ICC for Nelson Mandela Bay will be a game changer.

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Facebook reminds me that I was in Korea two years ago today. (Thank you Mark). Sadly though we are no closer to building an International Convention Centre in PE today than we were then (nor sadly closer than we were in 2005 when the city first commissioned a business plan that gave the “green light” to build it.) Perhaps its time for the private sector to become more aggressive in insisting on this game changing project. Perhaps business leaders like Nomkhita Mona, Mkhuseli ‘Khusta’ Jack , Thembinkosi Matunda and Mandla Madwara will take the reins and bring our city to its rightful place in the world economy?

Elon Musk is dead wrong about Mars!!

(This piece first appeared in Port Elizabeth’s “Weekend Post” on 1 July 2017)

 

I am inspired by the phenomenally innovative work of, California based,  Elon Musk. You may know him as the founder and CEO of the ground-breaking Tesla Company. You may know that in spite of Elon growing up with the smell of mind-numbing bureaucratic paralysis in the Pretoria air, his thinking on electric cars and battery storage is proving to be hugely disruptive. His bold ideas will absolutely and fundamentally change the way we all live and work. This dramatic transformation will happen very soon and I am very excited to see it all pan out.

 

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But I heard Mr Musk speaking the other day about his planned missions to Mars to build a colony there. I just can help feeling that that this kind of thinking is just a lot of crap, perhaps not unlike the kind of thinking of other technologists like (the American) J. Robert Oppenheimer,  who applied his incredible skill to enable our species to blow up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I can see that I think a little differently to Musk and Oppenheimer. In my reading and in my quiet time, I have come to see that we, as a species, have evolved here on this planet and are an integral part of it, perhaps like our gut bacteria are an integral part of us. To just plonk us somewhere else, is misunderstanding just how integral we are to our ecosystem and to what extent we are a product of it. I see this in the writings of brilliant and enlightened souls and I see this when I watch my cattle going about their business in the pasture.

Pasture and grasslands are a fascinating subject, but I do understand that it  is quite possibly more interesting to me than it is to you. Books have been written about pasture. Entire library shelves filled. The important thing to take from our knowledge of pasture is the undeniable fact that we are dealing with a living interconnected system. In a very real and observable way cattle and grass and soil are part of the same “organism”. Grass has evolved to thrive on nutrient provided by herbivore manure, which in turn is digested by specifically evolved  soil based mycelium and bacteria. Grass had evolved to look, taste and behave the way it has because of grazing animals like cattle. Cattle have developed their size, shape and biology because they have evolved in the pasture (alongside their predators) eating the grasses that they do. These are not just curious facts of anatomy and biology. These are fundamental truths. They are absolute “laws”, that whether we choose to or not, are a governing force in all of our lives. It may appear to me that I, as an individual, am a separate organism to the people around me and to the things that I consume and to the things that try to consume me, but in truth, with the perspective of evolution and of time, I am not.

So much of what I see around us attempts to convince me that I am a separate organism, that I am able to survive even without this planet; that I am separate from the earth. The spectacular 1960’s project to send a man to the moon, walk around up there and take photographs of the blue planet from that far off position, is one in a sequence of events, since the beginnings of consciousness, that have made us feel more and more comfortable with the argument that we, human beings, are a separate and distinct organism.

But when I sit in the pasture. When I observe the earthworm magically building soil from excrement, when I appreciate the cattle, I let the picture remind me of who I am. I let the picture remind me that I am a part of an organism that is beginning to show signs of disease caused largely by  people (people  very much like me) that have somehow come to forget the obvious truth that they are only a small (yet very important) part of a big and complex organism. Perhaps, with time, we will come to see that the disease afflicting our planet is like the disease of cancer that afflicts so many of our bodies.( A disease that killed my own father.)  Some doctors say that a cancer cell is a cell that has forgotten that it is part of body, that it is part of an organism. A cancer cell consumes energy and replicates very rapidly, but it has forgotten its function within and as part of the organism. Cancer cells grow and grow until they kill the very same body that it forgot that it was integrally part of. Cancer cells form tumours that are fuelled by excess sugar in the system. In the same way perhaps as our bodies make up rapidly growing populations that cluster in cities that have become distorted way beyond any useful shape and size by the injection of excess energy in the form of over exploited fossil fuels.  Perhaps tumours, cities and Elon Musk behave in this way because they have forgotten what our species has known since it has first emerged from the cradle of human kind all those years ago.

So what do we do about all this? I can only suggest that you come sit with me in the in the pasture one afternoon. Perhaps we can be still, observe and help each other remember.

GDP growth no measure of how well we are doing.

(this piece first appeared in The Herald on 12 May 2017)

I don’t eat much sugar at all. In my experience, sugar and starch cause me to become fat and lazy. So I drink bitter coffee by day, red wine at night and water when I train. So I’m personally not too stressed about government’s plans to tax the consumption of sugar in the same way it taxes cigarettes and alcohol. Selfish of me perhaps? (for the record though, I don’t think the amount of sugar I put in my tea, or how many hours I spend watching TV or whether I spend enough time in gym are the business of government at all.)

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Bitter morning coffee at “Cafe Blend”

I think what interests me more is the game playing out as the sugar industry attempts, through the media, to argue the case against introducing such a tax. I recall that the initial attempts by the makers of fizzy cool drinks was to rubbish any of the science that has growingly begun to link increased carbohydrate intake with a number of ailments including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. The merits of that discussion we will leave to another, perhaps more scientifically oriented, writer.

What I notice though, is that the sugar industry’s PR campaign has now shifted to how many jobs will be lost and the general impact that this new tax will have on the economy. The latest headline reading “Sugar Tax – blow to GDP!”… or something like that. And this is what I would like to talk about here today. Not Sugar, not tax, but our community’s continued focus on GDP growth as a measure of whether we are doing well or not. We seem do descend into a collective state of panic when Treasury projects a 0% growth rate. We seem all to be in awe of Indonesia or Ghana when it reports GDP growth of 7 or 8%. But if that GDP growth has occurred as a result of the economic activity resulting from the logging of thousand year old forests, or the activity of building roads and rail to move logs from the 1000 year old forest to the Port that was built for no reason other than parking big ships that will move these logs across the ocean, then can such 7 or 8% growth really be good for any country?

Because GDP growth, at the end of the day, is a simple measure of how much money has been spent in economy. So … to use cigarettes as an example. If a farm is bought to plant tobacco, that transaction is counted as part of the GDP, so it the cost of ploughing the field and planting the tobacco seed, harvesting, drying, transporting, rolling into cigarettes in huge factories, advertising, marketing….. all part of GDP, but also all the medical costs of people dying of lung cancer or buying twisps or patches in an attempt to free themselves from nicotine addiction. Each and every transaction in the value chain is counted in the calculation of the GDP figure. So perhaps the question that you and I need to ask is: “Is it automatically good for us just because it makes up part of the GDP figure?” (Because I suppose, if everyone suddenly stopped smoking cigarettes, those people who used to smoke would spend their money on something else and therefore still show up in the GDP figures.)

I am arguing that we need to develop of ourselves a more sophisticated measure of whether or not something is good for our community than the measure of GDP growth. A measure that reflects on the value that is added by the purchases we make with the money circulating though the economy. A measure that can distinguish the value difference between money spent on a bottle of imported whiskey or the planting of a fruit tree. (Both of similar value but one of lasting contribution to the well-being of the community). A measure that helps us decide whether or not it’s good for our community to build a new supermall outside of town, or a nuclear plant at Thyspunt or a new Chinese motor vehicle assembly plant at Coega. You see, what I am introducing is the question of how do we quantify the “qualitative”. We all know through life experience that some things, some experiences, some places are better than others. We all know this, but find it very difficult to argue or prove. We know that it is better to see our economy directed to spend money of the “better stuff”, but we also know that it is so difficult to adjudicate between two parties that claim that their stuff is better, that we just tend to abandon the whole concept of quality and focus more on what we can, without doubt, quantify, and that ladies and gentlemen, is why we have this obsession with GDP growth! Not because it is useful measure of if we are doing the right stuff or not, but quite simply because it can be quantified in such a way that invites very little dispute. But this is where you and I come in. We have a duty as individuals to be vocal and outspoken about what we as individuals view to be the “better stuff”. What is your favourite building? Your favourite place to view the sunset? Your favourite street vista? Make it an issue. We don’t need consensus in order for it to be reality.

Perhaps quality cannot be quantified, but that does not mean that it’s not real?

Help Little guy with Direct Action

(This piece first appeared in the Weekend Post on 31 October 2015)
I drive a 1997 Toyota. It has 476 000 kilometres on the clock. I drive this old car mainly to embarrass my children, but also because I know that renewing my car every two or three years has a hugely destructive impact on our planet. In fact, a recent report in the Guardian  points out that the amount of carbon that it takes to make a car (its “embodied emissions”) is very likely to be greater that the total exhaust pipe emissions over its lifetime. What the Guardian is trying to say is that my clapped out old rust bucket is better for the planet than a brand new super-efficient, high tech Hybrid!
My 1997 Toyota, when it was still young

I take the health of our planet very seriously. You and I know however that the truth about our country, and many others like it, is that the most pressing threat is not the levels of carbon in the atmosphere, not the depletion of the ozone layer, not even the desperate and sad story of the Rhino. No, the most pressing threat to our society is poverty and exploitation. Poverty is a breeding ground for disease, ignorance, corruption and crime. Quite simply, we are all doomed if we are not able to build a stable economy where each and every one of us feels that it is worthwhile to make our best effort every day to improve the health and welfare of ourselves and of our families. What I want to talk about today though, is what it is we do about this situation. You see, I am inspired and impressed by the direct action students across the country have taken in dealing with tuition fees. Inspired; because students are showing us that it is far more effective to take direct action than it is to put our trust in party politics. The students of 2015 have shown us, that if we want to get something done, we must get off our backsides and take direct action. The students of 2015 focussed on the issue. They set aside party politics; they set aside complexion and economic status. They focused on one issue and they were very effective.

But, “Direct Action” is not only about blocking traffic and singing songs. “Direct Action” is about our choices. It’s about what I produce and about what I consume. It’s about how I choose to act. So, it was no less that an act of revolutionary defiance that I had my car repaired on my front lawn this Saturday while my neighbours were indoors watching the rugby. (Yes, the old crock breaks down from time to time!) You see, I could have opted to have the work done by the recommended, massive Japanese owned multinational corporation, but instead I opted for “Direct Action” and chose to employ a trusted, loyal and brilliant small time mechanic to repair the broken starter motor. It cost me a lot less. He earned very good money. It’s a “win-win” situation. No massive corporation, no CEO salary, no marketing budget and TV ads, just a small time “guy” with his box of tools on my lawn. I do the same when I need bicycle repairs, carpenter, plumber, electrician, tailor or plumber. It’s the right thing to do.
You may be surprised to hear of the good work that the Metro is doing to support small business.  In fact, all municipal construction projects now require that 25% of the work is done by Small Medium and Micro Enterprises. Believe me, this is really painful to people like me, who are called upon from time to time to design and manage these projects. There is a heap of complicated paperwork involved and it really is a lot easier to get the work done where your contractor is listed on the JSE. The point is though, that the Metro is being responsible and is leading the way in this action. My appeal is that each of us follows this lead. That each of us, in our businesses and families make a commitment to allocate a portion of our annual spend to emerging businesses. (Perhaps 10% may be easier to achieve initially.) But even at those levels, by direct action, we will be able to make a massive and lasting dent on poverty.
What I am proposing is that each of us builds “bridges” between those of us who have emerged from poverty and those of us that are making the effort to do so. It really is a two way street. If you are working to emerge from poverty, make it easy for those that want to trade with you. Answer your phone. Arrive on time. Do what you promise. For those of you that are trading with those emerging from poverty; yes, it does take more effort. You will need to search a little harder to find the service you are looking for. You will need to check the references. You will need to pay promptly. But that is the Direct Action that we can take. Consumers may complain that there are not enough emerging businesses to address the most pressing needs, but we must trust that these will emerge if there is good money on offer. Emerging businesses may complain that there are not enough customers, but we must trust that these will emerge when we have good product to offer.
Political parties cannot do it for us. The future is in our hands and direct action is the tool we will use to build that future. Start today!

Drop the Mindless Controls

(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 14 August 2015)
I took a drive out to the countryside this morning. The rolling green pasture and forest  to the west of Port Elizabeth is an incredibly beautiful an peaceful place and today I had good reason to drive out this way, rather than through Walmer, to my office in Central.  You see, as I write this, Walmer is completely closed down by large groups of angry people disrupting traffic with burning barricades. To make matters worse, thieves and thugs are taking advantage of the opportunity to carry out smash and grab attacks on motorists stuck in the traffic jam.  It’s not pretty.
Photo: Litha Hewitt-Coleman

My drive out toward Colleen Glen takes me past the Georgiou Hotel. Some of you may have seen it. It’s a sprawling , gaudy complex along Kragga Kamma road. You can’t miss it with its vulgar fleet of white stretch limos parked outside enticing the aspirational classes to indulge in some expensive massage or just generally pretend to be The Kardashians for a few hours. No I don’t really like kitsch and pretentious places that much. They are not to my taste. But the fact is that the Georgiou’s, whom I have not yet met, have gotten off their backsides and invested big money in the region. They have created jobs. They are attracting visitors to our city and generally contributing to the economy. Those of you have been following the story of the Georgious (front page of The Herald on 13 August 2015) would know though that our “system” has just ordered this massive investment demolished.

I am not able to find fault with the judge who ruled in this matter. I am not able to find fault with the municipal officials or with the neighbours who may or may not have objected. All of the individuals who have worked to crush this initiative have just been “doing their job”. All of these people have been working within the framework of the legislation laid down by our constitutional empowered and democratically elected parliament. But I do find fault with the system that we have designed that is fully capable of standing in the way of ordinary citizens creating jobs and building the economy with their own money on their own land.
It is clear to me that the angry people who have today shut down Walmer are angry and frustrated because “the system” is not working for them. The sad truth is that the economy does not value them highly enough to employ them gainfully. Yes, the angry residents of Gqebera will express specific grievances against the housing delivery process or against the lack of free electricity, but these are the details that obscure the sad reality that these angry people are too poor to look after themselves.
I am not arguing for a second that we will solve all our cities problems by allowing the Georgious to continue running their controversial Hotel, but I am very concerned that a minefield of mindless land use controls are stifling billions of rands worth of property development.  I am not arguing that, by removing these, we will create the kind of economy that will absorb the poor and desperate of Walmer Township. In fact, I don’t know of what plethora of mindless controls may be destroying jobs and slowing the economy in other industries.  But I do know about property and I do know about land and I can tell you right now that our legislators have it in their power to make all the changes needed to unblock this part of our struggling economy. Will it be a complicated knot for our legislators to unravel? Absolutely! But we are living in a country where the super duper complicated knot of Apartheid was undone. Our leaders in 1994 had a strong, unwavering political will do undo that knot. In fact the political will to disband the Scorpions after the 2007 Polokwane conference was so strong and unwavering that it took only a matter of months for legislators to draft and approve legislation that very quickly made the Scorpions an curious relic of our democracy’s short history.
But please, let’s not descend into political or ideological debate about this matter. I am not arguing against the system we currently have that defends the poor from the homelessness, hunger and disease that results from poverty. I am saying that the state must do its bit. My appeal rather is that, at the highest levels of leadership in this country, we need to prioritise the removal of any and all unnecessary controls and restrictions on economic activity. Sure, we need to have laws that ensure that the environment (including people in it) is protected from harm. But that’s it! Any other control on the economy is a luxury we just can afford right now. Any other control on the economy is an insult to the poor and desperate people of Walmer Township and others trapped in poverty across the length and breadth of this beautiful country.