Sunday, November 25, 2012

A hostile takeover.

How one man gained and lost control of South Africa’s third oldest town before it burned.

Some very old Swellendam residents upon rare occasions recount ancestral tales in much subdued tones about a giant snake that sporadically crawls over the Langeberg to whisper hypnotic prophecies to a chosen few. That, they claim, explains the curious behaviour of some of their fellow citizens. Another folktale has it that the mist that occasionally drifts into town from the towering “Twaalfuurkop” (Noon-peak) is from the breath of a dragon, that likewise has some hypnotic, brain-neuron scrambling effect on those who inhale it.

But a fable that has greater following is that somewhere under “Die Groote-Kerk” (built in 1802) in Voortrek Street is a confluence of the most ley-lines in the Southern Hemisphere. And this is why Swellendam has so many creative people like potters, artists, musicians and writers. I’m still waiting for that magical effect to kick in!

So perhaps it is the ley-lines that have realigned the brain-cells of our local politicians. If it is, then we have proof that politics and creativity are a highly toxic mix. A creative politician is a far greater affliction to humankind than a creative accountant.

I have before me a pile of local and provincial newspapers going back more than a month to try and fathom the cause for the panic a few weeks ago that Swellendam had yielded to a “hostile takeover.” The alarm came from no less an authority than Anton Bredell, Western Cape Minister of Local Government. Not familiar with a hostile takeover in anything else but a company context, I, and I imagine many of my fellow residents, had visions of the town being overrun by alien hostiles charging down the southern slopes of the Langeberg, forcing us to flee across the Breede River and seek refuge in the vast desolate Karoo-like Ruens between here and Cape Agulhas.

But it soon became clear that there was only one alleged hostile – home boy Julian Matthysen. To explain this man of God’s Goliath-like status over a cowering Swellendam, I have to try and condense into a manageable sound-bite many episodes of the surreal serial in the local weeklies.

Last year’s elections left the Greater Swellendam local authority hopelessly hung between the ANC and DA. That deadlock was broken by the ACDP deciding to support the DA. Its one seat in the election went to Julian, who earlier seemed to have had his own little Damascus experience prompting him to defect from his ANC nest and to pursue a much holier cause in the ACDP. This, whether motivated by soul, heart or wallet, left him as kingmaker in the council – a true Gulliver in Lilliput.

But Julian forgot one thing: kingmakers cannot make themselves king, and his discomfort with being a mere Deputy Mayor soon prompted him to kiss and make up with the ANC opposition, and to make the council hopelessly hung again.

Important municipal decisions ground to a halt, including senior appointments such as that of Municipal Manager (town clerk to us oldies.) Bredell steps in from his august provincial halls to appoint an acting manager. And then Richard Baloyi steps in from his even loftier national offices of Cooperative Government and Traditional affairs to overrule Bredell. Bredell instructs his squabbling Swellendammers that no meeting should be held until after he had further talks with Baloyi. But Julian and his ANC followers hold a meeting on October the 8-th and appoint their own acting municipal manager.

The DA squeals to the high court in Cape Town, and the learned judge, perhaps not fully grasping that the urgency is much greater than a mere bladder call, “reserves judgment”. Then Julian and his reconciled ANC pals decide this is their moment and call for a meeting on the 15th for their own putsch.

But the week-end before the 15th, the DA again cried foul to the courts, obtaining an interim ruling that the proposed meeting was illegal. The ACDP fires Julian, but like true righteous crusaders Julian & Co persevere with the meeting, postponing it from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. By this time the interim ruling on its illegality is set aside by none other than Judge President John Hlophe. The meeting goes ahead and the sitting DA speaker, Matthys Koch adjourns it. After the DA councillors had left, Julian and his followers replace the entire hierarchy with Julian as Mayor.

So, depending which way you look at it, Swellendam for about a month until early November either had no leadership at all or it must have been the only town in history to have had two mayors, two speakers, two deputy mayors and two acting managers – but no finance manager and other senior managers crucial to its functions. On Tuesday the 13th, the court ruled in the DA’s favour demoting Julian to ordinary citizen, and with the new ACDP member having been sworn in as Deputy Mayor, the DA believed Julian had finally been defanged.

I had my doubts. If Julian Matthysen proved one thing it is that he is quite indomitable. Indeed, after the ACDP appointed their new councillor, Julian and a few friends gate-crashed his celebration at the town hall. Punches were thrown and a 73 year old lady was upended, swinging her crutches to keep her attackers at bay.

Then, on Wednesday the 14th all hell broke loose and, as most of you know, parts of the town burned. Now, I’m not for one minute implying that Julian was behind it. Word has it that even his allies are done with him. Perhaps they don’t need him because their problem of reconciling Swellendam unrest with rebellious farm labour, all of whom here had no idea that they were supposed to take up arms against minimum wage “slave drivers”, was solved when from the high offices of cabinet the grievance was miraculously converted into service delivery.

If the purpose was ungovernability it must have dawned on the promoters that minimum wages was a government matter, and they had unwittingly unleashed unrest against their own leaders.

So service delivery became the new refrain, but unfortunately one that does not quite fit Swellendam. The township of Railton resembles your average lower middle income suburb with tarred and paved roads, running water and electricity with subsidised tariffs. It also has some of the best views of the town and mountain. I could live there myself if someone guaranteed that I would not have Julian as a neighbour. True, it does have an informal settlement on the extreme South, but no Railtoner sees that as part of their suburb and it is populated mostly by “foreigners”.

A ministerial mantle of “heroism” for the farm protestors with guaranteed immunity from prosecution is too good an opportunity to miss. Inspired no doubt by Hitler’s perfection of the concept that if you lose at the polls and in courts, a few hundred thugs in the street will get you what you want, they looted and burned at will. If service delivery did not quite fit, there was always unemployment, alleged corruption, racism, xenophobia and of course, the vilified anti-corruption warrior and municipal manager Nico Nel.

And just in case the intoxicating effects of dragon breath wore off, there were the spoils of a looted and burnt bottle store to fortify the ferment and mete out vengeance on a populace that failed to give unambiguous power last year.

Perhaps not as violently as in Kwazulu-Natal, the slow town citizens of Swellendam have also learned that politics in South Africa has more sour grapes than a neglected De Doorns vineyard and certainly does not have the maturity to be governed at any level by a coalition.

And Julian? Perhaps he will return to meditate above the ley-lines at the Groote Kerk; or inhale deeply when next the mist drifts down from the Langeberg.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The thorns of De Doorns.

How a labour issue has been hi-jacked by a myriad of motives.

Late on Wednesday night a friend and neighbour came charging on his quad into the driveway of our remote rented farmhouse to warn us to keep the main gate locked and to stay behind bolted security gates and doors.

It was confirmation that Swellendam had become the latest town to fall victim to “labour unrest” that had swept across the Western Cape – surprisingly so, because hours earlier the government had announced that an agreement had been reached to call off the strike. By late Thursday morning it was apparent that this message had also gone unheeded in many other areas, prompting Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson to remark that it had become largely about service delivery. Others are left wondering whether it isn’t the outcome of constant reckless opposition threats to “make the Western Cape ungovernable”.

So what may have started out as labour agitation in the traditional Western Cape hotspot of De Doorns, has gained momentum largely on the back of a myriad of motives, including political, local issues and organised labour manoeuvring. For example, increasing membership in the largely unrepresented agricultural sector will give a significant boost to Cosatu’s waning influence elsewhere.

Western Cape politicians were quick to jump onto the bandwagon with the usual emotive slogans, but none came remotely close to that of Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson herself in praising looters, intimidators and arsonists as heroes and guaranteeing immunity from prosecution. That has certainly set a completely new tone for future labour negotiations. Worse still, it further promotes an easy resorting to public disruption, violence and intimidation on the smallest of pretexts and on the understanding that as long as you make things bad enough, you’ll get away with it.

Swellendam has been the perfect example. Up to Wednesday night, there was no talk among local workers of imminent protests, adding some credence to Agri-SA’s view that volunteers of unemployed and seasonal workers were being bussed to targeted areas.

To show just how dangerous and exploitable this new violent brand of political expression has become, the town now appears to have been held hostage by a few local politicians. Tuesday saw the end of weeks of nothing less than political comedy, when the DA through a court ruling wrested control of the town council back from the ANC. It was going to be my article for this week, but will have to stand over to show that hell hath no fury like a politician scorned.

On the labour front, it has now become clear that if things do settle down, it will be with the undertaking to review the minimum wage in agriculture. This could set off a number of unpredictable and unintended consequences by disturbing employment where it is at its most vulnerable.

Minimum wage employment was, is and always will be a contentious issue for most societies. It is there that free-market fundamentalism and social conscience collide. It is there that the fine dividing line between employment and unemployment can be found. It is the line that for a number of people represents a last resort and a small stepping stone into a semblance of dignity and some form of income – a line between some sustenance and abject poverty and starvation.

As a reflection of social conscience, it mostly has to be enforced by government. So when the beneficiaries of the law take to the streets in spontaneous, unheralded and violent protests it can mean a few things -- the legislators have lost touch with their constituents; they have been unable to manage their expectations; they have irresponsibly inflated these expectations, or have allowed others to do so.

But ultimately the employers, in this case the farmers, have to accept some responsibility for the care and development of their employees. This is basic modern leadership practice and if they are unaware of or indifferent to grievances or do not reduce susceptibility to outside influences, then they have failed themselves, their workers and the industry itself.

Minimum wages are also the line that is vulnerable to opportunism and exploitation – both political and economic – and subject to emotive slogans such as “slave wages” or “wage slaves”. But at the same time, it is a line where employment itself is at its most vulnerable. The fact that it has to be legislated for shows that normal market forces of supply and demand cannot suffice; that the sector involved is very disparate and unstable and that central collective bargaining is difficult, perhaps even counter-productive – all factors that make employment itself insecure.

In South Africa the most exposed line can affect up to 3 million people mostly in agriculture and private households. Together, these sectors make up the biggest employers in the country, and while Agri-Western Cape has argued that nearly 80% of farmers pay their employees above the minimum wage, the sectors include a large number of what is defined as “informal labour”, people who for a number of economic reasons cannot be placed in steady 8-hours per day work with standard benefits such as structured leave, medical aid and pensions.

The agricultural sector alone constitutes nearly 5% of our GDP and employs just under 700-thousand people. Several hundred thousand more can be added in seasonal employment. The up- and down value stream in agriculture pushes the total contribution to GDP to nearly 25% and employment to about 6 million.

The consequence of labour disturbance in agriculture far overshadows that in other sectors in terms of unemployment, inflation, reduced foreign trade, socio-economic disruption, and above all, food security.

There is a poetic ring to De Doorns being the apparent catalyst of recent events. It means “The Thorns” in English – indeed an economic nettle that has to be handled with extreme care without political or economic opportunism and certainly stripped of assumptions and pre-conceptions.

I had many when I first came to this mixed farming area in the Overberg. I was appalled at the conditions in which many worked and lived and most of all by the dismal pay which for many was just above the prescribed minimum. But I soon learned that the trigger that was released at De Doorns is squeezed by many forces, of which pay is only one. Another very serious one is an abysmal lack of productivity attributable to rampant alcoholism; absenteeism and widespread abuse of the social grant system, which ironically will probably spread if minimum wages are increased and push many more above the qualifying threshold.

It’s an industry that for years has relied on sound human and caring relationships, albeit in earlier days somewhat feudal and patronising. It is still an essential ingredient for many traditional farmers, especially the small, privately owned farms. But gestures like extended family housing, regular hand-outs of produce, fetching and carrying to towns, subsidised farm stores, and interest in and help in caring for children are becoming fewer as these relationships become strained with conventional labour posturing.

Agriculture is a highly disparate industry and even employment conditions and pay criteria differ starkly from farm to farm, from product to product, from market to market, from one day to the next. Attempting to peg an important element such as the price of labour (which constitutes up to 40% of overall costs) to a guaranteed level not sustainable by all, particularly small farmers, in a highly volatile, competitive sector can permanently change the structure of the industry.

It is simply inconceivable that this change will not imply a radical reduction in employment.

In years, perhaps decades to come, will this be the legacy of De Doorns?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A crisis of perceptions.

The S.A. national census shows again how we deflect discourse from real core issues.

Don’t you sometimes wish that there was a grand illusionist out there that overnight could change the colour of us all into a single one – say green? Illusionists trick us with a sleight of hand, distracting our attention from reality by drawing it to something else.

This image came to mind with the provisional release of the 2011 census results; so did Disraeli’s famous remark “lies, damn lies and statistics.” I’m not a statistician, having dropped the subject in my first year of tertiary study. So this may disqualify me from being disdainful about their use, and perhaps even a tad hypocritical because I use them often enough in supporting my own drawing bias. What follows therefore, carries something of a disclaimer and is more of a question to those who may understand the stats differently.

But that’s the point: statistics are often suspect in their gathering, processing and extrapolation (for example, there’s a full 6% difference in the unemployment rate reflected by STAT SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey and the 29.8% shown by the population census by the same agency!). But the real lies get told both in their selection and then in their interpretation. Add a racial slant to that mix and we literally get blinded by colour.

The two main crisis issues reflected in the 2011 census remain unemployment and a lack of skills and training. They are clearly strongly related.

So here’s the real question: would either of these problems disappear if we removed any racial inference? I cannot see how. I do not want to understate the importance of race and of addressing the past in very many of our social problems. But attention to the race issue, including the trans-generational “legacy” argument is often little more than a tragic sleight of hand, whether deliberate or unintended, which becomes a discourse stopper. Ultimately all of the headline grabbing comment on most issues can be linked straight back to the two mentioned above. And the other issues are not the cause but rather an effect of those two.

Let’s take the statistic that shows that “white household incomes are 6 times that of black households.” That immediately led to one headline that read: “Census debunks myth about white men”, and another that read “Census reveals stark equality lies.”

But the same statistics could have been used to say: “Average income for black households has risen by 169% in the past decade, and for whites by only 88%.” Or better still: “average income of poorer households has risen more than 2 ½ times but for wealthier households by just over ¾.” (Of course, mathematically these respective increases will not necessarily eliminate the imbalance for years to come.)

There’s even further context that economist Mike Schussler brought to my attention:

“Africans have a median age of 21 while Whites have a median age of 38. 14% of White South Africans work for themselves while only 5% of Africans do so. The typical education for whites is post-matric and for African it is pre-matric (4 ½ times more whites have a post school qualification than African South Africans.)”

The 6-to-1 race income ratio creates some other odd assumptions, one by a popular political analyst who questioned white employment equity concerns because the “figures show that whites are 6 times more likely to get employment than blacks.” This logic is blatantly flawed. Employment equity is a barrier to new white job seekers and often to promotion. Sure, there may be some form of covert racial and “old boy” nepotism, particularly at the executive level, but not nearly enough to counter legal requirements for employment equity where incumbent qualifications are the same. Average white income levels are sustained by skills and experience, as well as self-employment and emigration (the white population is now 7% smaller than it was a decade ago and is just below 9% of the total population).

Just as bizarre was a conclusion from an economic think tank (whose name escapes me now) that income disparities were responsible for unemployment. That one I simply cannot fathom. Certainly unemployment is the biggest single contributor to inequality, but to argue the reverse is trying to connect too many unrelated dots. Even if it were remotely true, the implication that we could solve unemployment overnight by somehow miraculously and savagely cutting top incomes goes beyond all rational thinking. It would literally turn the economy on its head.

The whole debate around inequality is rife with misconceptions and ill-founded assumptions.

There are huge differences between wage disparities, income disparities and wealth disparities. The first is simply the difference between low and high remuneration in employment. The second is mostly measured at household levels where unemployed dependents are added. So each of the 4 ½ million unemployed people with zero incomes gets added to the lower end of the pool, massively diluting that income. And the third relates to possession of assets such as property.

In addition the data itself is skewed. The Quarterly Labour Force survey and Income and Expenditure survey are exactly that –surveys of households where the information is obtained in a “Q&A” and “tick-a-box” format. Schussler believes a lot of this information is contaminated by people not understanding the difference between gross income, net income, and take-home pay. They most likely give take-home pay which will be net of deductions for tax, pensions, medical aid, garnishing orders, etc. Ironically, at the higher income level, that particular question is more likely to be better understood, and the responses could further inflate the disparity.

And while we are about it, we might as well give Gini a fat slap on the wrist. As far as I can make out the Gini co-efficient uses the same survey material in compiling its income disparity measurement, suffering from the same contamination. Yet in supporting wage demands, Trade Union leaders use the “worst in the world” 0.67 measurement as proof of wage inequality and not broad income inequality. That’s either very misguided or mischievous.

In short excessive inequality is largely a function of unemployment which in turn in South Africa in particular, is largely a function of lack of skills and training.

Many of my columns have lamented inequality and income disparities, and I must confess that they may have been influenced to some extent by my own oversight of the fuller context. But this does not detract from the key argument that in the workplace itself, market remuneration dysfunction exists at both the executive level through dubious reward criteria, and at the lower level through collective extortion.

Both are adding to inequality by inflating pay at the top and discouraging costly and troublesome employment at the bottom. While outrageous executive pay may not have as big an impact on inequality in real terms as unemployment does, its impact on perceptions is many times worse. That alone means we cannot ignore it.

Inequality is a serious and highly dangerous social mood influencing time bomb. We owe it to each other to change perilously misinformed perceptions that lock many into poverty thinking, unrealistic expectations and facile solutions. We certainly cannot afford to inflame them. We can start by avoiding needless racial interpretations and sharing credible and understandable information in the workplace.

Perhaps it is time for us all to go green…but then there’s too much envy around as it is.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A severe budget blemish.

How unholy alliances and cosy relationships destroy Gordhan’s noblest intentions.

A severe budget blemish.

How unholy alliances and cosy relationships destroy Gordhan’s noblest intentions.

Size does not matter. Behaviour does. In a different context that statement would no doubt trigger some sniggers and a long standing adolescent debate about whether bigger is better.

But in the context of government, traditional free market wisdom has it that the opposite is true – that the smaller the government, the better it is for economic growth, prosperity and national competitiveness. It’s a criterion championed with some fanaticism, as I discovered in responses to a recent article on the encroachment of government in national economies worldwide.

This may explain Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s pride, as reflected in the “mini-budget”, about his ability to keep (as a percentage of GDP) government revenue and expenditure to below 30% respectively, the budget deficit at below 5% and overall public debt at below 40%. The proportions are better than for most of the developed countries (see graph in this article) and better than Brazil and Russia in the BRICS group.

The budget reflects government’s claim on resources. Not all of it. You still have to add other activities such as state owned enterprises. A claim on resources is only one part of government involvement – the other probably as, if not more important, is its regulation of economic activity through laws. Here we rank rather poorly according to the Legatum prosperity index and there’s been much criticism of what is arguably highly restrictive regulation in the South African economy.

To understand the debate at all, we have to go back to the basics of wealth creation itself. Tangible wealth is created in legitimate transaction which insists on freedom of choice, free moving prices, maximum suppliers and optimum consumer awareness. This creates a state of perfect markets, which in turn perfectly reflect all our imperfections. All of these conditions can only come together fully in a utopian state – a state that has to be driven by sound human values and not by competition alone and certainly not by short term raw material self-interest.

Rarely can government itself meet these conditions. Its job therefore, is mainly to enable the creation of wealth by others and ensuring through laws that the above conditions are nurtured. Its secondary role is to reduce social tensions, severe inequalities and imbalances through what Gordhan calls a “social wage” by redistributing wealth in such a way that it does not discourage wealth creation itself.

clip_image002The graphic illustrates how fully dependent government’s financing is on wealth creating cells such as companies. There are some others, such as user-pays services, and customs and excise duties which fall under spending taxes such as VAT and rates at local level. But companies, broadly defined to include professionals and the self-employed, are the primary wealth creating cells and in turn provide the bulk of government income. Loans cannot, or should not be viewed as income. Indeed, ultimately they become a cost burden.

In support of my opening statement that size of government as measured by the budget, does not seem to matter, we need only examine state expenditures in some relatively good performing economies such as Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany which are all between 40% and 50% -- well above South Africa’s less than 30% and still poorly performing economy.

The answer can be found in many other features of the South African economy, including restrictive laws. This is well beyond the scope of this article and is also a much covered subject in most of the media including Moneyweb over a number of years.

But focusing purely on the budget, and leaving out for this article, the all-important question of whether government is spending money on the right things, such as ostentatious presidential homes and arguably an excessively burdensome social wage, one of the most critical questions the Finance Minister has to contend with is the behaviour of those charged with spending state funds.

Corruption, maladministration and inefficiencies are a severe blight on state financing. Yes, it has received much attention before and is a favourite topic for investigative journalists. But we are understating its severely debilitating role. It goes far beyond the staggering estimated loss of R385bn at every level of government since 1994. It also goes far beyond neutering all laudable intentions in the budget, the severe tarnishing of its credibility and the escalating costs of policing these. The worst is the spread and on-going cultivation of corrupt behaviour which robs all of us of a fair deal not only with government but in all social and economic relationships.

This must be strangled at birth, and not only when the perpetrators are caught in the act which happens too seldom. Here government alone cannot be blamed. We forget too easily that corrupt relationships involve two parties – one invariably in the private sector. My questioning the immediate self-interest driver in business has often solicited the accusation of being naïve. But it’s the same kind of naiveté that exposes the king with no clothes, the elephant in the room and underpinned a question that brought down the mighty Enron.

And with this naiveté I question the easy acceptance of appointments to company and corporate boards based not only on B.E.E. considerations but on who they know rather than what they know. It only comes to our attention when it reaches outrageous levels such as those exposed by Barry Sergeant recently, but there’s a germ of corruption in many of our economic activities, from the lunch invitation to massive donations to political parties. It is very easy to defend these activities and relationships when one accepts the premise that the sole purpose of business is to maximise returns for its owners.

It becomes much more difficult to defend if the question is whether it is in the interest of the customer; more difficult still if it is in the interest of enhancing competition. And it becomes virtually impossible to defend in the interest of the broad public.