Saturday 28 November 2015

We Will Work With Each Other, We Will Work Side By Side

Thank you, Holy Father

I hear in the news that you are raising awareness about inequality, poverty, climate change, tolerance and inclusion, justice for all not impunity for some, and lobbying in the corridors of power.  This is very encouraging to me, a missionary who went to one of the ends of the earth instead of keeping my career options open in the comforts of North America.

Inequality is the not just about which side of the tracks you are born on, it is about which continent you are born on.  Some are luckier than others in this respect.  But the Refugee Crisis in Europe is evidence that we cannot live in our palaces indefinitely, untouched.  Remember Lazarus...

Poverty of course depends a bit on where you are.  No one where I live sees me as poor, but I am told that what I earn here is now below the poverty line in Canada.  And with the Rand sinking now to almost 14-to-1 to the US dollar, my prospects of retiring in Canada get dimmer.  Never mind, I will remain here for "the duration" where ironically some people resent me for what they perceive as wealth.

On climate change, next month we are concluding a project that has trained 1000 youth to be green activists.  We are bidding in a tender this month to deploy these youth as "contractors" for the next 3 years at 120 sites.  Those projects can become "cash-for-work" channels for another 14 000 unemployed youth.  It's astounding to me, like the 5 loaves and 2 fishes, but that is the directions things seem to be going in.  Remind our North American prayer partners that as the West's carbon footprint has been so heavy for so long, they need to do proportionally more to conserve and to "live simply - so that others can simply live".  Including the next few generations.

Your condolences to those who lost family members at Mecca was so apropos to your teaching and example.  Way to go!  Did you hear that no less than 8 police officers were convicted of murder for dragging Mido Macia to his death behind a police van?  They said it was an accident.  Foreigners are not treated as equals here, going back to the issue of inequality.

Forget the impunity of the past.  It just makes matters worse, not better.  If clergy are out of line, charge them.  people in authority must be held accountable.  This week on Sept 30th there is a March Against Corruption.  It will be held at two venues - Pretoria and Capetown - concurrently.  I will be there, singing "We are marching to Pretoria..." although it is now Tshwane.  Ai ai ai.

And talk about lobbying in the corridors of power!  You spoke to the US Congress?  Wow, good form!  We have to do that.  But then you went to a lunch with poor people as well.  That is what validates what you say to the shakers and the movers.  We have to get used to dealing at both these levels.  Service is not enough without advocacy.  I remember hearing that the morning that Mother Theresa spoke to the United Nations General Assembly, she was washing toilets at the convent of her order.  She did a lot of that task. It says a lot about her.

I am encouraged to hear what you are telling people in North America.  It's precisely what I've been telling them for a long time.  But it's better coming from you.  That there is no point in "Ora" without "Labora".

Friday 27 November 2015

The State of the Non-State

Depending on your nationality and perspective, you may call C4L a “non-state actor”, or a “non-government organization”, or a “nonprofit”, or a “private voluntary organization”, or a “civil society organization”.  What we once called “civil society” is now being called “civic space”.  I learned this recently when I attended a briefing by CIVICUS, an international NGO, big brother to C4L – on the state of civil society.  Its members large and small come from 165 countries so it operates on a scale that means that its research sets the “gold standard” for non-state actors like C4L.  Some learning points from that briefing help me to update you on the state of C4L.

First there is the concern about “defending our space”.  Or as CIVICUS puts it “a cynical raft of measures to shut them up and shut them down”.  C4L‘s offices have been broken into five times over the past twelve months.  In one such “burglary” they took our three cumbersome desk-top computers and left ten training laptops behind!  Obviously they were after data not hardware.  CIVICUS reports that 96 countries “significantly violated” civil space in 2014.

Then there was mention of a new award for “brave philanthropy” (to be added to the existing categories for the Nelson Mandela – Graca Machel Innovation Awards).  C4L folklore includes a 2011 poster campaign which was aimed at the January murders.  Every year since 1998 at least one whistle-blower was gunned down.  Three lived, but 14 perished.  So we designed a poster with the familiar face of Jimmy Mohlala (one of the 17) as a background screen, onto which the 17 names were listed, by year.  The poster was titled 17 Reasons to Demand Transparency.  That’s all.  Not one January since, starting in 2012, has this re-occured.  We cannot take all the credit for there were other measures including a once-off “Whistle-blowing Week” in November 2011 and a government enquiry.  But we have to engage the powers.  Service delivery is not enough – but it does validate our right to speak out with a prophetic voice.

I noted at the briefing that the ‘Right2Know’ campaign has documented at least 17 whistleblowers who, in 2014, lost their jobs, faced legal harassment or were killed because of attempts to expose corruption.  Come to think of it, that was the year that C4L published a calendar on African Heroes of Faith.  This tracked voices from Tertullian in North Africa to Tetane in South Africa, over 19 centuries.  It was Tertullian in fact who famously wrote: “The blood of the martyrs is seed."

Talk show host Steve Allen said that in South Africa, checks and balances have a different meaning.  “The Mafia and crooked businessmen make out cheques and the politicians and other compromised officials improve their bank balances.”  This is a near and present danger.

CIVICUS makes another good point: “Domestic civil society does not have the capacity to defend itself against attacks on civic space if donors have systematically underinvested in local organizations.”  This question of resourcing is a special focus of its 2014 report.  And with good reason because of significant changes on the nonprofit’s compass.  For example, The European Union is now the biggest donor of all (not USAID – which ironically emerged from the Marshall Plan to aid Europe after WWII).  But another one is on the rise… can you believe that China used more cement in the 2011-2013 period than the USA used in the whole 20th century?  I am old enough to remember widespread severe famine in China, forcing it to look outside its closed borders for wheat.  Canada made a donation, but it was more than kindness!  Within 20 years, China had become the biggest buyer of Canadian wheat, and by then more wheat was flowing west off the prairies than east, the traditional export route.

Recognizing that “aid” is not always altruistic, non-state actors get this good advice from CIVICUS: “CSOs need to develop the confidence to not seek funding from sources that compromise or cause excessive deviation from their missions.”

On this point I often cite the case of Candy Lightner founding MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).  “In 1980 Candy Lightner’s twelve-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver – a repeat offender. Brought to trial, the driver was reprimanded and released. At the time, Lightner was a real estate agent in Sacramento, California. In her 1990 memoir, Giving Sorrow Words she wrote: “I promised myself on the day of Cari’s death that I would fight to make this needless homicide count for something positive in the years ahead.”

“MADD works through its chapters in all fifty states and ten Canadian provinces, and its many international affiliates. While drunk-driving fatalities have declined, MADD believes they remain unacceptably high, and so the organization continues its campaign to educate, prevent, deter and punish. It has caused judicial reforms throughout the United States. MADD helps victims, monitors the courts and works to pass stronger anti-drunk-driving legislation. With a worldwide reputation for vision and effective action, today’s MADD enjoys unprecedented success as a charitable organization.”

The irony is that Lightner resigned in protest some years later, because the focus of MADD was shifting to a stance against alcohol - against drinking.  Some call this “mission-creep”.  She objected, saying that drinking can even be good for you, the problem is abusing alcohol.  It takes courage to engage the powers.  And it takes courage to keep the tiller going straight ahead, even when tempted to chase resource flows in another direction.

This raises a phrase I learned at the CIVICUS briefing – “the tyranny of donors”.  Apparently it was coined by the CEO of the Ford Foundation?  This is not surprising when you learn that only 13% of ODA is allocated to non-state actors.  And only 1% of that ODA arrives at “southern partners” like C4L.  We are at the bottom of the food chain!  The other 12% is spent on the “fundermediaries”.  This explains why CIVICUS researchers are looking for “metrics” that are not simply “northern”.  Its gold standard must strive to be relevant even in the South.

One of those metrics is Volunteering.  Clearly this is very different in a context of high youth unemployment, that in the affluent North.  One reason, for example, that American youth join the Peace Corps is because it is always a plus on your CV.  Whereas youth in South Africa are “protected” from exploitation by labour laws that require employers to pay them a Stipend.  These employers are of courses NGOs, NPOs, PVOs and CSOs.  This is the state of the non-state.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Affluent People Have a Debt to Pay

Bertrand Russell said that John Maynard Keynes was the most brilliant mind he had ever met. Keynes had been a member of the Bloomsbury group with writers like Virginia Wolf and E M Forester.  Up until the publication of his most influential works during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the two big names were Adam Smith and Karl Marx – and they were poles apart.

In 1933 the deepest year of the depression, Keynes published The Means to Prosperity, which contained specific policy recommendations for tackling unemployment in a global recession, chiefly counter cyclical public spending. The Means to Prosperity contains one of the first mentions of the “multiplier effect”.  While it was addressed chiefly to the British Government, it also contained advice for other nations affected by the global recession. A copy was sent to the newly elected President Roosevelt and other world leaders.

Keynes' best-known work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, was published in 1936, and became a benchmark for future economic thought. It also secured his position as Britain's most influential economist.  Ever since, governments have routinely run deficits during downturns to avoid economic stagnation.  But when you have a case like South Africa where there are more people receiving some kind of direct government assistance than the number of people in the work force, you have to wonder when the time will come to throw away the crutch because the leg has healed?

I have written a lot about Inequality and the widening wealth gap.  South Africa’s guru on Poverty is Sampie Terreblanche.  He is an academic, a researcher, and his book Lost in Transformation was a landmark.  Everyone now is talking about what to do, and Roelf Meyer recently called for an “economic CODESA” to try to negotiate a new Social Contract between rich and poor.  New parties are forming on the Left like the Economic Freedom Fighters.  And the Democratic Alliance, seen by many as a white party on the right of centre has just adopted “poverty, unemployment and inequality” as its new mantra and elected a black youth as its national leader.

So I was eager to read the cover story in this week’s issue of The Economist, and it did not disappoint… The great distortion (a dangerous flaw at the heart of the world economy)  TAX-FREE DEBT.

Now I am not an economist, nor do I have a high IQ like John Maynard Keynes.  I have barely grasped the article on first reading.  But it is incisive.  It calls tax-free debt “a senseless subsidy” and does a great problem analysis and some solutions.  For example:
“Tax breaks for debt come in two principal forms.  Interest rates on mortgages are tax-deductible for personal tax purposes… And across the world, firms can deduct interest payments to debt-holders from their taxable earnings.” 
“Today, tax-breaks for debt are embedded in all economies and viewed as the natural order of things.” 
“So what would happen if these subsidies were removed?  It would be a revolutionary step because the breaks are embedded in the way firms and home-buyers behave.  That suggests it would cause some short-term disruption.  But the longer-term pay-off could be immense” 
“Reforming the bias in the tax system is not the stuff of public campaigns.  A vast web of contracts has been woven around a fiscal technicality, guarded by huge vested interests.” 
“But the moment for change may never be better.  Interest rates are low, profits are high, and house prices stable.”
Basically to use debt as an instrument, you have to have some leverage and that means it helps the rich more than the poor.  As Muhamed Yunus once put it (founder of Grameen poverty lending): “Banks ask: Are the people credit-worthy?  We ask: are the banks people-worthy?”  Ahem.

In the Nazareth Manifesto (Luke 4), Jesus read from the prophet of a time when the blind would see, the lame would walk, and “the acceptable year of our Lord” would come.  He was referring to the year of Jubilee, every 50 years.  Now every 7 years you had to leave the fields fallow, just like every 7 days you had to stop working and rest.  But every 7 x 7 years (= 49) you had to take a year (#50) to level the playing field.  By forgiving debts, setting slaves fee, and so forth.  Call it Reform.  He was calling for that like The Economist is calling for it.  Reforming this distortion could have a very positive effect on closing the wealth gap that is only getting wider.

I have a dream.  I dream of the affluent in South Africa and also overseas making “social investments”.  Not donations, but investing surplus savings into reliable funds.  If you won’t need those surpluses for a period, let’s say 3 years, then the fund manager calculates how much can be skimmed off, leaving enough to grow back to par over that period, in the fund.  So that your money can be returned to you.  In other words, biblically, you give the “increase”, but you keep your own capital.

The funds skimmed off are deposited into a Social Equity Investment scheme in South Africa – to enable youth who are trained and economically active.  (Not those who are idly sitting around waiting for Kenyesian assistance.)  Our problem at C4L is that we can tap funds from government for training, but when the youth finish their entrepreneurship and technical training, they have no funds for tools and start-up.  They need a hand-up, not a hand out.  They should not borrow.  They should not beg.  They should attract investment, along the lines outlined in the May 16 – 22 issue of The Economist.  Where ever possible, entrepreneurs always need mentors too.  And when they succeed, the fund will grow not from loan interest, but from economic growth.

In the past I have often said that I am not blaming the rich when I lament about Inequality and the needs of the poor.  To my way of thinking, BOTH rich and poor are caught in a system that is mal-functioning.  This article in The Economist is an excellent example.  Reform is needed, because debt gives an advantage to the rich, and disadvantages the poor.  Equity investment is better for all the reasons outlined.  So if you have prospered for 50 years, then commit yourself to “the acceptable year of our Lord” and help level the playing field.

Thursday 5 November 2015

The Giving Pledge

Hi again prayer intrepids, please never give up on this spiritual exercise

Well it's nice to know that the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg are listening to the noises made by recent C4L bulletins!   The BBC says: "The chief executive of Apple has announced he is donating most of his wealth to charity before he dies.  He joins a growing number of the world's super-rich who are giving away their wealth, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  Five years ago, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates launched the campaign The Giving Pledge.  It aims to convince billionaires to give at least half of their fortunes to charity.


Jesus said: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48)

In my last prayer letter I asked for prayer as I walk towards remarriage.  Today she came with me to a farm where close friends of mine were being feted as they have intentionally sold the farm so that they can devote more of their future to ministry.  Of course for me this is the best way to go - downwardly mobile.  So I was excited and wanted them to meet the lady in my life before they move away.

When we got to the farm there was a marquis on the lawn, cars lined the driveway and there was a prevalence of not only white skin but white hair too.  My partner blanched.  Ooops, well not exactly, let me find another metaphor...  I have thought about this.  She did not panic, she would not be taking me on if she lacked courage!  Remember what I have often said - that the crux of the problem in this country is "white fear and black bitterness".  There was resentment and even contempt mixed into in the angst that suddenly emerged.  Even I had not expected the scale of this send-off, nor of the effect it would have on my partner.

There were some awkward, difficult moments of hearing her out (and feeling her pain) in the car, at a safe distance from the lawn.  Inequality is not just some statistics, or a rule of thumb like The Giving Pledge.  Those billionaires can still stay at a very safe distance from it, by creating ever more foundations and charities.  But in my life, in 2015, inequality is a near and present danger.  Resentment eats away at people who are exploited and who (in reality or perception) see themselves as disadvantaged.  Or as superior, knowing that blacks out-number whites by a large margin, and thus call the shots politically if not economically?  Which ever way you look at it, the wealth gap and the generation gap can be a very vivid double jeopardy in South Africa.

The brother of Jesus wrote: "Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?" (James 2:5,6)

This incisive comment on discrimination follows an earlier comment: "Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation." (James 1:9,10)

Far be it from me to even come near the edge of betraying confidence or worse yet of exploiting a loved one.  So please just keep this in your prayers.  But as Easter approaches, ask yourself why Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem and not a steed?

Sunday 1 November 2015

Gain the Whole World, and Lose Your Soul

Do you remember David Lewis of the NDP capturing people’s imagination in a Canadian federal election by coining the phrase “corporate welfare bums”?  He was referring to envelopes of government funding for corporations.  His point was that the rich were getting benefits that were not available to the relatively poor.

Can you remember even further back to the 1930 when Ida Tarbell coined another phrase – the “robber barons”?  Decades after her father’s oil company was ruined by a Rockefeller’s Standard Oil – as he set about to monopolize that industry – she got her just deserts by publishing a brilliant series of articles in McClure’s magazine.  She was one of the “muckrakers” who pioneered investigative journalism.  They helped turn what is called “the Gilded Age” into “the Progressive Era”.  Among the changes that came to pass, as a consequence of their whistle blowing, were the 16th and 17th amendments to the American Constitution – ushering in an income tax and the election instead of appointment of US Senators, respectively.

Deep Background

Back before the American Civil War, the richest man in 1848 was John J Astor.  He was a merchant trader and was worth $20 million (now equivalent to $545 million).  By contrast, just sixty years later, John D Rockefeller became America’s first billionaire.  A century later, when Sam Walton the founder of Walmart dies, he was worth $8 billion.  Bill Gates occupies the position today with a fortune of $82 billion.

The point is that America’s economy has gone through transformations – from agrarian before the Civil War to industrial in “the Gilded Age”, to global trading in “the Progressive Era” to an information society in the here and now.  Each new phase has vaulted the economy to a new and unprecedented level.

Returning to “the Gilded Age”, the question of whether or not slavery would be used to underpin an agrarian economy was soon overtaken by the railroads, steel and oil.  That is, by railway barons like Leland Stanford and EH Harriman; steel magnate Andrew Carnegie; and oil king John D Rockefeller.  The economy did not just grow – it morphed.  200,000 miles of track built to drain grain out of the West became a network for trading to expand.  Products like Heinz ketchup or Kellogg’s corn flakes could now be manufactured and distributed country-wide.  Steel enabled new products to be built and mass manufactured - like the automobile.  Then distributed, leaning on the economies of scale involved.

An interesting example is the price of an automobile.  In its first year of production, Ford’s Model T sold for $850.  By 1916 the price was down to $360.  In 1924 you could buy a much improved model for only $290.  (This is not the same car being sold and re-sold!  It’s the list price for a new model.)

History is repeating itself

At one stage, Rockefeller controlled 80% of the world’s supply of oil.  Today, Google has 90% of the search market in Europe and 67% in the USA.

Henry Ford wanted to put a car in every garage.  Bill Gates wants to see a personal computer in every office and home.

Walmart wanted to place a superstore in every city.  Amazon and the iStore want you to buy on-line.

The railroad wanted a spur into every town.  Uber will pick up and deliver anything to your doorstep.

Economies of scale are at the base of all this.  As they are at the base of Google and Facebook.  Carnegie famously put it this way: “Cut the prices; scoop the market; run the mills full."

The price of computer hardware, adjusted for quality and inflation, was far cheaper in 2009 than in 1959.  An iPhone contains the same computing power as the full capacity of MIT in 1960.

Just as the gains of the Civil War in terms of social justice were overtaken by the transformation of the economy from agrarian to industrial, the gains of “the progressive era” that followed are now being overtaken by the switch from manufacturing and trading to information and technology.  Power is once again being concentrated, not dispersed.  Google and Apple between them provide 90% of smartphone operating systems.  Over half the population of North America and over a third of Europeans use Facebook.  By contrast, not one of the big five car companies controls more than a fifth of the American market.

Alfred Chandler, the American business historian, summed up the century following the Civil War as “ten years of competition and 90 years of oligopoly”.

What does this have to do with Lent?

A book called This Changes Everything (by Naomi Klein) was recently brought to my attention.  It sees through the hitherto superficial efforts to address climate change, and points to the deeper need for structural economic change.  It is your recommended reading for Lent!

The lifestyle of the barons – as compared to those who buy their products – tells a tale...  Carnegie bought a castle in Scotland and maintained a staff of 85.  Peter Thiel (PayPal’s founder) bought an oceanfront spread in Maui for $27 million.  Meanwhile – as I have lamented in another C4L Bulletin - the dream of “40 acres and a mule” for every freed slave did not come to pass after the Civil War ended.  The plowman overtook the reaper.

Then you have the deeper question: “do they put anything back?” in social terms.  Of course the “robber barons” eventually came to be known as philanthropists.  Perhaps this was a result of their own intentional efforts at re-branding?  To have themselves remembered as such, rather than as malefactors of great wealth or - to quote Teddy Roosevelt - “criminal rich”?  Carnegie funded libraries and Rockefeller financed the University of Chicago.

Likewise, we now have the Giving Pledge challenging the super-rich to give away half of their fortunes.  The Gates Foundation has joined the ranks of grantmakers.  Good entrepreneurs do make good philanthropists, when they get there.  And yet the divide between rich and poor is widening again.  Oxfam estimates that by 2016, over 50% of the wealth in the world will be owned by 1% of its people.  Monopoly and inequality are rising as social concerns, no matter how generous the tech barons can make themselves look.

Jesus asked the question: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  (Mark 8:36)  Please do what you can during Lent to speak and act in ways that will level the playing field.  “The Progressive Era” ended in the 1960s, when economic equality was at its peak.  It’s no coincidence that the Civil Rights movement and the Sexual Revolution occurred in that decade.  For when and where there is more equality, there will be more justice and peace.

Saturday 26 September 2015

Santa and Austerity

The Vatican is installing showers for the homeless at public toilets just off St Peter's Square.

Pope Francis is raffling off unwanted gifts to raise money for the homeless.  The Argentinean pope - who chose his papal name in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi and his devotion to the poor - has cast off luxuries such as the ermine-trimmed cape and red shoes worn by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and focused on helping the down-and-out. He has opted out of moving from his modest apartment into the spacious papal palace.

In February, the 77-year-old pope sold off his Harley-Davidson - worth about €15000 euros and inscribed with his name - for €241500 at a Paris auction, giving the proceeds to a hostel and soup kitchen in Rome.

Meanwhile, in Mpumalanga, the provincial legislature this week rejected a motion by the loyal opposition to cut catering expenditure by half.  The catering budget had been increased to an estimated R11.5 million this year from R4.5-million in the 2013-2014 financial year.

This goes against the attempts of the speaker of the legislature, Thandi Shongwe, to curtail escalating expenses, including that of catering.  Legislature members are currently treated to full English breakfasts and lunches. If a legislature meeting goes on after 4pm, politicians are treated to platters of finger foods.

Basil Kransdorff, whose company Econocom Foods makes fortified school meals, said the money spent by the Mpumalanga legislature and Tshwane on catering could have funded 30 million food parcels – for 10 million children, three meals a day for a month, giving them the strength to learn.  He said there was a worrying number of children in South Africa practically starving:
"Rural areas are particularly affected, with the only meal that a large number of children receive being what they get at school."
"Many of our children, especially orphans, starve during school holidays. We have reports of children having to boil grass to fill their stomachs to stave off hunger."

"All that will happen now is that a very small number of people will become very obese."
The Treatment Action Campaign general secretary, Anele Yawa, slammed the spending:
"People in Mpumalanga are suffering but instead of spending money on improving crumbling health facilities, they treat the province's people like used condoms. They use them once, when they need them for votes, and then flush them down a toilet like a used condom."
"We need to ask how many HIV-prevention programmes could have been rolled out and how many lives could have potentially been saved."
"Instead of being concerned about saving lives, our leaders are more interested in their stomachs. It is spent on people who have medical aids, pensions and homes."
Loyal opposition spokesman Anthony Bernadie said:
"The speaker indicated that in the current financial year the catering budget must be cut from R10-million to R5-million.  But she didn't table any kind of mechanism that could be used to cut R5-million."
"We have been fighting these free meals for years. We tabled a formal proposal to the office of the speaker and yesterday, during the sitting we tabled a motion supporting the speaker in her proposal that the catering budget be cut."  
He said his party proposed that meals be subsidised or that members pay 100% for them. 
"That's when the ANC voted against our proposal."
The Gospel of John the Baptist
Advent is the season that precedes Christmas, just like the last of the great Hebrew prophets – John the Baptist - preceded Jesus, the first and foremost, who heralded a new era.

Why did John baptize? (Even Jesus went to the River Jordan to be baptized by him.)

What was John’s message?

Please during Advent can we come to terms with John’s important message?  It was not eclipsed by Jesus, who was a great admirer of this prophet.  Jesus said that John was the greatest man that ever lived, even though he was a recluse, and in the eyes of those in power - a renegade.

The Qur'an speaks of John's gentle pity and love and his humble attitude towards life, for which he was granted the Purity of Life:
“And piety as from Us, and purity: He was devout,
And kind to his parents, and he was not overbearing or rebellious.
So Peace on him the day he was born, the day that he dies,
and the day that he will be raised up to life (again)!” 
—Qur'an, sura 19 (Maryam), ayah 13–15[45]

John was a classical prophet, sort of like “spokespersons” are today, for high profile parties or movements. He spoke out boldly, denouncing both people and issues.  These were not just platitudes, either, he was up close and personal… one of those guys that you either love or you hate.  Luke offers a glimpse of John’s style and message:
“Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, and do not start telling yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Yes, even now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees, so that any tree failing to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire."
When all the people asked him, “What must we do, then?” He answered, “Anyone who has two tunics must share with the one who has none, and anyone with something to eat must do the same.” 
There were tax collectors, too, who came for baptism, and these said to him, “Master, what must we do?”  He said to them: “Exact no more than the appointed rate.” 
Some soldiers asked him in their turn, “What about us? What must we do?” He said to them, “No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!”
Corruption and waste are two distinct issues.  Both themes need to be addressed in our time and setting, and not only by austerity but by public exposure.  John the Baptist would have had harsh words for the Mpumalanga legislature, I’m sure.  (Would his head have ended up on one of its platters?)  And it sounds to me like Pope Francis has taken to heart that actions speak louder than words, and that he is taking repentance to scale, as John the Baptist taught.

Saturday 29 August 2015

Thinking Together

An old adage says that the secret to marriage is not in thinking alike, but in thinking together.  Partners in marriage may not agree on everything, but if communication breaks between them, the marriage can fall apart.

This line of thinking needs to be applied to the next 2 elections in South Africa – the local elections in 2016 and the next national elections in 2019.  In any democracy you get checks and balances not only from the division of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches.  You also get it from different levels of government – national, provincial and municipal.  In South Africa there are really only two moments of choice for voters – national and local.  Because provincial legislatures stem from the national voting results, and premiers are even ministers in the national cabinet.

Two articles in the press this week really hit this home.  The first was written by Andrew Chirwa, the chairman of NUMSA.  It is a key player in COSATU which is one of the three forces in the “ruling alliance”.  However, it has begun to raise questions of late about WHY the trade unions – normally leftist - are in a centrist government?  His article points the finger at one of COSATU’s allies in the tripartite alliance, the Communist party.  The article is titled “SACP is leading the Inkandla cover”.  It is a brutal expose.  It ends with the following 3 paragraphs:

“The SACP has had to formulate a theory for its rotten political practices. In a political programme adopted at its national congress in July 2012, it identified two “opponents” that had to be defeated: first, the “new tendency”, which it described as “a populist, bourgeois nationalist ideological tendency with deeply worrying demagogic, proto-fascist features”, and, second, what the party calls “liberal constitutionalism”.

“The “new tendency” referred to the ANC Youth League rump led by Julius Malema.

“Liberal constitutionalism” included those who insist on good governance, the rule of law and action against corruption.”
This is very insightful.  The two largest opposition parties – the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance should NOT in my opinion be seen as the left and right poles, on either side of centre, occupied by the ANC.  The reasons why are best explained by Mzukisi Qobo writing in the Sowetan.  His article is titled “SA caught between two extremes”.  Here follow a few excerpts:

“There is, on the one hand, the Democratic Alliance, which has a long history on the opposition benches, and remains a significant numerical force, although its clout as an alternative government is fast diminishing.  It relies, in the main, on reformist strategies to tackle the governing party.  It has largely used legal channels to hold the ANC to account.”

“On the other hand is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose youthfulness is its greatest asset.  Many of its leaders come from a tradition that prizes slogans, rhetoric and militancy – all cultural repertoires of the struggle that used to be associated with the ANC and other grassroots movements.  Remarkably, the EFF has succeeded in hogging the political limelight even though it is still in its infancy.  This has been made possible precisely because its symbolism and militancy resonate deeply with the frustrations of a significant section of the black majority.

“Historically, expressive forms of protests have always captured the imagination of blacks in South Africa until the ANC and the National Party government set the dynamic of elite negotiations in motion in the early 1990s to end apartheid. 

“SA’s experience of an elitist outcome of political transition is nothing unique.  To borrow from Vaclav Havel’s work The Power of the Powerless, beyond its formalism in setting out rights and responsibilities, the constitution has limits to guaranteeing a rich, humane and dignified life.  Havel suggests that constitutions limit themselves to whether or not the laws are upheld rather than improving the quality of life substantively.

“That there is no consistent logic in the radical policy propositions of the EFF is something that is overlooked by many who are blinded by its messianic illusion.  Equally, socio-economic change through the DA is more of a fairy tale.

“In the wake of its parliamentary theatrics, the EFF received greater applause that the DA got for extracting the spy tapes – though the latter had more tangible outcomes.  For our politics to be redeemed from the current extremes in the opposition, there remains a need for a strong voice of moderation on the left to champion the urgent issues of social justice alongside the imperative of defending our fragile constitution.”

In closing, he raises the prospect that real change may only come from a “powerful social agency in the civic sphere”.  These are almost exactly my views, for the very same reasons.  EFF and DA are like two strong oxen pulling the cart of the “loyal opposition”.  But they need to start pulling together, and in one and the same direction.  How will that ever happen?  Who can possibly put their hand to such a plow?

I sense that faith groups can do this.  Not by forming a Coalition, but simply by voicing a demand for both social justice and constitutionalism.  Government has shown repeatedly that its once noble ideals have given way to elitism and triumphalism.  A prophetic voice must be heard again, crying in the veld…

St Francis of Assisi has been a huge influence in the Catholic and mainline churches.  The first Pope from the South symbolically adopted his name.  This suggests an intention to prioritize Poverty, as John Paul the Polish Pope addressed Communism.  Most Reformation churches adhere to the Lausanne Covenant which adopted the slogan “Live simply, so that others can simply live.

Faith groups, churches mainline and African-initiated, Christian families and individuals could provide mortar to bond the red EFF and blue DA bricks together.  There are old and new movements pushing in this direction already.  For example, the “secular Franciscans” and also Unashamedly Ethical.  There was once a group in the USA called the “Moral Majority”, whose political influence was felt in the politics of that democracy.  South Africa needs voices like that at this juncture.

Even the force of prayer should not be under-estimated in this regard.  One hadith says that Mohammed taught that the prayers of a person who prayed and gossiped at the same time were interrupted for 40 days.  The point is, don’t invade other people’s privacy, for they even have a constitutional right to it.  Don’t practice habits that are unethical and self-serving.  Equality stems from such holy values, because the focus on health (i.e. shalom) can displace the focus on wealth.

If we pray and act for BOTH social justice and the rule of law, and intentionally so, while at the same time doing a self-audit of our lifestyle and practice, we will be drawing the two powerful oxen together to pull one and the same plow, in the same direction.

Oliver Tambo said that a nation that doesn’t think of its youth doesn’t have a future – and doesn’t deserve one.  The triple-conundrum of poverty, unemployment and inequality is a time bomb, because it is youth-centred.  Every species protects and nourishes its young.  The resources of this country are concentrated in the hands of older people, black and white.  The time has come to be “unashamedly ethical” and also to “live simply, so that others can simply live” - namely, our youth.