Sunday, 21 December 2014

Life Isn't Supposed to be this Hard

I have had many conversations with people, mostly people who are in low-paying jobs without much prospects for advancement, conversations about life. The thing that everyone agrees on is that life shouldn't be this hard.

Sometimes someone might say something like "I don't know what we can do, maybe just pray harder." To this I will respond with something like I think that what will be more effective than prayer to make a difference is action. If we all take action together, united in the goal of making life better, then we will see great changes - and everyone agrees to this logic. I have not met one person who says "NO, action won't change anything!"

The worst thing within all of this is that this life is difficult because we make it so. The worst part is that we could change the world if we took action, but we don't.

One of the most popular excuses I hear is that it's "other peoples' faults". The world is horrible and I have a crap life because of all the assholes in the world. There are too many people who won't change. The world will never change when there are so many bad people. This excuse is used to justify our own inaction - because apparently any effort we make would have no results and so it's not even worth the effort. It's as if we're waiting for guaranteed paths of action, unwilling to move until we are absolutely sure that what we do will actually work. In a way this is the easy way out, because standing for change means going out into the unknown, no certainty as to what lies ahead.

Here in South Africa a very large part of the workforce survives on minimum wage, well below the poverty line. A large number of people live in illegal or government housing (which don't appear to be very different when you put the two next to each other). These are the people who are hurt the most by this world, who are the most vulnerable. At this stage the only ways that they can try to bring about change is through protests, sometimes violent and sometimes not. At this stage there is a diminished level of understanding as to how change can be brought about - not only by impoverished people, but by most people. There is a serious hole in the understanding of the average citizen Joe of how the system works, and more importantly, the power that each person has.

Back to South Africa, what can the impoverished and vulnerable do to change their lives? They have minimal support from public (government) and community structures - dealing with the government is like pulling teeth, but pulling the wrong one each time. These people do not know how to ask the right questions, most of the time they do not even know what their rights are and what support structures are available to them. What then can they do? They often have only limited skills in reading and writing and, if any, very limited access to public sources of knowledge such as the internet. To add to this, the leaders they are most likely to choose are the ones who stir passion in their hearts, whether the message they are giving makes sense or not.

Then there is the question of those who are more privileged - how far does their responsibility extend to the underprivileged? I would say that where one has the ability and understanding to support another then they also have the responsibility to do so. What defines 'ability'? Resources, skills, knowledge - but to what degree? Well, let me put it thins way: If you know that you can help, then it becomes your responsibility to do so. Waiting for someone else to come along and help so that you don't have to is an abdication of your responsibility to your community - and I don't mean 'community' in the smallest sense of the word, I mean it in the largest sense, the global sense.

Life isn't supposed to be this hard. We can change it. We can help each other. We can give opportunities to each other. We can support each other to be the best we can be. It's doesn't start with some other guys over there - it starts with YOU and ME. WE are the change, TOGETHER we are better, stronger. We have the responsibility to support solutions that will bring heaven to earth. We may not see the full fruits of our labours in our lifetime, but maybe our children will.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Eskom – The Power Question

I ended my previous post with the following:

“So – what else can we do? Even if Eskom is not privatised, is there an alternative? We tend to look at things in black and white and see only two options: nationalisation and privatisation – thinking along the lines of: ‘The company was already nationalised, we’re not happy now, so let’s try privatisation instead.’ But there is another option. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.”

Interestingly – the day after I published my previous post, I came across the following news article: ANC eyes State sell-off to ease power crunch…  and we are one step further on the road to privatisation.

But, as I said, we don’t have to go that route. Agreed – nationalisation often leads to severe problems such as corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement – but so does privatisation. Fortunately, there is another road we can take – one that you can call nationalisation or privatisation – because both words would be suitable – and yet, it would be totally different from the nationalisation or privatisation practices we have seen in the past. I apologise if I have confused you – allow me to explain.

The third road to take is to place Eskom in the hands of ever South African citizen – making each South African a shareholder of Eskom. I said you could call it both ‘nationalisation’ as well as ‘privatisation’. You could call it ‘nationalisation’ because the nation as each citizen would in fact own the power utility company. You could call it ‘privatisation’ because the company would be in the hands of private citizens and not in the hands of a government owning it ‘on behalf of’ the people. Let’s call the third road ‘citizen shareholding’ – why is this a preferred option?

To put it simply – a company will be managed in a way to secure the interests of the shareholders/whoever owns the company. At the moment – that is the government. If Eskom were privatised, it would be the interests of some other company or a select group of individuals that would be served. In such a scenario – you cannot guarantee that a company is run with the benefit of each South African in mind – the power is too centralised.

That is what Eskom is representing at this time: Power – who has the power to control the power? Are we going to place the power to control power in the hands of another small group of people and simply ‘trust’ they will not abuse their power to only further their own power? Or will we place the power in the hands of the people?
When applying citizen shareholding to Eskom, decentralisation is maximized with no one person/group of people having more power than another to influence how power is distributed in South Africa – personal agendas are taken out of the equation and what is best for South Africa can be created.

Citizen Shareholding forms an integral part of the Living Income for South Africa Proposal. Far too long have we taken a back-seat – hoping/waiting/trusting that everything will be okay – and complaining/protesting/striking when it turns out everything is getting worse. Here is a promise: nothing will change if we don’t start paying attention to what is going on, nothing will change if we don’t stand by real solutions, nothing will change if we don’t create awareness of other available options such as the Living Income Guaranteed Proposal. The power to actually change things is in our hands, and it has always been there – the question is: will we do something with it?

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Eskom - Where is South Africa Headed and Who is in the Driver’s Seat?

For those readers who are not South African – Eskom is the South African public utility company. The company has been increasing prices over the last few years and generally, South Africans often experience unexpected power outages, especially when living in more remote areas. So all in all Eskom is not a public favorite. That being the ‘normal state of affairs’ – now Eskom is in trouble. The infrastructure is compromised and the company is not able to meet the growing demand for electricity. This has resulted in scheduled load shedding. Practically, it means that every day we look on the Eskom website to see if there is any load shedding happening and what ‘stage’ of load shedding we’re on. Then each one can look up what the load shedding schedule is for their area – where either, power will not be turned off, will be turned off for 2,5 hours every three days, every day, or several times a day. Then we hope that the load shedding ‘stage’ does not suddenly change, where we are not prepared for the power outages, that the power comes on again when they say it does and that if no power outage is scheduled, that there won’t be any unexpected outages, leaving us in the dark anyways.

Obviously, it’s not a very pleasant situation, but what concerns me most is how it is driving South Africans into a particular course of action that is fuelled by emotion rather than practical considerations.

So – South Africans, I now address myself to you:

For a moment, take a step back from your direct experience with Eskom, and observe the ‘bigger picture’, the larger pattern that is playing out. What we’re going through at the moment has happened before – it is nothing new. You can look at examples in Greece, in Spain – in any country that started privatizing public utilities after the public increasingly voiced their displeasure with the companies’ performances. It just ‘made sense’ to ask for privatization, because ‘obviously’, the company, when in public hands, was not efficient and was not acting in the best interest of the public. The assumption or expectation exists that when the company is transferred to private hands, that it will perform better, be more responsible and, somehow, work in the interest of the public; its clients. But what actually happens when public utilities are transferred from the public to the private sector? The service becomes even scarcer, because it is now working according to private market logic – prices sky-rocket and so many lose access to a living requirement, because it’s just not affordable. But it does not only affect ‘the poor’. For others, financial pressures increase, because the utility bill is sky-high and purchasing power drops significantly.

Now – I’m sketching the pattern in large strokes and I’m not trying to make an argument for leaving things as they are. What I do want to stress is to be watchful for grasping at the first proposed alternative to the current situation in the expectation that it is an actual solution. That is what emotional decisions are. I’m sure you’ve had experiences in your personal life of making decisions when you were emotionally unstable – decisions that you regretted later on, because they were made in the heat or in the turbulence of the moment, when you did not see things clearly. That is what is happening right now – only on a larger scale.

I strongly suggestion watching the documentary ‘Catastroika’  as it shows how the exact same pattern has played out in other countries and what the actual consequences are. You can view the full documentary here:

We are already heading in the same direction. Visit the Eskom’s facebook page, and have a look at the comments left by individuals to any of their posts – it’s a reflection of the emotional state the country is in. Then visit the website ‘’ , scroll down and to the right you will see a voting poll with the question “Should Eskom be privatized?” – currently 90% of voters (2238 votes) said ‘yes’ – while 10% (257 votes) said ‘no’. If Eskom is privatized, then those in power can say that ‘the people wanted it so’ – but who engineered the circumstances that drove the decision? Again – watch the documentary.

So – what else can we do? Even if Eskom is not privatized, is there an alternative? We tend to look at things in black and white and see only two options: nationalization and privatization – thinking along the lines of: ‘The company was already nationalized, we’re not happy now, so let’s try privatization instead.’ But there is another option. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Nkandla – We’re Not Asking the Most Important Question

We keep getting more news reports on Nkandla. The country is in uproar because it may or may not be that public funds were misappropriated to further the personal pleasures of the president. The Nkandla-story is a great example of how we’ll tend to wake up, blink our eyes and start demanding accountability from our political leaders after the facts. While we’re all busy attempting to find out what actually happened and from different sides proposals are being made on how to go from here – we’re all missing the most important question: how do we prevent a similar situation in the future?

Do we think it is normal for instance, that we don’t actually know where public money is being spent on? Do we think it is normal that once we’ve elected a party into office, we’re no longer consulted on how this government is now to allocate public funds? Do we think it is normal that all the while money may have been spent on an issue that the public does not deem relevant, yet, we wouldn’t know about it until after the facts and the money is gone?

Here is a recent blog I wrote on participatory budgeting that would provide the preventative measures that are needed in South Africa to hold our leaders truly accountable and to all take responsibility for public funds:

Who is more Fiscally Responsible – Elected Politicians or Citizens?

In the blog-series ‘Democratization – Put your Money where your Mouth is with LIG’ I briefly discussed an argument against direct democracy (placing authority directly in the hands of citizens rather than elected politicians) that dates from the time of Plato – the argument being that citizens would make ‘bad decisions’ and don’t possess the necessary intelligence, knowledge and skills required in political decision-making.

I came across the following information when browsing through the comments on a blog regarding the implementation of a Basic Income in Switzerland:

"Switzerland is an interesting laboratory for direct democracy.

I dimly recall a very interesting study by (I believe) University of Zurich (maybe 20 years old).

They analyzed for each of the 26 Swiss cantons (=states): (1) influence of direct democracy on canton politics (which varies by canton. Some cantons don’t have all that much direct democracy. Others such as Appenzell-Innerrhoden don’t even have a parliament because EVERY single law is passed directly by the people). (2) fiscal situation of the state.

The highly fascinating result was this:

the stronger the people can directly influence public spending and taxes, the healthier the canton’s budgets (!!). The people tended NOT to spend more than they had. Rather, the professional politicians (or the canton’s that gave elected officials greater power) tended to be more fiscally irresponsible."

Naturally, my interest was peaked and I went to search for studies about this topic. And, yes, you guessed it – I found the material supporting these claims. I think we can all agree that when states spend beyond their means – we have a case of bad political decision-making. According to the logic of the argument that it would be dangerous to have citizens directly participate in politics, we would expect citizens’ involvement within budgeting decisions to exacerbate fiscal irresponsibility. And yet – here we have an example that not only shows that citizens wouldn’t make matters worse – but that citizens would do better than elected politicians when it comes to balancing the budget.

If at any point it is relevant to ask the citizens for their direct input on a particular topic to increase democratic practices, it would be: how should we spend public funds? Voting a person into office is one thing – but it is the budget that really determines political policy for the coming year. Mandatory budget referendums should be a minimum requirement for any regime to qualify as a democracy, really. When the extent of your political participation is to vote someone into office – then all you have is ‘hope’ that the people in power will use public funds responsibly and for the purposes that you expect them to. Mandatory budget referendums would create a point of direct accountability towards the citizenry that once politicians are in power, they are indeed acting out their mandate on behalf of the people. It would immediately reduce corruption and prevent budgetary deficiencies down the line, where one is suddenly told that the retirement age has been increased and austerity measures are being taken because there are insufficient public funds and one only then starts wondering ‘well, where did all the money go?’. 

The fiscal problems most countries are experiencing today could have been prevented. It is now a time of walking through consequence that has already been created and yes, it is worthwhile looking for solutions to address current problems head-on – but it is most important to prevent the same scenario from taking place again. In Dutch there is a saying ‘a donkey doesn’t bump his head on the same rock twice’ – seems like humanity can learn a thing or two from donkeys since we have this tendency of not even looking at what it is we bumped our head on and why – but simply try to put some ice on the wound. However much we may be upset with governments and politicians – we are the ones who gave them the power to do what they did. The consequence that is here is as much ours as theirs – and rightfully so. If anything – let us at least learn from our mistakes – otherwise all the troubles we’re going through will really be for naught. Let us at least enshrine solutions within the constitution and develop new political practices that we can pass on to the next generations – we owe them that much.