2018 Budget: In a Cartoon

This Cartoon by an anonymous Japanese illustrator titled ‘Vegetables are Expensive”  perfectly illustrates the (potential) impact of the 2018 budget in South Africa. But, if you still need to understand more about what the one percent increase in Value Added Tax  (VAT) will mean for South African people  in general and poor people in particular researchers at the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Actions (PACSA)  who’ve been keeping tabs on the price of food for many years in their  Food Price Barometer, have some insight.  See statement below:

“Since the announcement of the increase of VAT from 14% to 15%,  many politicians, economists and other ‘experts’ have argued that working-class households are protected from the negative impact of the increase in VAT because certain foods are zero-rated.  We would have done better to listen to the voices of ordinary women who prepare food for their families to understand the impact of a raised VAT level for working-class households.

The underlying assumption of the ‘experts’ is that working-class households only eat zero-rated foods.  This assumption is flawed and could be construed as having racist overtones.

  • PACSA tracks 38 foods on a monthly basis that working class households have identified as the foods which they would buy should they have sufficient money to do so.  20 out of the 38 foods are vatable; 18 are zero-rated.  Of the total cost of the basket of R3129.84, a 15% VAT component is R221.59.  The total contribution of VAT to the overall PACSA Food Basket is 7.08%.
  • In order to provide a meal working-class households don’t just use zero-rated foods.  A mother does not send her child to school with a few slices of brown bread; she sends her child to school with a sandwich that in addition to the brown bread will require margarine, peanut butter,  or jam, cheese, polony – these are all subject to VAT.
  • The same applies to cooking a meal for a family.  Working class households do not only use maize meal, brown bread, dried beans and rice which are zero-rated.  Mothers prepare meals with more than just these zero-rated foods.  They also require other foods in order to create a meal.  A chicken stew served with maize meal requires salt and spices and chicken.  None of which is zero-rated.
  • All of our basic foods (even the zero-rated foods) require a cooking process to be made into a meal and this requires water and electricity which is subject to VAT.

By arguing that increasing the VAT rate will have no impact on working-class households because certain foods are zero-rated reveals a lack of understanding of what people eat and how meals are put together.  There is just no way in which households are able to escape this increase in VAT when it comes to food.  The only way in which households can escape the impact of VAT is if all foods are zero-rated.”

 You can learn more about PACSA’s work here

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MONEY: MIND LAUNDERING

“In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.” – BR Ambedkar, leader of India’s “Untouchables”, 1949

There’s an old story that’s been passed around in some circles here, where I live. It’s about an old woman who, upon learning that freedom had descended in South Africa, left her home in a predominantly black township and headed towards the tree-lined cool mansions in a whites-only neighbourhood and stood outside her dream house, waiting. The old woman had been convinced that, with democracy, black South Africans who had been previously excluded from sharing in the wealth of the country, would automatically gain access to it. For her, this meant that she could have her pick of her dream house and move in – just like that.

In the period leading up to the elections of 1994, part of the ANC election campaign included promises to provide free housing, free education, free electricity and free water. It is said that this woman camped outside the house for days – waiting for the occupants of her house to leave – until someone had to explain to her that that’s not how democracy or freedom works.

The occupants of this house were not moving out. They owned the house. Even if they were willing to sell, she would have to find the money to buy the house and pay for its upkeep, including amenities such as water and electricity. To get that house she would have to work and earn enough money to qualify for a loan to buy it. Democracy meant that she was free to move and live anywhere in the country – but at her own cost.

In many ways, I think that there are many South Africans who are still camping outside their dream homes – waiting for the occupants to come out so they can move in. Like the old woman, they seem to have never gotten the memo.

Nothing is free

In her book, Money From Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa, Deborah James notes that the novel economic policies adopted by the new democratic dispensation – which was a surprising deviation from the Marxist-leaning ANC – had unintended consequences. She says statistics showed a significant rate of indebtedness in the population.
“As consumers, new aspirations were unleashed. It began to appear that the freedom to exercise political choice was being paralleled, even outstripped, by the freedom to engage in conspicuous consumption.”

Since the creation of the black middle-class seemed difficult to achieve without credit – people were getting in over their heads and this trend has not abated.
Data released in 2016 by the debt managing firm, Debt Rescue, shows that South African men and women have now become almost equal in the R1.64 trillion debt they collectively owe to creditors.
CEO, Neil Roets, said the group’s in-house statistics showed that men made up 49% of the indebted consumers, while women came in first, making up 51%.

I did not join the revolution to be poor

Even the government has not been immune to this trend. In an article published in 2015, Budgeting In The Real World, Michael Sachs of the National Treasury notes that despite increased government spending in the public sector, growth in South Africa remained sluggish. “The economy has grown slowly for six years. If the National Treasury’s projections are correct, we face another three years of slow growth. Despite massive additions to spending on social services, economic growth has remained sluggish. Instead of promoting faster growth, it is likely that public spending is now contributing to a widening current account deficit, entrenching our dependence on foreign savings.”

Not only are individuals over-indebted, so is the State, which is now being forced to rely on foreign loans to meet domestic needs. The overstretched middle class will have to face the reality of having to pay even higher taxes in order to help government bridge the shortfall. We have become slaves to debt.

What this comes down to is: instead of more money we need more creative thinking around our current problems. Instead of more money-laundering schemes, we need more mind-laundering strategies.

Because even if that old woman’s dream had come true – even if the occupants of the house vacated and said, ‘here’s the house; you can have it’ – she would still need to find a way to maintain the house in the leafy suburbs. She would need money to pay for goods and services and, in the end, without any means of generating an income, she will end up being poorer than she was before.

We need to count the cost

Back in 1992, African-American writer and academic, bell hooks, raised an issue among black intellectuals and professionals which I think is one we need to ask ourselves collectively, particularly in black communities who are afflicted with the burden of addictions and a myriad other psychological diseases brought on by a breakdown in the support systems within our communities. “The question for me then is how do we share resources within diverse black communities… For me, dealing with addicts in the family – the concrete questions of co-dependency to what extent do we share our resources to enable (continued drug use), to what extent do we share resources in the interest of allowing people to redeem their lives?”  What models of responsibility do we have in cases where people are trying to figure out how to share resources without further disabling those who have made progress?

How do we talk about the redistribution of resources without talking about what we are all willing to give up? I don’t believe that we can convince masses of other people to give up some of their resources if we don’t.
The answer, it seems, does not lie in more money, but in what we do with it.

“The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” 
― Steve Biko

 

RACISM: A GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

The profound intellectual, social and moral changes that were shaking society challenged people’s faith and they sought to vindicate their traditional beliefs in the old divine order” – Historian Walter Stevens.

I didn’t want to write about racism, again.

But I noticed that some of us have been reeling. We have been overwhelmed in recent weeks with racist news stories flooding our screens,  streets and even our homes.  At this time of course it seems easy and most natural to be angry and upset at the vociferous showers of hate. Some of us started screaming and shouting at the top of our voices, marching  against the ruthless cruelty inflicted on black bodies everywhere from Charleston, Marikana, Chibok,  Garissa  to the Mediterranean sea.

But even as we mourn our loved ones we must nevertheless, never lose sight of the fact that racism is not real. It is a smoke screen. A decoy, a distraction to keep us preoccupied, busy, crying and praying.  It is a psychological weapon  meant to  demoralize and  to instill fear among our ranks, to muffle our silent voices which have punctured the sonic sphere.

When I talk about racism as an illusion or as the much quoted and used academic term of a ” social construct/contract”:   I am  by no means negating its very real and often fatal physical manifestations.  I  want to point out that focusing only on race as a war we need to win is  misguided, since the war has never been about race per se. Racial classification, discrimination and or prejudice has been a very effective, efficient and powerful tool  to control the means of production and distribution of goods and services and the development of wealth.   Just as the internet is a tool for creating and disseminating information and  to control who uses it where, when and how.  Concentrating on racism as the war to win will result  in a pyrrich victory, and we have had too many examples of those.

Karen E Fields co-author of Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life, says in a Jacobin interview that ” in and of itself anti-racism only points out what racists  are doing, which gets us in a devilish circle”  i.e anti racism not only affirms and keeps the cloud of race firmly in our minds as a matter of fact, it also leads us to think and believe that racial equality is the solution or answer to  social injustice and inequality when the opposite is true. Racism is used to  entrench, reinforce and to cement structural inequalities  already in existence. Most of us know about the pyramid.

In order to understand what I mean, consider for a moment how it all began in your neck of the woods.  In my neck of the woods which is South Africa: – the English stumbled on the cape colony and set up camp, along with others as a means to secure an alternative trade route to India where their real economic fortunes lay. For a while it was simply a resting place, a place to have tea and contemplate doing real business elsewhere.  The imperialist had only a passing interest in the country and its people. But its Laissez faire  attitude soon  changed when the cash strapped UK instructed the small little cafe which was ballooning into a township to find ways to fend for itself and make money  for the crown while at it.  This soon gave  birth to the development of a commercial agricultural industry which centered on the production and exportation  of wool.  This competitive trade at the time needed two things: grazing land and labour in large quantities.  Since the crisis of the 1400 British, Dutch and other  capital imperialists have been obsessed with the acquisition of those two commodities at minimum to no cost where feasible.   In my neck of the woods  guns proved to be a highly persuasive method to convince the local population already living in Southern Africa ( the Khoi, the San, the Bantu) to avail themselves to work for free. Though it took almost the entire 16th, 17th and 18th centuries for the local population to “buy” into their scheme,  the discovery of  lucrative Diamonds and Gold deposits at the turn of the 18th and 19th century increased land and labour appetites to such an extent that  the barrel of the gun (death or threats of death)  no longer proved effective as  the only form of  persuasion.

The  Reader’s Digest illustrated history of South Africa notes that while the homestead system remained viable there was no reason for Africans to seek work on white farms – attempts to force Africans on the labour market included the imposition of a hut tax, a marriage tax, even a decree that no male was allowed to appear in Pietermaritzburg unless wearing trousers, including a creation of other dependencies (soap, sugar, creams) and increasing their artificial wants (clothes, make-up, accessories). This in addition to wanton raids, theft of cattle, kidnapping of children into forced labour and the destruction of African crop fields.

The idea of racial classification copied from the rise  of antisemitism in Europe, coupled with faux science and most importantly religious education provided a wonderful combination of psychological tools with which  to convince the now  hungry,battered, desolate and homeless masses that the only  way to survive  was to work  for a white man.

Capital or the Capitalist ideology is the driving force behind racial prejudice, it is what has shaped our economies into what they are today for better and for worse. Racism in not an issue concerning an individuals  “personal preferences” only. It’s  about securing privileged access to skills, resources, capital and maintaining tight control over those resources whether they are human or natural.  But if an individual or anything for that matter, can be profitable or  show potential to increase profit margins regardless of how that happens they (it) will have a seat at the proverbial table.

Racism is not a question of whether black, brown or oriental (non-white) people are intellectually, spiritually or physically  inferior or equal to Caucasians. It’s about who (has) can maintain control  (through arms, force, violence,propaganda) over  masses of people who volunteer or support their quest for  resources in order to remain or be in power. That’s why Barack Obama can be president, and we know of Oprah Winfrey  and a whole list of successful  black/African/Brown/Asian millionaires and billionaires, around the world.

In order for capital to thrive in the way that is has  it requires poverty and or something that can create lots of cash and fast such as a “cash cow”. There has to be a poor compliant army of workers who  are so desperate to breathe they will do anything to survive.  If you have no idea of what hunger can do, try speaking to a group of hungry men and see how far you get.   Alternatively in the world of “free markets” if  your idea sells, if your idea can make a lot of people rich quickly or in the short or long-term then you are in.

One of the richest continents ( in natural and human resources) in the world, Africa, is still steeped in an ocean of poverty and inequality regardless of the fact that not a single one of the 54 countries on the continent have a  white person as  president today.  What is  then at the root of poverty and inequality in Africa? Is it racism?

The war, if there is one, has never been about the colour of your skin, but if you think it is, then they have already won.

PROF ALI MAZRUI: A MEASURE OF GREATNESS

This weeks’ post is in honour of the late Professor Ali Mazrui.  In another time I would have been ashamed to publicly admit that I did not know about this towering intellectual until his death this week. He was 81. Today I don’t mind acknowledging my ignorance because today I am wise enough to know without a shadow of doubt that I don’t know (everything) and that each day brings with it limitless  opportunity to learn.

IN MY FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS: PUTTING THE BREAKS ON EXPLOITATION

Let me first start with a personal example: Last night my father taught me that brake fluid has two uses in a car. First for the brakes which is self-explanatory and that second it is also used for the clutch. He said “come” to the garage, opened the bonnet of my mother’s car and showed us where to put the fluid for the different mechanisms. The hand brake light in my mother’s Toyota Corolla had been flashing for several days, the brakes worked fine but the light continued to flash so my mother ( being the wise woman who knows she doesn’t know about cars) asked my father who did know a whole lot about cars and how they worked. “So what do you think is the problem?  It was the first time in a long time that my father, who has been working with all kinds of engines and parts for the past 30 years or more, invited us into his world. He then explained that brake fluid is used to lubricate both the breaks and the clutch showed us the different containers.  He also explained how the signal worked, there was a sensor on the lid which monitored levels of brake-fluid and when it was below the line, caused the break-light to turn on.

I used to my marvel at my father who spoke a language I couldn’t decode. He would explain over the phone to his colleagues how to dismantle the engines caterpillar machines, and put them together again, as if he was standing right in front of them. I was always impressed by his descriptive  knowledge of each part and where it was supposed to go from memory. I admired his tone and even handedness when he explained each stage of the process without patronizing the other person.  He hardly ever raised his voice or shouted and he always asked questions in order to understand what went wrong. Moreover he always seemed to have a solution for every conceivable problem the other person at the end of the line came up with and when he didn’t know he’d say “let’s leave it for now and see what to do tomorrow”.

I admired him and still do but because of my inherently independent nature I never went to him for advice when I found myself in sticky situations. I thought the best way to impress my father would be to learn to do things and manage my life all by myself instead of asking him for help or seeking wisdom from him.  But last  night I saw how eager he was to share his knowledge with us, how happy he was to see us willing to learn  from  his vast  know how (skills)  of cars and machines. Only then did it dawn on me that the best thing I could have done in times of trouble or uncertainty or whatever hard decision I was facing was not to try to prove to him I could do it by myself. The best way to impress him would have been to do the exact opposite, to go to him and ask for his advice, opinion and counsel.  After all he is a man who deals with solving problems every day. I realized that my father would have been more impressed by a daughter who knew that she didn’t know (everything) and was willing to draw on the wisdom of those who loved her and who wanted to see her succeed. I realized that he would have been so happy to hear me say “Dad I don’t know how to do this, can you help me? What do you think?” Instead of me trying to do it all by myself and falling and hurting myself in the process as if he wasn’t there or willing to help me. Even if it was just to listen, which he does wonderfully.

I realized that admitting you don’t know and seeking the council of those wiser and more knowledgeable than you is probably the most intelligent thing I could do for myself. I realized that intelligence or wisdom is not measured by knowing or pretending to know everything, but intelligence is about being open to not knowing and then committing to learning every day and applying that knowledge to real life situations. It is only by knowing that you don’t know that you can learn new information – because essentially, even if we get to a point in life when we think we know a lot about something  – we still don’t know everything.  And it is precisely this arrogance and belief that we know better than everyone else who has been here before us which is responsible in large part for the failed states and or downfall of Independent Africa for hundreds of years – a subject which Prof Mazrui dedicated a large part of his academic scholarship to.

THE DUAL MANDATE: NEW FORMS OF SLAVERY

After I discovered the passing this towering legend through a wise friend of mine on Facebook. I spent the whole week listening to his teachings. I realized that I had been searching for a teacher like Dr Ali Mazrui’s who was essentially a romantic like me, but understood the roots and anatomy of  Africa’s present day challenges without being frivolous, superficial or reactionary about solutions to those problems. I was drawn largely by his calm, clear and balanced authority which spoke of wisdom beyond my own years and a mind seeped in the excavation of knowledge. He was a man who had learned how to listen and I could hear it from the way he spoke. In  short, when I watched a video clip posted by my friend, I realized that I had finally found my mentor.  I sat at his “feet” and listened as he decoded the illusion of African Independence, in a way that was fresh and empowering.  And rings ever so loudly true for  Africa today than ever before.  Instead of telling you about him I thought the best way to honour him would be to let him tell you the story of Africa. So I spent time transcribing part of his documentary – Tools of Exploitation in Africa – which is the best analysis, explanation and account of the current challenges facing the continent today.  You can find the complete version in the video on youtube or click the title below to watch it.  I hope you will be inspired as I have been to continue where Prof Mazrui, who published more than 30 books and articles and was written about and published in 50 others – left off. “To whom much is given much is given, much is required”.

TOOLS OF EXPLOITATION IN AFRICA – BY PROF ALI MAZRUI

“Many centuries ago man in this part of Africa went into partnership with termites to process copper. The  Balunda, the Baluba,  the Basanga of ancient Zaire ( Democratic Republic of the Congo) used the clay produced by termites to  help smelt copper and produce implements of agriculture, weapons of war sometimes decorations and money for exchange. A long, long time ago, a strange partnership… and then the Europeans came. Did they want to learn from the technology they found here? Oh no! At least the Baluba and the Balunda had consulted the technology of the termites and benefited from it. But European technology was more arrogant more self-confident and less compromising. It abolished the old technological order and in its wake it left new forms of desolation in Africa.”

“Yes the West arrived in Africa with a bang. The soil recoiled in a whimper. Britain’s colonial policy Policy maker lord Lugard argued that Europe had a double mission in Africa. One was to develop Africa’s resources for Africa’s own benefit. The other was to use those resources to meet the growing industrial requirements of the western world. Lugard called these two goals the Dual Mandate. Our story is about this dual mandate. This intended partnership between Africa and the west and how far it’s been fulfilled.”

THE DUAL MANDATE

“Europe’s’ new technology has descended upon Africa in search of the continents virgin wealth. The African landscape will never be the same again. And so they dig up Africa faster than they have ever done before. And yet it’s one of the cruel ironies of the world economy that a continent so rich in natural resources should at the same time be so poor in living standards. The factories the furnaces of the world are clamouring for African manganese, African copper, chromium, platinum you name it Africa produces it. The romantics amongst us would prefer to think of Africa as God’s treasure chest of diamonds, after all we produce more diamonds than anybody else, we like to think of Africa as a golden continent, we produce more gold than anybody else.  And yet the same rich continent, this vast Treasure Island is inhabited by poverty-stricken inhabitants. Why? Something has gone wrong, tragically wrong in the partnership between western technology and African resources. And yet the digging continues: Dig, Dig, Dig, is it for wealth? Or is it the collective burial of a people”

A FACADE

“Some would argue that the west had brought development to Africa. Perhaps by the Dual Mandate, Lord Lurgard meant an exchange of African resources for Western technology. A new civilization on wheels is now vibrating along African streets, from Dar es Salaam to Dakar. In all my travels in five different continents. I still continue to be astonished by the great variety of African skylines, every African city is a miracle of transition. The mixture is between the foreign and the indigenous, the old and the new, the natural and the artificial. But much of it is a mirage and half of it is a façade.   In Africa the glittering goods are more a symbol of imported consumption than of genuine local prosperity. We in Africa are buying goods from other nations rather than making them ourselves.  The West has given African only the shimmering illusion of technological know-how in exchange for the solid substance of Africa’s resources. In what continent am I? Africa or Europe if I am confused it’s because it’s all a façade, a façade of a western style skyline behind which lies a very different story. Westernization without real modernization Appearances reminiscent of the West behind which lie the realities of Africa. What have we got to show here in Africa, for 300 years of contact with Western technology?  We have acquired western tastes, but have we the skills to make them work?”

HUMANS FOR GUNS

“More  sad than the death of Kings is the death of ancient skills surrounding them.  Once upon a time African Kings and Chiefs were patrons to great artists and craftsmen. Civilizations in gold and bronze were maturing. Techniques had been evolving since the 12th century.  The most famous African sculpture is from Ife and Benin in West Africa. Some outsiders scoffed claiming that the bronzes came from the lost continent of Atlantis. By the time the Portuguese arrived the art had become so realistic that it portrayed the visitors in remarkable detail.   But the Portuguese and other Europeans hadn’t come to admire African skill, their eyes were on a new and fearsome trade, not in African products but in the very African producers themselves.

Slavery was not simply a denial of freedom for those Africans actually captured, it was also a denial of development for the continent they left behind. Europe not only refused to develop Africa, it savagely disrupted skills already in the making. The most symbolic western institution in Africa at the time, was the fortress. An impregnable trading factory, the factory’s merchandise human beings.  The slave trade rapidly transformed Africans into the most humiliated race in human history. Within two centuries alone over  12 million Africans were exported to the new world, the Americas.  It is estimated that for every slave who reached the America market, another died in transit.

Those who survived proved to be more durable than the Indians or Poor whites. Ironically the African Slave trade persistent partly because Africans were so tough.”

Africa had exported to the west men and women, potential implements of production. Africa had imported from the west, guns – by definition instruments of destruction. Indeed the slave trade and the gun trade were interlocked, in some cases guns were the currency with which slaves were bought. Slaves in exchange for guns. Africa had helped to enhance the industrial revolution of the west through those very slaves sent by force there. And yet the guns out here initiate a whole new culture of violence. That culture of violence extends right into present day Africa”