afraid to answer the front door bell, and it was obviously a traumatic experience for the rest of the family as well.  Ms Agyepong said she was terrified they were going to be shot.   A police spokesman said that the police had merely followed ‘normal protocol in the circumstances.’

This can, surely, only have been a racially motivated raid.   Mishal Husain rightly picked up on the fact that the report had been of a ‘non-white man’, and it seems inconceivable that my 12 year-old grandson would have been treated in the same way.   But, at the risk of seeming to trivialize what was a very serious and obviously terrifying incident by seeming to echo the Monty Python ‘4 Yorkshiremen’ sketch, the Agyepong family can consider themselves lucky.   Nobody was shot, it was only half a dozen or so policemen armed with rifles who burst into the house, and the police only spent an hour or so trying to save face by searching for non-existent weapons after the ‘hand-gun’ had been identified as a toy.

This contrasts markedly with the police raid on 48 Lansdown Road in Forest Gate in east London on June 2nd 2006.   That raid saw around 250 policemen dispatched to look for a chemical bomb at a small terrace house on the strength of sole intelligence provided to them by a man in prison on terror charges who had an IQ of 69 and had been described by his own defence lawyer as an ‘utter incompetent.’  Fifteen specialist firearms officers burst into the house wearing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) protection suits.   Abdul Kahar, whose house it was, headed down the stairs to see what that commotion was, encountered the leading ‘firearms specialist’ on the stairs and received a bullet from a Heckler and Koch MP5 for his pains.  The bullet hit him in the chest and exited through his shoulder, fortunately without hitting any vital organs.   So Mina Agyepong had reason to be frightened.  Kahar and his brother Abdul Koyai were incarcerated for a week at a police station, their house and that of their equally innocent neighbours, who were also carted off to a police station, were so badly damaged in the search that followed that they couldn’t return home for many weeks.  Needless to say no bomb was found.   It won’t have been coincidence that their family names, like Agyepong, are not Smith, Brown or Jones.  Subsequent inquiries found that the police had ‘followed proper procedures’ here too, and apparently there wasn’t even a health and safety issue involved, in spite of the fact that the officer who shot Abdul Kahar was wearing two pairs of gloves, couldn’t feel the trigger, and purported not even to know that he had fired a shot. 

I spent much of my time under apartheid in South Africa being made to feel thankful that, purely by the accident of birth, I was not born black.  The likelihood is that I wouldn’t be alive now if I had been. One of the first things that happened when I arrived in York was that I was wrongfully arrested in my bank, led out of the bank and carted off in a police van.   I drove around for the next ten years in the car I bought with the five figure compensation payout.  When was a black victim ever paid out a substantial sum for wrongful arrest?  The arresting officer kindly refrained from handcuffing me because, he said, I didn’t look to him like a flight risk.  And a small, bewildered, half-dressed 12 year-old boy arrested for doing precisely nothing late at night in his own home was a flight risk?  But he was black and I happen to be white.   In a supposedly civilized country nobody should ever be made to feel thankful that they were born with a different pigmentation from that of anybody else.  If Mina Agyepong was right to be fearful about being shot, she was also right to be worried about what the long-term effect of his experience would be on her traumatised son.   Black lives matter; the experience of black children matters very much.   But don’t expect a government led by a prime minister like Boris Johnson, who is capable of talking about ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, ever to understand that.

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.