Open letter to the President of South Africa

Tena koe Thabo Mbeki,

I understand a nomination has been put forward for me to receive a South African honour later this year, the Companions of O R Tambo Award, on behalf of HART and the anti-apartheid movement of New Zealand for our work campaigning to end apartheid in South Africa.

I note the particular honour is conferred by the President of South Africa and awarded to “foreign citizens who have promoted South African interests and aspirations through co-operation, solidarity and support”.

We are proud of the role played by the movement here to assist the struggle against apartheid and I appreciate the sentiment behind the nomination. However after the most careful consideration I respectfully request the nomination proceed no further. Were an award to be made I would decline to accept it either personally or on behalf of the movement.

New Zealanders who campaigned against apartheid did so to bring real and meaningful change in the lives of South Africa’s impoverished and disenfranchised black communities. We were appalled and angered at the callous brutality of a system based on racism and exploitation of black South Africans for the benefit of South African corporations.

However while political rights have been won and celebrated, social and economic rights have been sidelined. It is now 14 years since the first African National Congress government was elected to power but for most the situation is no better, and frequently worse, than it was under white minority rule.

The number of South Africans living on less than $1 a day more than doubled to 2.4 million in the first 10 years of ANC government. Despite strong economic growth overall poverty levels have not improved and the gap between rich and poor has increased with many black families being driven more deeply into poverty. Unemployment remains high at around 26%.

It seems the entire economic structure which underpinned apartheid is essentially unchanged. Oppression based on race has morphed seamlessly into oppression based on economic circumstance. The faces at the top have changed from white to black but the substance of change is an illusion.

None of us expected things to change overnight but we did expect the hope for change to always burn brightly as people looked ahead for their children and grandchildren. This is now a pale gleam, dimmed by the destructive power of free-market economics. 

My own country New Zealand preceded the ANC in adopting free-market economic reforms. Since 1984 we have experienced a particularly virulent dose of these vicious policies which have brought wealth to the few at the expense of the many.

Hundreds of thousands of New Zealand families have been driven out of decent employment into poverty where they struggle to raise families on part-time, poorly paid work. They are worse off now than they were 20 years ago. The same policies have brought the same outcomes to South Africa. For the majority life is tougher now than at any time since the ANC came to power.

The promises made by those who drove through the reforms in New Zealand were a lie just as they are in South Africa. Wherever these policies have been put in place anywhere in the world they have resulted in a reverse Robin Hood – a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

When we protested and marched into police batons and barbed wire here in the struggle against apartheid we were not fighting for a small black elite to become millionaires. We were fighting for a better South Africa for all its citizens.

I take heart from the many community groups in South Africa fighting against privatisation of community assets; supporting settlements against forced removals; opposing police harassment and brutality; struggling for decent healthcare, water supplies and education; campaigning for decent pay, reasonable working conditions and affordable houses. These people, such as the Durban Shackdwellers, are looking for respect and dignity as human beings. Many carry the ideals of the Freedom Charter, once the bedrock document for ANC policy, close to their hearts.

Apartheid was accurately described as a “crime against humanity” by the United Nations and the ANC. I could not in all conscience attend a ceremony to receive an award conferred by your office while a similar crime is in progress.

Receiving an award would inevitably associate myself and the movement here with ANC government policies. At one time this may have been a source of pride but it would now be a source of personal embarrassment which I am not prepared to endure.

Yours sincerely,

John Minto




Lessons from Ed Hillary’s life

The most remarkable feature of the life of Edmund Hillary was that he remained so unaffected by the adulation and clamour which surrounded him after the Everest feat.

He persistently rejected what he described as the “hoopla” or “carry-on” surrounding his media image and the public hero-worship which went with it. He said he would not have accepted the knighthood he received in 1953 but for the fact it was publicly announced before he was even aware of it and by that stage he felt it would have been rude to turn it down.

He insisted, not from false modesty but a genuine personal feeling, that he was an average New Zealander with moderate abilities. It was this in part which helped endear him so strongly to his fellow kiwis. (Pause for a moment and compare this with the current crop of so-called celebrities who exude vacuous self-importance. They are as substantial as the polish on a pair of climbing boots)

What particularly distinguished him from others who have achieved fame was his work in poor Nepalese communities over several decades. It is through this example that he leaves us his greatest legacy.

Some have said he reflected the values we share as New Zealanders. This can’t possibly be true or New Zealand would be a very different place to what it is today. Instead I think he embodied the values to which most of us would aspire.

His descriptions of his early life are interesting. His father and brother were pacifists with his brother Rex spending four years in a detention camp during the Second World War as a conscientious objector. Hillary himself eventually went to war but his deep respect for pacifism was clear throughout his life.

Much has been made of him feeling an outsider as he grew up. He hated Auckland Grammar School where he was belittled and dismissed physically as being fit for nothing. Ironically the school placed (and still does) its students as though on a mountain with its high sporting and academic achievers at the top and the misfits and outsiders well down the slope. Hillary was there with the dross at the bottom.

Despite his huge physical achievements he was deeply affected by this sarcastic denigration for the rest of his life. Till the day he died he still saw himself physically as his PE teacher had seen him. This is a story which should be told and retold to teacher trainees at Teachers’ Colleges for the next millennium and beyond.

There is a theory, strongly supported by anecdote, which says that those who make the most significant social contributions are more likely to come from a school’s outsiders and misfits than those who dominate school prize-givings. So often our highest young achievers end up as well-paid professionals but are essentially bricks in the social establishment rather than agents for change. Hillary’s life supports the theory.

A lot of consideration is being given to what the country should do to remember him. Thankfully another statue seems to have been ruled out. Hillary would be pleased at that. But should we perhaps name a mountain or National Park after him? A national holiday perhaps?

All the above are the easy, safe options. Many would be quite happy to change a name on a map, set Ed aside and move on. But the best tribute we could pay would be to embody his values in our economic and political life. This is an enormous challenge because there are vested interests in the corridors of parliament and in corporate boardrooms whose very power relies on the denial of Hillary’s values.

Perhaps though we could begin by introducing these values into the way we run our schools. A great place to start would be ensuring every school in New Zealand was funded by the government based on the learning needs of the children. This would give all our kids the very best start we are able in the way Hillary did for Nepalese communities.

Our schools are underfunded to the point where $508 million was collected from local communities last year to supplement government funding. We know the greatest shortfalls occur in low income areas where additional government funding is swamped by the learning needs of the children.

This will seem like an opportunist proposal to some and I can see it being rejected outright by the government. But remember Hillary spent his life building schools to give educational opportunities to impoverished people and he lent his name to two schools – both of which are in low-income New Zealand communities.

A country with the heart of a Hillary would make sure it happened.

KiwiSaver opens way to privatisation of national super

I haven’t joined KiwiSaver. All the advice I’ve seen from government ministers and officials, economists and financiers says anyone able to enter the scheme would be stupid not to. They tell us the benefits are just too good to miss.

I could afford to put aside four per cent of my earnings for KiwiSaver, but I haven’t. Call me stupid, but I won’t be joining.

Last week, Finance Minister Michael Cullen announced that 381,000 New Zealanders have signed up for KiwiSaver in the first six months of its opening. This is much greater than the 276,000 his officials predicted would be in the scheme by July 1, 2008. For Cullen, it’s a success story. “The verdict on KiwiSaver is in,” he says. “New Zealanders want to save for a better retirement and they know KiwiSaver makes that easier than ever before.”

There is no denying that the savings incentives built into the scheme are lucrative. We are told that no other investment is likely to match the KiwiSaver return. The Government’s $1000 kickstart, the tax credits of up to $20 a week and the administration contribution mean this is heavily subsidised savings.

Employers aren’t unhappy either. Most of the contributions they will be required to make will come back to them in tax credits.

There are three main reasons I won’t be joining. First, despite government denials, it is clear the scheme heralds the privatisation of national superannuation. What each individual is able to save during their working life will provide their income in retirement. The value of government superannuation will fall as KiwiSaver takes over. For those unable to save, it will be tough luck. The aged poor will be left with the crumbs while for others the icing on the cake will just get thicker.

Cullen has not provided a breakdown of his 381,000 contributors, but they will be skewed heavily towards middle and high-income earners and it is here the benefits will be greatest. Higher levels of savings attract higher government subsidies and higher returns for retirement. Unlike national superannuation, which is a scheme providing the same government contribution for all New Zealand retirees, the benefits through KiwiSaver will be accrued to higher-income earners.

Second, there are no assurances the money will be safe. It is not government guaranteed. Just as more than a dozen finance companies have collapsed in the past 12 months, so could any of the schemes approved for KiwiSaver. Don’t think it won’t happen here. In the United States, tens of thousands of American workers have lost up to 100% of their retirement savings as pension fund investments have been hollowed out from company collapses such as Enron’s spectacular demise. Interestingly, American pension savings are now guaranteed by their government. But not KiwiSaver. It’s as safe as an investment in Bridgecorp.

Third, there are limited options for “ethical investment”. KiwiSaver funds could be invested in companies manufacturing nuclear weapons, growing tobacco, processing whale meat or genetically engineering food. On the domestic front, they could be used to invest in companies such as Rakon, which manufactures crystal oscillators for use in missiles.

There are also deeper philosophical objections for thinking New Zealanders. When KiwiSaver was first announced, New Zealand First’s Winston Peters said it would, for the first time, give New Zealand workers a direct stake in the economy. In other words, workers could benefit directly from the profitability of capitalist enterprises. They would have an incentive to make sure companies were successful because their retirement income would depend directly on the profitability of the companies their savings were invested with.
But should working New Zealanders have confidence in capitalism in the first place?

Last century, British economist John Keynes was scathing of those who expressed faith in capitalism. He expressed it this way. “Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.”

Underscoring Keynes’s comment is an extraordinary statistic reported last week which should send a chill down all our spines. Last year, the top 1% of income-earners in the US received increases in their income which were greater than the entire income of the poorest 20% of their citizens. In other words the poorest 20% of US citizens, who are living below the poverty line, could have had their incomes doubled last year if the wealthiest 1% had forgone just their increase in income last year.

Keynes had it right. None of us should share Labour or National’s touching faith in individual investments in capitalism to provide for better retirement incomes for us all. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.

I’m sorry, but Tim Shadbolt is just plain wrong

Towards the top of Auckland’s Queen Street is a significant corporate building which sports, alongside an impressive crest, the bold proclamation Otago University.

No doubt the move to Auckland was designed and planned by young executives in a marketing company on a lucrative contract to the university. One senses a corporate recommendation to take the battle for market share to the heart of Auckland under the Government’s previous bums-on-seats funding policy for tertiary education.

Perhaps some of Otago’s leading lights were proud of their efforts to poach students with the added bonus of giving Auckland the fingers at the same time. This was the sort of corporate piracy which was established and encouraged by National’s Max Bradford in the 1990s and then consolidated by Labour’s Steve Maharey after the 1999 election.

Market-led policies were the order of the day in a brave new world where education was a commodity to be purchased in the marketplace and institutions would compete for students just as baked bean manufacturers compete for customers.

Most universities and polytechs got into this stupid and unsavoury business and have fought pointless turf wars for students. The quality of education for many Kiwi students plummeted.

Initially, the low-quality courses were in the private sector but inevitably the rot spread to public institutions with such things as twilight golf and free cellphones used to entice enrolments and increase funding from the Government.

The head of one Auckland polytech complained to me that it had established a high-quality degree course in commerce with a high entry standard, but were immediately undercut by a local university opening a similar commerce course with no entry requirement.

Southland Institute of Technology joined the rush and established courses in Christchurch to exploit the Government’s funding model.

In April last year the country heaved a sigh of relief when the new Minister of Tertiary Education at the time, Michael Cullen, announced the end of bums-on-seats funding and its replacement with three-year funding schemes based on approved plans for courses and locations. Institutions were to focus on quality and would not be funded for courses they ran outside their areas if these courses were already being provided locally.

Enter Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt. He has complained loudly that Southland Institute of Technology is to lose some of its government funding for courses it runs outside Southland. He says SIT is being punished for its success and innovation.

He is wrong. It may have been successful in a constricted parochial way but it’s hardly innovative. Picking the low-hanging fruit in Christchurch is of no use to quality education either in Christchurch or Southland.
Shadbolt now says he wants to campaign to advocate a change of government.

At one level one can sympathise with a mayor defending his local patch, particularly when operating outside the local area SIT has generated enough income, with the support of local Southland businesses, to develop a fees-free policy. But he needs to open his eyes and look at the broader picture for all our students.

Every Kiwi kid deserves the same opportunity for free university or polytech education that Shadbolt’s generation enjoyed for itself but has now denied to its children.

If his campaign to bring down the Government was based on its refusal to provide free tertiary education for all New Zealand students and an alternative government was prepared to deliver this, I would be delighted to join.

But it isn’t anything of the sort. It’s a shoddy and shallow campaign based on selfish parochialism; a childish tantrum in other words. However, such is the fragility of the Government it’s showing signs it may buckle under this attack from Shadbolt. It shouldn’t. Narrow parochialism has a limited place in education and undermining the new funding mechanism would be a tragedy for all young New Zealanders including those from Southland.