Monday, May 21, 2018

Curiosity feeds the cat.

The important role of this basic human trait to our well being.

What would you do if you saw a group of people gathered on a street corner? It was a question often asked of news reporting candidates. If they said they would walk away, they stood little chance of being employed because they lacked one of the basic and important traits of a journalist, which is passionate curiosity.

Tiring somewhat of all of the heavy stuff in current affairs, I have been reflecting on the days of my youth and some popular forms of barter at the time. I thought of my mother’s indignation with a shopkeeper offering her some Chappies bubble-gum instead of a penny in change. Of course, her refusal made me angry with her! One of the attractions of that messy chew was the “Did you know” trivia on the wrapper, and I used to save them to become a human Google to my friends.

That made me think of the power of curiosity, and my son who has developed the most irritating of habits. Whenever I ask him a question, he responds with a refrain: “Google is your friend.” It is a reminder of how much information is at our disposal, and how easy it is to access it. But beware the Googler in your midst. You could be having a casual conversation with a group of friends when one interrupts with: “You are wrong! I’ve just Googled it.” And a trivial conversation becomes a heated, acrimonious exchange.

In this era of information overload and the IT explosion, the initial assumption that it would lead to a much more informed society is now being questioned quite seriously. Some are arguing that much of the media that people have easy access to, distribute misinformation rather than authentic content. Even conventional news outlets are not immune. It is also argued that predilection confirms prejudices rather than challenging them. Still, one cannot deny that in a functional sense, we are much better off than a few decades ago. 

This all reflects on curiosity itself, which, as it turns outs, is a serious, albeit badly neglected science. Yet, it is self evidently one of the most important features of being human. It is the driving force behind knowledge, discovery, innovation, development and prosperity. It can be used or abused; encouraged or supressed and manipulated by malevolent forces that result in an entire nation, society or even a generation losing its head.

A key assumption of the science of curiosity is that it has the same framework that we apply to much of human behaviour: nature or nurture.  Astrophysicist and author, Mario Livio says “Curiosity is a fundamental human trait. Everyone is curious, but the object and degree of that curiosity is different depending on the person and the situation.” That difference is influenced by many factors: culture, gender, and individual circumstances and preferences. For instance, an unemployed homeless individual will be curious about very different things from those of a derivatives trader, or the guru on a mountain contemplating the meaning of life. I’m often appalled at the extent to which even well-educated and highly functional people simply avoid exposure to current affairs because they “find it too depressing”.

The key question is whether we understand curiosity enough, especially how it can be nurtured at the broadest level to encourage the acquisition of knowledge and discovery. Curiosity was at the centre of the success of post-war South Korea. I witnessed this in two Korean participants in a management development programme at the Oxford Centre for Management Studies in the mid-80’s. They had little understanding of English, and would record every word of the 6-8 hours lectures daily; play it back to an interpreter in Seoul; study the material, and join classes the following day as familiar with the material as any other participant.

Curiosity may be one of the most unappreciated and neglected attributes that we have in society. It is often discouraged by parents in children, yet one can only imagine how advanced they would be if you answered all of the more than 70 questions they ask daily. One should never discourage curiosity. Indeed it may be more appropriate to review not only all those areas where it is discouraged, but where it can be developed and nurtured. Do the formal structures and curricula of schools, for example, deliberately encourage curiosity in the subject being taught or do they simply “impose” learning on the learner?

I believe one of the most fruitful endeavours companies themselves can undertake is to encourage curiosity in the workplace. I have personal experience of how it is suppressed and often destroyed, especially at first line supervisory level. Knowledge and understanding of their working environment are the most empowering tools workers can be given – beyond simply having knowledge of the task itself. We are daily dealing with the toxic fruits of that neglect. I have witnessed too, how often that light can be switched on by demonstrating the direct link between the worker, the task and service to society through service to the customer. And then showing how value creation affects rewards for all. It is fully captured in the Common Purpose; Common Fate model and the Contribution Accounting Methodology.

In a broader sense and at societal level, we clearly have to become more curious about curiosity. Unless you are a cat, of course.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The corporate cauldron.

Reflecting on the wider issues of the Steinhoff scandal.

If there is one conversation that I would love to hear, it is that between Milton Friedman and Mervyn King. As a Nobel Prize winning economist and adviser to American President Ronald Reagan, Friedman strongly influenced the course of economics and the “greed is good” era of the 80’s; arguing that the sole purpose of enterprise was to create value for shareholders. South Africa’s governance architect, Mervyn King, on the other hand has taken a broader view in King IV, arguing that business has to create value for all. But both would find common ground on the need for regulation, differing only on what and how.

Regulation alone can never prevent corporate malfeasance. All it can really do is limit it. But the problem with that is that the larger the organisation involved, the greater the potential harm. It’s a bit like having basic rules of the road apply to all drivers, but the mistake of a car driver will seldom have the same impact as the mistake of a bus driver carrying many passengers. Our own Steinhoff scandal is one example, but globally we have seen misconduct by large organisations causing havoc with severe socio-economic implications, including a global meltdown.

There can be little doubt that concentration of economic power, of which big business is a key feature, is at the centre of a shift in economic thinking. I say this not only on the strength of empirical and anecdotal evidence, but also on intuition based on years of exposure in this field.  Developments such as the attack on the establishment, state capture, national isolationism, trade wars, pay and wealth disparities, our own populist hysteria around “monopoly capital”, exclusivity, increasing governance regulation, the effects of technology, environmental concerns and growing discomfort with globalisation, can all be traced back to a greater or lesser extent to financialisation, capital concentration and the size of multi-national corporations.

It is also at the centre of the evolvement of economic ideology, captured in this article: An age of economic soul-searching. It is perhaps supreme irony that the masters behind the ideological divide between capitalism and Marxist socialism – Adam Smith and Karl Marx found common ground in the threat of big business and mercantile interests charting our economic destiny. 

In the end, like the fallible bus driver, these large corporations are headed by fallible men and women whose task is compounded by trying to reconcile the broad interests of society with the narrow, often short-term interests of shareholders rewarding executive greed. They are very often in conflict, and it is a disingenuous over-simplification to argue that regulation can bring the two together. We had an inkling of this conundrum in Christo Wiese’s testimony to the Steinhoff Parliamentary enquiry, in which he highlighted the complexity of a multi-national corporation; where working in different countries with different legislative requirements created many loopholes for misconduct. Even more revealing was the testimony of JSE CEO, Nicky Newton-King that it was standard business practice for large corporations to maximise capital and tax efficiencies. I could not tell whether it was simply a statement of fact or one suggesting censure. But the two together point to the heart of the problem.

The standard defence of big business, corporates, large holding companies, and mergers and acquisitions mostly falls back on capital efficiency and the hunger for capital. In turn that is often distilled into a simple formula of the cost of capital. That assumption about capital formation is far too narrow and flawed both in terms of structure and motive. Human beings are simply not that one dimensional and one of the biggest failings of economic theory is that it tries to reduce us all to predictable, measureable abstracts. What has become clear however, is that the “invisible hand” does not work very well when that hand is very large, powerful and driven primarily by self-gain.

This is a vast subject and difficult to cover in an article of this nature. The last few decades have seen a significant shift in the debate against big business.  Flying on the fuel of capital efficiency is no longer seen as valid, and it is difficult to find many arguments in favour of bigness.

Robert Atkinson, head of a Washington research group, is one champion of corporate consolidation, on the grounds that big businesses create more jobs, pay better wages, and — by some metrics — comply better with environmental and workplace laws. He goes further in slamming the enthusiasm for small business whose only value, he argues, is as incubator for large businesses, especially if they do so with disruptive technology that makes the economy overall more efficient. He does have a point. Labour, for example, contrary to their trashing of “monopoly capital”, would find it difficult to extort their demands from a widely fragmented business sector.

Of the many criticisms of big business, one of the most coherent and well researched I have read is that of two Johannesburg academics: Pamela Mondliwa and Simon Roberts. They wrote in this Moneyweb article: “Economic concentration opens the door to market power being exercised in a way that undermines productivity. This can be seen, for instance, in value chains where downstream players have to pay high prices for inputs, with dire consequences for their competitiveness. The knock on effect is that economic growth slows down and employment creation is affected if downstream industries are labour absorbing.”

We too often seek answers in laws and coercion – until we are buried in police and have overflowing jails. And then the miscreants always seem to be one step ahead. We have to construct a different understanding of and relationship with capital in the economy. While Friedman’s shareholder-value creed may have been the “dumbest idea ever”, King’s “creating value for all” may become the “smartest idea ever.”  All that is needed is for the three contributors to wealth creation -- labour, capital and state – to think and behave entrepreneurially and become customer driven in a common purpose and common fate context. 

It’s not going to require a huge shift, but it certainly will create one.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The land madness.

Our most divisive issue is also the most misunderstood and incoherent.

As a young boy, I would often take long, lonely walks in the veld of the Free State Gold Fields: barefoot with hardened soles impervious to sharp pebbles and blades of dry grass; but still intuitively sensitive to the energy and magnetism of the virgin earth; the large promise of nature; flat and wide open spaces; of freedom and the mystery of what lay beyond the horizon. My fantasy would often expand to owning all of what I could see, giving me a sense of power, status, security and wealth.

Those two dimensions: the nomad and the settler; the romantic and the mercenary; and the communal and the territorial, are powerful primal forces in our relationship with land. They are often contradictory. They are also, for the most part, mythical, emotive and irrational. Yet they strongly influence our discourse about land, plunging it into an incoherent mess. A greater, and more explosive dimension is added by a wider territorial framing, embellished by the concepts of people and their homeland; tribe and territory; volk and vaderland; a place and a home; of flags and anthems; ancestry; culture; tradition; belonging and connection. These are strong enough to awaken the warrior in pacifist chests, adding volume to calls to action, and creating a powerful drug to be peddled by populist politicians.

It is small wonder that our debate about land, perhaps the most divisive issue in South Africa today, is trapped in an echo chamber of contradictions, conflicting statistics, confusing rhetoric and ideological warfare. For this column I’m not going to confront the issue some have raised that the proposed amendments to the Constitution have a much broader and more invidious implication of expropriation of all property: from your child’s favourite teddy bear to intellectual property. I don’t think that it is remotely possible and will bring down the entire economic system. In any case, the government is quite welcome to nationalise my tortured imperfect thoughts.

Our understanding and hence our whole policy approach to land transformation could be way off the mark. It has mostly been distilled into two ill-fitting themes – transfer of agricultural land and transfer of wealth. The first dominates the discourse and is perhaps the most incoherent of all, based not only on poor statistics and false assumptions around who owns what (see this article by the IRR challenging the 4% black land ownership), but also whether agricultural land is the real issue at all among the impoverished and disadvantaged.

All empirical evidence shows differently. Most of the land invasions and unrest have not been on farms, but in urban areas – people wanting homes and escaping cramped, poorly serviced living conditions in exploding townships and settlements. Their inability to achieve that is far more inflammable, pitching red berets against Red Ants in a fervour fuelled by anger, hopelessness and despair. I’m convinced that addressing that in land restitution will defuse most of the emotions far quicker and easier than the complicated transfer of farms.

It also makes much more sense in the distribution of wealth. Far more wealth is tied up in residential property than in farming or commerce and industry. It gives individuals an asset foothold and promotes inclusiveness in the economy. But that in turn needs a clear approach to private ownership and title. The Freedom Front Plus may have valid concerns that the government seems intent on expropriating land for the state and not for private ownership. The latter would certainly be at odds with the EFF’s “socialist” stance, which then implies opportunism on their part in using individual aspirations for home ownership to enrich the state. Surprising to many perhaps, blacks own far more first homes in South Africa than whites. According to an observation by economist Mike Schussler recently posted on social media: “Africans own 7,66 million houses (1st houses only) and Whites own 730 000. In total 56% of the value of 1st houses belong to Africans. Only 33% belong to the white population group”.

One cannot be dogmatic about state and communal ownership versus private ownership. There are too many permutations of ownership in different countries that invalidate ideological prescription. What is useful, however, is to understand that state ownership (ownership by all) is equal to ownership by none (not one.) It is then also imperative to have a clear understanding that government in its various forms: national, local and SOE’s are not the state per se but agents of the state. In that they cannot represent “all” and indeed too often act on behalf of a few, including themselves.

Compounding the entire discourse further and much deeper, is the macroeconomic positioning of land as a “factor of production” next to labour and capital. It’s perhaps the most essential perspective of all, but it is rife with complexity.  Land for commercial and industrial use, for example, is more appropriately classified as capital as a factor of production. Land has virtually disappeared from economic theory although undeniably still impacts on GDP. (See article here.) The constantly changing structure of macroeconomics through technology and human evolvement has meant that the role of land as a factor of production has become highly flexible and incalculable; in some cases even irrelevant. A reflection of this is the many small countries with little or no natural resources that are highly prosperous; and conversely, the many countries with abundant land and minerals, who are relatively poor.

I am aware that this article may well have raised far more questions than answers. Perhaps that’s the point. But what should be obvious to all is that our discourse on land is juvenile, irrational and tragically behind the times. It is anchored in falsehoods, flawed assumptions, and volatile emotionalism.

What madness would allow it to tear us apart?

Monday, April 9, 2018

Stakeholder capitalism.

Can South Africa create a fresh economic approach to growth and inclusivity?

Part of the enthusiasm of a “new dawn” in South Africa is the belief that a closer partnership can be established between labour, capital and state. It has a firm Ramaphosa stamp to it and is key to the President’s desire to galvanise the nation on a different business friendly path of cohesion, inclusivity and growth.

In this he has put renewed emphasis on the CEO initiative and the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) as “unique institutions” in bringing the three economic estates together and that are envied by many other nations. Sceptics could argue that most nations do not need them and have long since evolved beyond 19th century ideological divisions captured in theories of “capitalism” and “socialism” that still mesmerise many in this country. (See article: An age of economic soul searching here.)

Only a political or organisational theorist could come up with a term such as “stakeholder capitalism”. It’s counter-intuitive to the very definition of capitalism and borders on being an oxymoron. The classic definition of capitalism assumes the supremacy of ownership over “stakeholders”. Perhaps it is time to move beyond the debilitating semantics of capitalism and socialism. There are so many permutations of both in different settings that neither exists in its pure form. Yet the words themselves ignite knee jerk responses based on stubbornly nurtured prejudices.

Associative meaning has a subtle way of creating unshakeable intuitive prejudice – to the extent that many baby names are banned in some countries with some nations even having a pre-approved list. Have the words “capitalism and socialism” not reached that point? And perhaps with them other concoctions such as “communism”, “neo-liberalism”, “social capitalism” and “stakeholder capitalism”. There is, of course, much value in the inclusive stakeholder approach, but to achieve that, one simply has to let go of much of what is conventional capitalism – including the purpose of business and the accounting formats -- in favour of a common purpose; common fate approach.

It will also need a clearer distinction between capitalism and other concepts such as “free enterprise”, “free markets” and even notions such as innovation, entrepreneurship, and prosperity. Without that distinction, those laudable, more palatable and easily defended concepts become tainted with many negative connotations associated with the name of capitalism. It is said to be in a crisis. Its face has been called “unacceptable”. It’s been slandered as “ugly”. It’s even been demeaned as having no face at all. It solicits ill-informed responses from populist leaders that inflame without enlightening: much heat without light. Included in its defence, and entrenched by the word itself, are questionable assumptions about what accounts for its success.

The first is that human beings are singularly driven by their immediate material self-interest and profit. That is a silly generalisation. Human beings are far more complex than that. Free enterprise supports a different understanding, as pronounced by Adam Smith (See here). Without a good measure of benevolent behaviour we attract the very nemesis of free enterprise: more rules, regulations, laws, government controls and even coerced empathy in the form of a system mildly called socialism. Which prompts me to burst another assumption bubble: because homo economicus is a social being rather than simply a functional entity in one or other construct, it does not support the radical socialist argument of ownership by all – or ownership by none.

Interestingly, while capitalism is blindly married to the material self-gain driver, free enterprise does not concern itself with motive: as long as it is led by the fundamental rule that wealth is the result of creating something of tangible value for others or being useful to fellow human beings. In that it has a fundamental benevolent underpinning. Free enterprise is remarkably resilient and accommodating, and does not attract or even need the fanatical posturing that advocates either for or against often adopt in an understandable blind prejudice. Even in its aversion to socialism and the latter’s implication of bigger government at the expense of private initiative, it can accommodate permutations that fly in the teeth of many arguments.

Capitalism vehemently champions my old pet objection: the profit motive and profit maximisation as the ultimate driver of success and prosperity. I do not intend repeating my challenge to this claim as simply being false. What is worth repeating is the outrageous and demeaning assumption it makes about the motives of entrepreneurial giants who have made a marked and lasting impact on humankind. The social miracle of free enterprise is its ability to forge cohesion and a sense of common purpose between stakeholders. That obviously implies not trying to rank one above the other, and certainly not encouraging the exploitation by one of the other.

That is implied in the name “capitalism” itself. It assumes capital supremacy in all things, and the pursuit of its formation and growth is a precursor to all kinds of wonderful stuff. Free enterprise accommodates, indeed proposes, a different view: that enterprise leads and capital follows. Capital is indeed a critical enabler. But so are skills and labour, and government services and infra-structure. But the ultimate enabler is demand.

The results of a narrow and exclusive view on the role of capital formation have been devastating. We have not seen significant capital formation in organic growth through multiples of mom-and- pop ventures, small and medium enterprise growth, and growing middle classes; but in mergers, acquisitions, financial services, and financial or property assets. Control of capital, not necessarily ownership, has increasingly been concentrated in the hands of the few, who in turn, some have argued, have “captured” many free enterprise activities, parts of government, and the most invidious of all: banking and money creation.

The term “monopoly capital” may have no logical basis, but it’s simply a reflection of trying to find, or even create a demon that “will be confronted” by voting for some populist megalomaniac. The concentration of control over the means of production, either by government or a few plutocrats is the antithesis of free enterprise. The term itself is a P.R nightmare. Even in its origins it was demonised by novelist Thackeray to represent an exploitive landlord. It never featured in Adam Smith’s writings, but was repeatedly used by Karl Marx. So it was coined by its enemies.

I have no doubt opened the gates of wrath of many readers. And that is the essence of the problem, emotive responses linked to a name. You will unlikely find these observations in economic textbooks. The reason is simple: for the most part I have been dealing with perceptions, which most textbooks and academics ignore. At the same time they fail to recognise a fundamental truth: that perceptions create reality.

The one thing that globalisation has shown is that there is no one-size-fits all best economic system. All countries have their own uniqueness that often defy ideological prescriptions. Each has to evolve in its own way.

If we want to create something fresh, let’s not muddy it with dogmatic assumptions.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

In the eye of the Tiger

The power and complexity of sincerity in a corporate crisis.

It may be early days yet, but Tiger Brands and the listeria crisis are rapidly shaping up to becoming a case study in corporate crisis management.  The South African food giant has had the deck stacked heavily against it; not the least being the legitimate practical, insurance and legal constraints in admitting accountability and by implication, liability at the outset.

In such cases, the only mitigating response is sincerity in concern for the community and customers without necessarily admitting culpability. That’s a very difficult tap-dance because it invokes what is essentially a human quality in an institutional and legal environment. Sincerity reflects a combination of attributes that ultimately create authenticity and credibility even at the institutional level. This is not something you can easily spin or rehearse from a P.R. handbook. It is fed by genuine empathy, intuition, honesty, humility, integrity and above all consistently demonstrated as a brand over a number of years. Whether it mitigates the crisis or not is ultimately not the point. Sincerity is not about purpose or motive; it is simply about being.

In Tiger’s case, sincerity, coupled with honesty about the difficulty it faced in admitting responsibility prior to conclusive tests proving the source of the outbreak, may have tempered some of the hostility.  I say may, because a hostile media is simply a given these days and lines have become blurred between direct and leading questioning; between inquiry and inquisition and between investigation and prosecution. These were all displayed in the Tiger News conference broadcast live within hours of the Department of health announcement.

It led to Tiger’s one empathetic gesture virtually being ignored; that of withdrawing all Enterprise products and not only the three suspected of contamination. That gesture seems to have been taken out of the spin-doctor’s manual relating to the famous Tylenol case of the early 80’s.  In that incident, 7 people died after consuming the popular pain-killing capsules that had been injected with cyanide In Chicago. The producer, Johnson and Johnson, immediately warned consumers not to take the Tylenol capsules and withdrew all of them throughout the United States. It later stopped producing capsules completely. It cost J&J some $100 million at the time and Tylenol’s market share dropped from 37% to 7%. But within months that had all been regained and the company’s brand emerged with an enhanced reputation.

In 2003, Pick ‘n Pay had a similar experience in an extortionist threat in Gauteng which claimed that some products in its stores had been poisoned. It immediately took the public in its confidence and withdrew the products from the shelves. The threat was shown to be a hoax, and the company’s brand and share price emerged stronger from the experience. The significant difference between Tiger and the others is that the latter were victims whereas Tiger is accused of being a perpetrator. That immediately tarnishes somewhat C.E.O. Lawrence MacDougall’s emphasis that the company had gone beyond what was expected of it in mitigating the effect of the listeria outbreak.

But there’s a far greater significance to the comparisons. Johnson and Johnson’s CEO at the time of the Tylenol crisis was James Burke – a man who passionately believed in the company’s credo, penned in the 1940’s, that J&J’s "first responsibility was to its customers and then to employees, management, communities, and stockholders-in that order”. Six years before the Tylenol event, Burke felt that the credo had lost its influence and challenged the board either to recommit to it, or “tear it off the walls.” Similarly, Pick ‘n Pay had at the time, carefully nurtured “the customer first” passion of its founder, Raymond Ackerman. Tiger Brands simply does not have the same “gravitas”, or consistent sincerity. Just over ten years ago, it was involved in the infamous bread price fixing scandal and had to pay a R100 million fine: one of a number of brand tarnishing events.
Yet, one has to have some sympathy for MacDougall and Tiger Brands. Largely through its own doing, business generally has created a mostly hostile public, whose anger is tempered only by even lower trust in government. Big business is reaping what it has sown for the past three to four decades in the form of a particular interpretation of free enterprise that places exclusive emphasis on capital supremacy, shareholder-value, profit maximisation and short termism. It has been “de-humanised”, preferring to cower behind an institutional shield that often exonerates individual malfeasance and accountability.

In that process it has muted and ignored the most important perspective of all: that business is not about institutional standing and performance, but about personal relationships and individual meaning. As I argued in an earlier article titled “Follow the meaning”, relationships are far more important to a company’s health than metrics or structures. This is particularly true of relationships with customers and the community at large. In that, institutions per se cannot be sincere. They need a Burke or a MacDougall to convincingly reflect that and individual behaviour to demonstrate it.

The way Johnson and Johnson lived out its credo is an important reflection of pre-80’s corporate thinking. Over the years I have cited many others who have benefitted and continue to benefit from the customer driven, “creating value for all” perspective. Today Governance prescriptions are trying to coerce companies into doing that, but it will always remain insincere, prescriptive and onerous until it becomes the understood purpose of business.

Then caring becomes sincere, and trust a given.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Popular or populist?

President Ramaphosa’s difficult choice.

Not all popular leaders are good; and not all good leaders are popular. Sometimes the right thing is not the popular thing, and often the popular thing is not the right thing. It’s often been said that one of the flaws of democracy is that it blurs that logic, giving rise to a political structure that thrives on false promises and wild rhetoric disconnected from reality and creating a dangerous gap between it and expectations.

We call that populism and it is routinely used by opposition parties to gain power. It’s a highly questionable technique which does little more than inflame expectations and help sow public discord. Populism globally in recent times has helped strengthen opposing parties, in some cases putting them in power where they not only have to backtrack on populist rhetoric but are “recaptured” by the establishment. The U.S. and France are examples.

“Cometh the hour; cometh the man” is a biblical saying that can be applied to Cyril Ramaphosa and while he has all the right attributes to exploit that to its fullest, he has openly conceded that “we must ride this wave” (while we can); and has strengthened it through promenade jogs and township walks. Charismatic, charming, accessible, affable and somewhat inspiring are mantles that fit him well. But one would be less than candid if one did not concede that in no small measure his popularity has been given a massive boost by simply being an alternative to his much maligned predecessor.

When that honeymoon fades, and when the fear of a revival of Zuma factional support starts to diminish, he will have to find a way of steering the ship between remaining popular without being populist. That will confront him soon in an election year where opposition parties are hell-bent on ensuring that the governing party does not regain what it lost during the Zuma era. It’s already happening, forcing Ramaphosa to look beyond the low hanging fruit that Zuma left him such as unleashing enforcement watchdogs on the corrupt, stabilising the fiscus; shaking up SOE leadership; and committing to a reconfiguration of the executive which most interpret as meaning a substantial cut in the size of cabinet in future. Most of these may lose him some factional support, but will certainly gain him popular support.

The more difficult path lies in the deeper, ideological issues that divide the country and where populist exploitation is at its strongest. These include land reform and concentration of capital. They are at the root of key issues such as Radical Economic Transformation, monopoly capital, WMC, state capture, inequality, cadre deployment, empowerment, inclusivity and in turn many other related issues.

Populism thrives on ignorance and incoherence. Having followed these debates intensely for decades, I am of the firm belief that the most important thing that has to be done before weighing in with legislation and execution is to create a much higher level of coherence and comprehension. On the land issue, the line has not been drawn clearly enough between food security and black economic empowerment. The vague assumption that they are not mutually exclusive may have some substance, but ultimately a single priority has to be defined. This can only be done when we stop thinking of land as political territory and more as a means of feeding the masses. That priority then has to become the ultimate purpose of land ownership – one that can be shared by all. (See article Grabbing land in La-la-land here.)

A greater degree of coherence in and understanding of the issue of capital concentration offers much promise of finding a middle ground where we are currently divided the most. Stripped of all its ideological, racial, and populist claptrap, many may be surprised to find common cause on a global scale of the distaste of what the concentration of capital ownership, control and management has created. (See article here.) 

The argument of maximising capital efficiencies has worn very thin against other outcomes such as inequality, state capture, declining innovation and competition, and tax evasion to name just a few. Market forces work at their best when they are fragmented, decentralised and free. Coupled with the rampant growth of financialisation and debt, the global economy itself has been placed on a knife edge where it can easily tumble into recession or even extended depression. Corporate malfeasance or fraud can destroy the wealth of many; collusion between one or two big players can warp price discovery, and large corporate lobby groups have inordinate power in swaying the state to serve their vested interests.

E.F.F. Commander-in-chief, Julius Malema may find it strange to discover some resonance between his views and that of Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, to be found here in a recent article by Smith scholar, Paul Sagar. Capital concentration virtually guarantees some form of state capture, while true defenders of free enterprise find it difficult to reconcile capital concentration with free markets. It has become Capitalism’s Achilles heel.

Ramaphosa does not have to fall into a populist trap. His experience in labour, business and politics equips him well to create clarity, coherence and comprehension and define a productive middle ground that is far less divisive than what we have. He can indeed chart a new course for the nation.

Time will tell. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stopping the train.

Things that really matter in keeping it together for South Africa’s future.

Love them or hate them, but current events have demonstrated how deeply ingrained the ANC has become in South African society. In many respects we are like a one party state, and the trauma that that party experiences, reverberates through all walks of life. Its leadership transition has created as much uncertainty and anticipation as the country experienced in the heady days of the early 90’s.

But these events have shown something else:
·        How easily power corrupts;
·        how fickle and fragile it is when it is based on patronage and loyalties shift from a weakened patron;
·        how effective opposition can be even without parliamentary power;
·        how political opponents can unite against a common threat;
·        how strong civil society can be when it says “so far and no further”, and
·        the supreme value of being guided by a Constitution supported by an independent judiciary and law enforcement.

The Jacob Zuma gravy train has been derailed. It may take a while for the carnage and broken corrupt carriages to be cleared, but history will reflect on these times as a painful evolutionary hiccup and stark cautionary case study. For that alone, 2018 has become a turning point and a year to celebrate even in its infancy.

As many commentators have opined, there’s certainly a lot more hope for a better future. But that does not mean there’s more trust. Indeed, the political uncertainty; corporate scandals; a still unacceptably high crime rate; increasing revelations of corruption, arrests and charges being laid, and the economic quagmire we find ourselves in, have all contributed to deepening distrust. We already have one of the world’s lowest levels of trust in institutions such as government; business; NGO’s and the Media; as ranked by the 2018 Global trust Barometer.

One could also argue that with none of these institutions being fully trusted, and because trust is one of the most significant factors holding a society together, we should be a dysfunctional society. Yet we are not. Only ultra-cynics, or some disgruntled ex-pats who lose touch with the day to day lives of ordinary folk, will argue otherwise. I fully appreciate that there are many of us, including myself, who have been affected, even traumatised by crime, betrayal, poor service, and of course the daily headlines that constantly highlight our capacity to do others harm.  But we go on, sustained I believe, by the number of benevolent acts that we experience more often than malevolence, and a pool of goodwill that despite everything, still exists between us.

Perhaps it’s the metaphor, but I am drawn to reflecting on another train.

Let’s go back a month or so, and to the maize farming town of Hennenman, where a full passenger train was derailed after crashing into a truck at a level crossing. More than 20 people died and about 200 were injured. Within minutes a handful of local folk rushed to help, saving many lives amid anguished screams from passengers trapped in carriages. Among the rescuers were two pre-teen boys – Mokoni Chaka and Evert du Preez – who have a firm friendship oblivious to racial differences, and who helped evacuate the injured, including quite a few infants. They created the perfect cameo not only of humanity’s instinctive empathy at an early age, but how what is most important to our survival bridges any differences between us.

A few weeks earlier, I too was hit by a train. It happened at a level crossing next to a settlement called Dutoitsrus in Buffeljagsriver near Swellendam. I had stopped at the crossing, but edged closer because of an obstructed view of the track. Then there was a deafening hoot just before I saw hundreds of tons of steel hurtling towards me.

Nothing I have experienced comes close to that split-second of paralysing terror. Fortunately I was not too far into the goods-train’s path and it hit the front left fender, spinning the car out of its way to end on an embankment next to a huge blue-gum tree. The train had stopped and I got out of the car. I was not hurt and within seconds was surrounded by many residents – mostly teens and youngsters. I sensed only genuine concern in their curiosity, and had no thoughts that I could be harmed. It’s strange how we often legitimately trust a moment, and then only later question the wisdom of it, mostly on the prompting of others.

Confusion! What does one do when you’ve stopped a train? Get details. Of what I don’t know, but I found a scrap of paper. One young man offered to testify on my behalf that the train had not hooted until it was upon me. But I could not write down his name, having committed a journalist’s cardinal sin of not having a pen. Then I felt a tug on the leg of my pants, and a boy not much older than four offered me his prized possession of a pencil stub. I wrote down the number of the train and name of the “witness” before putting the pencil stub back in my shirt pocket. There was another tug – and an outstretched tiny hand asking for the return of the pencil-stub.

Soon I was surrounded by railway forensic staff and I suspect most of the police contingent at Swellendam. The crowd too had swelled, while crime scene tape was stretched for hundreds of meters around the train and surrounding area. An elderly lady offered me some mineral water, and soon thereafter another on crutches offered me half a bottle of coke. “For the sugar,” she said. I can’t remember how many people approached me with offers of help. I can only remember the genuine warmth and concern around me, including police and railway staff.

There are many things that made the event memorable, apart from the rarity of being hit by a train on a scarcely used line. Among them was the fact that the car had minor damage and I could drive it away, while the train was stuck for 5 hours to undergo repairs to its steel sweeper. For a while, friends and close acquaintances called me the “train stopper”. Fortunately that passed before some village joker was tempted to ask: “Did he really need a car to do that?” But what will linger for the rest of my life is how those folk at Dutoitsrus confirmed my deep faith in humanity and its capacity to care.  

In the larger scheme of things and the current turmoil, these reflections may appear counter-intuitive and perhaps even trivial. Not so when one considers how many thousands of times they are repeated in different ways throughout society. As long as we have that and continue to demonstrate it, it outweighs all else in holding our society together.