More return in rural infrastructure

(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 23 January 2017)

I try at the beginning of each year, during my break from office life, to pull off at least one lasting “capital infrastructure” project at home or at the farm. I do this because I’ve seen that a change of work routine is much more refreshing to me than “vegging out” on the couch. For the last few years I have been focusing on farm projects rather than home projects. A few hundred metres of fence, replacing the rusted roof on the old cottage or installing solar panels for off grid electricity. I insist to be “hands on” with these projects, so I spend the time physically working, lifting, hauling and digging.

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Cattle can give us milk and meat from grass, but they need water and fences.

It’s a kind of a therapy I suppose. This year I spent time running the heavy duty electrical cables that bring the municipal electrical supply from the roadside to the cottage. You make ask, “What do you need and electrical supply for when your previous project was installing your solar panels for off grid power?” A good question; and one with a very unfortunate answer. The panels were stolen (twice in fact) causing me painful financial loss and even more painful self-flagellation for allowing this to happen. But I don’t want to talk about going off grid today; I don’t want to talk about crime today. I rather want to talk about what goes through my head as I haul cable, as I dig trenches or as I cool down under the tree by the dam.

I’ve spent a good part of my professional life working on capital projects that provide infrastructure to those of use trapped in poverty. I am really grateful that we live in a country where we are able to attempt to provide infrastructure that addresses basic needs.  I am grateful that our system is able to build RDP houses, roads, electrical supply and sanitation. I am glad that the less tangible “infrastructure” of birth registration, identity documents and title deeds is in place and working reasonably well.  My concern is that while this infrastructure makes the urban poor a little more comfortable (and maybe relieves the middle class of a little guilt) it does not make the poor any less poor. The infrastructure does not offer any real improvement of the prospects of the urban poor of entering the economy which doggedly continues to exclude them.

I know it’s completely different, but what I see in my holiday farm infrastructure projects, is that every little investment of time and cash dramatically increases my potential to support revenue generating projects. When I install fences, I am able to keep cattle that will give me beef and milk. When I install electricity, I can brood my day-old chicks that will become free-range drumsticks and chicken fillets. When I install pipes to pump water from the spring I can irrigate my Pecan Nut trees in the dry months and generate revenue from a nut harvest. When I spend time and cash on replacing the windows on doors on the derelict farmstall, I can generate revenue by selling, pecan pie with fresh cream, free-range eggs and chicken soup. What I have come to see is that investment in basic rural infrastructure has the ability to give a much greater “bang for the buck”, especially if we measure that “bang” in terms of its ability to continue to provide regular revenue. This is especially true if we consider that the infrastructure that is currently being provided for the urban poor has all kinds of revenue generating potential, if only it were installed in a rural location where it could unlock the ability to enter the agricultural economy, if even on a micro scale. I’m talking about giving individual title to well located, small acreages with basic water supply, basic fencing and electricity. Just the essentials to allow people that would otherwise be stuck in poverty to at very least provide some of their own food, but with very little extra effort be able to produce a modest surplus. It’s not rocket science, especially when we live in a confusing reality where millions of us are unemployed yet millions of us eat chicken everyday imported from the Brazil and the USA. Perhaps it’s time that we get out of the mind-set where we believe that the only route out of poverty is 12 years of formal schooling and a 4 year degree. The truth is that many “unemployable” urban dwellers actually possess motivation and skillset that can be geared into real income and wellbeing in a reimagined agricultural economy on the periphery of our towns and cities. Let’s give thought to providing infrastructure in locations where our people can be productive in the agricultural economy. We must give this thought because our metro and every other municipality in our province includes much more rural land than urban land. We must give this more thought because our democratic process  is skewed  in such a way as to allow urban dwellers to direct public spending, through the IDP process, to the urban areas where they currently live and effectively away from any future possible improved rural existence perhaps just 10 or 20 km  away. We must give this thought because it is foolish delusion to think the city is separate from its rural hinterland, or that “they” are not separate from” us”, or that you are separate from me.

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Don’t let culture be reason to isolate ourselves from others

This piece first appeared in The Herald on 12 January 2017

December holidays in South Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, are a glorious celebration of idleness; an annual reminder to all of us that there is so much more to this life than working for a boss.

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The young man returning from the bush dresses in a certain way (Photo: Tamarisk Glogauer)

But, other than idleness, December in our region is also dominated by significant “cultural” and “traditional” obsessions. In my family, we follow both Xhosa and European traditions, so December means Mgidi season and Christmas season. This year was particularly intense as my second son (recently matriculated) went to the bush to participate in the thousand year old Xhosa tradition of circumcising boys and initiating them into manhood. So, this December was not just about attending the various celebrations as a guest, but rather hosting a huge feast (called an Mgidi) in my back yard in Walmer.

Of course, once everything was done with the Mgidi, the marquee taken down, the last of the ox eaten and the last Mqomboti drunk, I quickly got into Father Christmas mode and rushed off to the mall to get the gifts, the turkey, the gammon, the crackers and all the other paraphernalia that is absolutely required to make Christmas a success. It all worked out well and so many of our friends are patting us on the back for being “multi-cultural” and for “promoting diversity”.

But I have been thinking about this a little over the holidays, as the fog of burnout begins slowly to loosen its grip on my brain. I really don’t want to make myself unpopular, but I am just no longer sure that all of this talk of “embrace your culture” and “be proud of your roots” is going to be good for us in trying to build a society and a culture that attempts to pull together in the same direction. The thing is that your family traditions (be they Diwali, Imisibenzi or Christmas) are very, very useful tools at making you feel part of “the group”. There are so many little rules in these cultural events that we all “just know”. Those of us that celebrate Christmas know that Father Christmas comes down the chimney, not through the front door; we know that gifts must be wrapped and shiny paper and must be given on 25 December. We know that the Christmas dinner must include a turkey and that it is absolutely essential that you wear one of those flimsy paper hats while you eat.

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Clad in brand new white blanket the young man turns his back on his childhood and heads home – Phot0: Andrew Hewitt-Coleman

Those of us that attend Mgidis “just know” that the young man will come home from the bush in the morning to the loud bashing and clanging of pots. We know that he must be adorned in a clean white blanket and must carry a blackened stick. We know that he will be smeared in red clay by his sister and given a new name. Knowing all these rules and sub-rules makes us feel comfortable, makes us feel part of something larger than us.

But the truth is that cultural events like Christmas, Bar Mitzvahs or Mgidis originated at a time when everyone around us in any direction for a thousand kilometres spoke the same language and held the same beliefs. Cultural events were therefore a comforting and regular reminder that we are all on the same page. The reality of course is that we don’t live in that world any more. So, my fear is that the very same cultural events that evolved all over the world to make communities stronger are now having the opposite effect in an age of multiple overlapping Diasporas. What we call “culture” has the very real effect of making someone who does not know all the little rules feel like an outsider and in a very real way, unwelcome.

I may have lived next door to Greek neighbours for ten years but would still feel like I don’t belong at a birthday party where there is bearded guy dancing in circles while his mates chuck the crockery on the floor.

Otherwise intelligent friends of mine speak about South Africa being a cultural “melting pot”, where the (completely unscientific) belief is that if each family just keeps on following the same routines that our great-great grandparents did, that we will somehow magically develop a new culture and tradition that is uniquely South African. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. What I see from where I am standing is arrogant conservative backlash that says “this is how we have always done things and to hell with all of you!” I know that Trump supporters and Brexit people may tell you otherwise, but this mind-set can only be a recipe for extinction.

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The temporary structure the boy stayed in is burned to the ground along with all boyhood possessions – Photo – Andrew Hewitt-Coleman

So what can we do?  My suggestion is that we begin to discuss the challenge of culture, but not from the perspective of trying to conserve some dying detail, but rather from the perspective of “What aspect of my family’s tradition can I soften, explain or modify to make accessible to everyone? What can I do make it easier for those around me to understand and participate in?”

And another thing: Get over yourself!  It’s just not that serious! These traditions are just a game that we play. Because deep down, in our quiet time, each of us know that we are so much more than the language we speak or the village we come from.

Let’s lighten it up a little!

Statism and the East Cape Taxi Protest

(this piece first appeared in The Herald on 15 June 2016, under the “Title SA freedom being circumscribed)

 

My 1997 Toyota is currently propped up on bricks in my backyard. You see, I’m waiting for my small time mechanic “guy” to find a specific part that is being reconditioned by his small time parts supply “guy”.  I have though still managed to get around town regardless of this challenge and regardless of this week’s province wide taxi protest. This, partly thanks to Uber and partly thanks to the luck that I do not rank in the number of the struggling poor compelled to live in the far flung periphery of our sprawling metro. So, as I have zipped around town as a passenger in the last few days I have had a little more time to follow what my “friends” are saying on Facebook. Much of my feed is clogged up with pictures of cats sleeping in laundry baskets or heart wrenching messages about how not sharing this picture of a goat means that I don’t care about people dying of cancer. There was, though, some interesting talk about what people think of the taxi protest. Most of the talk was about the fear of the protest getting violent or how unfair it was that students could not get to class to write their exams.  Yes, I feel for the students. I feel for the mall bound housewives’ stuck in traffic jams. But, to be honest, I’m more interested in what this protest is really about; and as far as I can understand, it’s really is about the delay in the provincial government’s issuing of “operating licenses”. Because, you see, the state has decided that it is criminal for a hardworking person to make an honest living transporting people from A to B without their permission. Really!? Perhaps there is something that I am not getting here? But my real worry is that so many of us are completely content with the idea that the state somehow has the right to tell us what we can and cannot do and that we need their “permission” to do an honest day’s work. This state bullying is not just in the transport sector, it’s all over the economy!
 I work as an Architect. In this industry the state has decided that they do not trust the judgment of those who chose to do business with me. I am therefor required to remain “licensed” by the state. For an Architect to work without a license is a criminal offence. I go to jail! I mean, can we not be trusted as ordinary citizens to choose for ourselves who to employ to give us a lift to work or to draw up plans for the extensions to our patio?  Do we really need armies of faceless civil servants employed with our tax money in Pretoria or Bhisho to help us with this level of decision making? Perhaps the reason we tolerate this intrusion is because we have not paused to think about it?
 In the late eighties many of my friends, like me, were caught up with the idea of “freedom” and of “power to the people”. It seems though that as time has passed that ideal has evolved rather to us being content with changing the complexion of the state rather that questioning whether it was ever necessary for the state to take away our individual freedoms in the first place. The Apartheid state was unapologetic in taking away freedoms in the pursuit of “Law and Order”. At that time, citizens felt it was absolutely OK that there would be laws stopping us from selling flowers on pavements, brewing Umqomboti  in the backyard or playing guitar for loose coins at the bus stop. It was just understood that the state was in control and it was the job of each and every citizen to “stay out of trouble”. But somehow we have allowed that apartheid mindset to move with us 20 years and beyond into the “free” South Africa. The obsession with “statism” seems to be held equally by political parties to the left and the right.  The political debate is generally only about what category of additional state control can be forced upon its citizens.
Since apartheid times, the excuse used for state bullying has moved from “Law and Order” and “Suppression of Communism” to our new regime’s talk of “Health and Safety” and “Transformation”. We need though to wake up the very real possibility that our freedoms are being taken away for no reason other than to allow huge monopolies to step in and take control of the country. Putting in place “licensing procedures” on top of layers and layers of compliance requirements makes it more and more difficult for any but larger and larger institutions and corporations to keep up. State capture is not a single event, not just the Guptas, not just one corrupt politician. It is a tendency that has come with us since before we agreed in 1994 that freedom is what each and every citizen deserves and is entitled to.

 

So I urge each and every one of us, from today on,  to free our minds and to become openly and vocally disgusted whenever we encounter the smallest attempt on the part of the state to tell us that we are not free.  As long as we are not harming anyone, it should not be any of their damn business!

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.