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.

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). 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.

South African School kids protesting during Apartheid

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Our Escape to the cinema to see – Escape from Pretoria.

Mail & Guardian, South African newspaper during apartheid years

July 12. Last night we went to the cinema. It felt like a special treat; I cannot recall the last time. And it was an occasion, more than we had realised. Newly introduced rules in our state allow a larger audience. Our tickets had to be bought online, with specific seats allocated such that there were empty seats either side of us. Sanitizer bottles had been placed at the entrance. The Palace Nova cinemas made an event of last night: they premiered two locally produced films and invited our Premier, Steven Marshall, and our Adelaide Mayor. We listened to speeches, an interview with one of the actors and a videoed message from Francis Annan, the director.

The film was Escape from Pretoria, filmed in our historic Adelaide Gaol, in local streets (converted to ‘Cape Town’) and briefly in the countryside of South Australia. It is based on real events that took place in 1978-9 in apartheid South Africa. The star actor is the bespectacled Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. Daniel portrayed Tim Jenkins and most of the film takes place in the gaol.

Tim is the cousin of a good friend of mine and we met him during the filming of Escape from Pretoria and he showed us a copy of the wooden keys that he made in the prison workshop and, with two other prisoners, used to escape the high security prison in Pretoria. It is a fascinating story; unfortunately, Tim’s eponymous book is unavailable but the film is out there.

You can watch Tim Jenkins talking about his work for the ANC in this YouTube program: The Vula Connection. One of the speakers is Ronnie Kasrils, whom South Africans will recognise. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29vrvKsKXPI

Back to the film. The events portrayed took place 42 years ago when it seemed apartheid would be impossible to dislodge. After meeting with the ANC in London, Tim and his friend, Stephen Lee, set about making small contraptions, called parcel bombs, (they never hurt anyone) that distributed leaflets in various Cape Town and Johannesburg streets. The leaflets promoted the ideas of the then-banned ANC. The two men continued this activism for two years before their arrest. They were found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 12 and 8 years respectively.

Although you know from the title that they suceeded in escaping, the film is an impressive display of determination and ingenuity. To make the wooden keys from observation of the keyholes and the guard’s keyrings, from trial and error while under surveillance, is beyond impressive. Eventually, over 18 months, they made keys for every gate, storage cupboard and locker they could find. There were 10 doors between them and freedom and they had to negotiate past the night-time guard.

I found it interesting to see how they portrayed Tim Jenkin’s cell. Totally bare at first, but as time went on it became a personalised space: drawings, books, family photos.

There were two little jarring aspects to the movie. Firstly, the South African accent is hard to copy unless you are a Trevor Noah, and some attempts were curiously odd. Secondly, Pretoria is famous for its jacaranda trees, so is Adelaide. There was a lack of sense of place in the film, but maybe that is only seen by an ex-South African.

It was a treat to see a movie on the big screen. A treat to forget about Covid-19 threatening the world outside. Escape from Pretoria is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking film about a time when we lived in South Africa: about a society dominated by a racist regime, about fortitude in the face of oppression. How easy it is for a society to travel down that same racist path and how few are brave enough to stand up against it. That we should never forget.

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.

Guest contribution from Christopher Merrett in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: the sporting question

Runners in the Comrades Marathon

June 9. From the Thornveld: I had expected that lockdown might provide us with blessed relief from pollution, litter, noise – and professional sport. That was naïve. The airwaves and newspaper pages remained saturated with the clichéd thoughts of players, endless speculation about the completion of leagues and resumption of ‘normality’, and truckloads of utter trivia.

Sebastian Coe, head of global athletics, recently spoke of ‘frustration’ that ‘top events’ had no firm dates for resumption and said that athletics might act unilaterally and without approval. His attitude was deplorable; but also self-defeating because national health authorities make the decisions he appears to want to arrogate to himself and they are backed by legislation. But he demonstrates a blatant example of sports hubris fuelled by popular adulation and millions of dollars. And it is the last factor that is behind the agitation for leagues and competitions to resume as soon as possible: big money deals.

Here in KwaZulu-Natal it was not until 8 May that the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) accepted there would be no race this year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Given that it has been blindingly obvious for months that a (perhaps the) main cause of viral infection is human proximity and density, clearly the CMA has been living on another, apparently Covid-19-free, planet. The very essence of the ultra-marathon is mass: the numbers of runners, the packed nature of the start, the race culture of group running, and the exuberant involvement and sociability of spectators (see the photograph above near the end of the 2019 race in Pietermaritzburg). Some of the classic moments of this gruelling race involve runners physically assisting others, particularly at the finish. There’s a very high chance that there will be no race in 2021, the centenary year, either.

One problem according to the CMA was that T-shirts had been printed and goody bags prepared. Sponsors had already coughed up funds, so yet again it all comes back to money. But it goes beyond financing to issues of entitlement and continued refusal to recognise that professional sport is simply a business. Indeed, many critics persuasively argue that it is just another arm of global capital.

Lockdown has cut a swathe of destruction across economies and societies. Many businesses will disappear without trace and hundreds of thousands of people will never work again in the formal sector. Why should professional sport think it is owed any favours; any more than, say, theatres, opera houses or concert halls? Commodified sport produces nothing of lasting value, material or intellectual.

But perhaps the virus and its lockdown will produce a positive outcome. Vast sums of money are locked up in sport courtesy of sponsorship and broadcast rights. In some sports people who have minimal skills beyond dealing with a ball earn enormous salaries and perks. Teams fly endlessly around the world impressing a gigantic carbon footprint. We are told the world will never be the same again. If so, maybe a great deal of this will end and international sport will be cut down to more appropriate dimensions and influence.

From the Thornveld is a site that provides access to writing by Christopher Merrett, a former academic librarian, university administrator and journalist based in Pietermaritzburg. He has written on a wide range of topics – specialising in the past on human rights issues in South Africa, particularly censorship and freedom of expression, and on the politics of sport.

https://www.fromthethornveld.co.za/