South Africa – on its way to a failed state

These past two weeks I’ve been on my first visit to South Africa. Having been a critical observer from a distance for 15 years since the first democratic elections, I was keen to see how the post-apartheid policies were affecting the everyday lives of people.

While I was there the African National Congress won political power for the fourth time in a row with a majority of two-thirds of the popular vote. On the surface it appears people are happy and have given the ANC’s leadership a vote of confidence. The reality is very different.

The most significant aspect of the election campaign was a report from the ANC Women’s League released just a day before the country went to the polls. The league had been speaking with people across the country’s nine provinces in the lead-up to the election. They visited urban areas, black townships and rural communities. Their report was a blunt message to the ANC leadership that people were angry and frustrated with the government and the lack of progress for the poorest and most alienated South Africans. People said they had voted for the ANC for the previous three elections but still lived in poverty without housing or basic services such as electricity and water while education was in a mess and health services under-staffed and under-resourced.

Having visited activists, trade unionists and community leaders across the country in my brief visit I can attest to the strength of this feeling. In this latest election enough of the poor have given the ANC their vote again but I don’t believe there will be any significant change for these people in the next five years. The ANC leadership is in another world altogether.

Their campaign slogan “working together we can do better” had neither promise nor vision and their campaign message had another more subtle change. In past elections the ANC has proudly proclaimed the number of houses the government has provided with water and electricity but this election it talked about the number of homes which have been provided with “access” to these services. These services are now more widespread but they are provided at unaffordable prices for the majority of people. In some areas the number of disconnections exceeds new connections and this is expected to get worse. For some of the poorest communities water is provided via pre-paid meters at a far higher price than for water to middle-class homes.

A similar story applies in housing. In one new housing development close to Cape Town residents told me they were promised if they paid R350 per month for five years they would then own their modest houses in a rent-to-buy arrangement. However the local council sold the houses to a private company and within two years the rents have more than doubled to R800 per month. Many families have faced eviction and it’s only through sticking together in a determined campaign that they are able to keep a roof over their heads.

At another development in Kliptown near Johannesburg 1300 housing units (houses and flats) were developed in an area where 40,000 live in abject poverty. However despite earlier promises from local councillors these houses have been given to families from well outside the area because the local people can’t afford the high rents the council and private developers are demanding.

These essential services of housing, electricity and water are provided on a user pays basis where market-forces determine the price. These policies, like those of the previous apartheid regime, prioritise the development of a black middle class. In practise it means locking out the poor who are the majority of the population.

This is all a far cry from the heady days of the early 1990s when Mandela was released from prison and the country voted for the first time in 1994 for a democratic government which promised to transform this deeply-scarred country.

Meanwhile business has never been better in South Africa. The ANC has delivered the corporate sector a free-market capitalist economy they could only have dreamt about. Companies which grew fat on apartheid’s race-based slavery are continuing to cream it. Economic apartheid has proved to be more effective in exploiting South Africans than the crude racist policies of the old regime.

On top of all its existing problems unemployment in South Africa is independently calculated at 40%. With this figure rising in the global recession and no real prospect for significant policy change South Africa is heading down the familiar path to a failed state.

There is a saying that the most dangerous thing a society can produce is young men with nothing to do. The ANC is producing them in their millions.

Blair Peach 30th anniversary

I doubt there has ever been a bigger funeral for any New Zealander in London. 10,000 mourners joined the procession as it made its way through the streets of East London on the final journey for a young special needs teacher from Hawkes Bay.

In the months which followed a local school was named after him and this week in London events are planned to mark the 30th Anniversary of his death. Don’t expect to see this reported in the media here because he never received a knighthood or made himself rich off the work of others and yet he is affectionately remembered by the children he taught and the people who knew him.

So who was this New Zealander so widely and warmly respected in the less fashionable areas of London?

Blair Peach was his name and he was killed by police during a protest against the neo-Nazi National Front in Southall, London on 23 April 1979.

When Blair left New Zealand he settled in Southall and taught at a local school for children with special education needs. This was a low-income area of London where recently-arrived Asian migrants predominated.

It was the late 1970s and there was upheaval in Britain over immigration issues. Neo-Nazis made inflammatory speeches inciting young disaffected Britons to believe the economic problems of the day lay with increasing numbers of Asians in Britain. There were frequent racist attacks in the area and just three years before Blair Peach was killed a local Asian man was attacked and murdered.

So local Southall residents were shocked and worried when the National Front announced they were to hold an election meeting in the Ealing Town Hall in the heart of their community. The NF had few local supporters and their decision was seen as a deliberate provocation.

5,000 locals marched on the local Tory-dominated council to call for the meeting to be abandoned but the council approved it. 3,000 police were brought into the area to defend the right of a racist white minority group to threaten the local immigrant community. The NF candidate said he wanted to send the immigrants home and “bulldoze Southall to the ground and replace it with an English hamlet”.

Activists from the local area and across London turned out to defend the immigrant community and many local Southall shops and factories closed in protest as the inevitable confrontation loomed.

Blair was a member of the Anti-Nazi League and the Socialist Workers Party. He turned up and joined the defence of the community he worked in. Residents later described the police Special Patrol Group attacks on the protest as a “police riot” which scattered everyone.

Local resident and eyewitness Parminder Atwal described the attack on Blair Peach:

“As the police rushed past him, one of them hit him on the head with the stick. I was in my garden and saw this quite clearly. He was left sitting against the wall. He tried to get up, but he was shivering and looked very strange. He couldn’t stand. Then the police came back and told him, ‘Move! Come on, move!’ They were very rough with him and I was shocked because it was clear he was seriously hurt.”

A friend of Blair’s, Jo Lang, added these details:

“At least two Special Patrol Group vans came up. The officers got out and charged us. We ran, but Blair wasn’t with us. So we went back to look for him. An Asian family had taken him into their living room. You couldn’t see how badly injured he was. It was later said that he was hit with a lead-filled cosh. While he was in the ambulance he started having fits. At 12 o’clock they phoned and told us he was dead.”

Blair’s killer remains at large. Members of the SPG closed ranks and identification was made more difficult by many of them growing beards after the riot. However a search of the lockers and homes of the police involved in the killing turned up neo-Nazi material and “unauthorised” weapons.

No-one was charged and the authorities handled the issue with delay and obfuscation such that even today details of police reports are not available. As Blair’s girlfriend Celia Stubbs says “they got away scot-free”.

Blair Peach began life as a schoolboy soccer-player in Napier’s Nelson Park, just a stone’s throw from my family home. It ended with his killing by police in London near the school where he taught.

With all the recent criticism of migrant workers here we should learn some lessons from this English experience.

This Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of Blair’s death and many Londoners will gather to remember the quiet teacher from Hawkes Bay. New Zealanders should do the same.

League tables – titillating lists of misleading information

Education Minister Anne Tolley is a real worry. She has the responsibility for our public education system and yet is planning a policy decision which would seriously weaken primary and intermediate school education.

As with most political decisions it comes with a veneer carefully polished for the public while hiding another agenda altogether.

The veneer is the setting of national standards whereby individual students are tested at several stages in primary and intermediate school so parents will know how their child is progressing and what their strengths and weaknesses are in relation to other students. It would enable teachers and parents to work together on plans to extend a child’s strengths and work on their weaknesses. So far so good. School reporting to parents should always give good information on progress in relation to national benchmarks and this is what already happens in almost every school despite Tolley suggesting otherwise.

Where her approach comes off the educational rails is for this information to be collated by the Ministry of Education and made public for every primary and intermediate school in the country. This would mean the media creating “league tables” comparing achievement levels between schools and Tolley has no objection to this.

At the heart of the problem is the irresponsible use of such information by the media. We have only to look at the appalling job in the presentation of NCEA data on secondary schools. Newspapers always include commentary in the fine print which quotes educationalists cautioning on the use of the data and how the results do not equate to a school doing either a good or a bad job in the education of students. These cautions are lost to the lure of lists and rankings.

National assessment of any kind measures just a narrow range of educational outcomes. It says nothing about student engagement, passion for learning or the development of social skills for example.

We also know precisely what the results will show before the first list is published. The correlation between student achievement and parental income across a whole school overwhelms anything else. The highest achievement levels will be from schools in high-income areas and the lowest will be from schools in low-income areas. In other words it won’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

Many secondary schools have become adept at manipulating their data to improve their rankings in the league tables. Students unlikely to do well in NCEA can be removed from the school roll early or the number of NCEA credits a low-achieving student is attempting can be reduced so they are not eligible for a certificate and therefore not counted.

A favourite mechanism for some schools is to set tougher entry criteria for students to move from say Level 2 to Level 3 NCEA. This can force less able students to shift schools to get the subjects they want and prevent them “polluting” the school’s exam results.

Secondary schools are well aware of these practices but they continue, not because they are somehow improving education for students but because they are enhancing the reputation of the school. It’s about competition in the marketplace where creating the right impression with parents is more important than doing the absolute best for every student.

We would see precisely the same practices in primary and intermediate schools if Tolley and ACT have their way. The educational focus will quickly shift to testing and assessment to get pupils through the educational hoops. Creativity in the classroom will take a hammering as teachers “teach to the tests”. These tests will be high-stakes for the school but of minor importance in the education of the children.

These have been some of the effects in Australia and the UK where school “league tables” have had a corrosive effect on education.

The advice of Anne Tolley’s own officials is against the Minister but she appears unmoved.

Educationalist Dr Liz Gordon from the Quality Public Education Coalition says we already know there is a hierarchy of school performance based on student background. She points to New Zealand’s standing in international reading studies over the past 20 years where we have dropped from first, to 6th, to 13th and now to 24th in the world rankings for literacy. Liz Gordon says the sole reason is that economic and social inequalities have impacted heavily on the bottom quarter of the population, putting up huge barriers to learning and causing falling levels of literacy.

Lets address the causes of children failing instead of deceiving parents with titillating lists of misleading information.


Democracy only for the wealthy in Auckland

I’ve never thought New Zealand was close to a participatory democracy. Our three-yearly elections more often resemble voting for which dictatorship we would prefer to run the country.

Around the developed world there is growing disenchantment with what passes for democracy. The drivers have been the same in each country. For at least five elections from 1984 New Zealanders voted for one set of policies and got another. Despite consistently voting for governments expected to put curbs on corporate control of our economy and keep ownership of community assets in public hands we were betrayed each time by political parties under the effective control of the very corporate sector who benefited from undemocratic decisions.

So when the opportunity came to make a submission to the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance I proposed voters be given the ability to recall their local candidate if they felt he or she was going against their wishes. If say 10% of local voters signed a petition to recall their representative then a referendum would be held to decide if recall was warranted and if so a replacement would be elected. Such a provision would give much greater power to voters and help avoid corporate capture.

Needless to say this proposal was absent from the commission’s proposals. More importantly the whole concept of democracy has taken a beating in the commission’s proposal. It has proposed authoritarian powers to an all-powerful mayor over a single council and centralised bureaucracy.

Those living south of the Bombay Hills will probably just shrug and mutter but for those of us living in Auckland there’s a lot at stake.

Our six local councils would be replaced with hollow shells at local level which will carry the responsibility for such things as licensing dogs, issuing building permits and cleaning up graffiti.

Representation will be with the “super-city” where 10 local candidates would be elected to represent areas with approximately twice the population of parliamentary electorates. This is as good as it gets. The other 10 councillors would be elected at large because the commission says it wants the new council to have a strong regional view to avoid local parochialism.

Auckland moved away from “election at large” some years back because the council was disproportionately dominated by the good citizens of Remuera who were very good at looking after the interests of the well off but useless at providing community services or decent public transport. This is perhaps the main reason Auckland is now such a congested mess.

The ward system of direct local representation we’ve had in recent years has given a somewhat stronger democratic voice to local communities. This will evaporate under the proposals now being considered by cabinet. By the time you read this column John Key will have made an announcement to rush through legislation based on the commission’s report. What follows will be a rubber stamp.

The prospects for the 2010 local body elections look bleaker than usual. The dominant political grouping is the right-wing Citizens and Ratepayers which is the only group with the strong corporate backing which will be essential to run a cross-region promotion a third the size of a national election campaign. Leading this group will be John Banks who will contest the mayoralty.

The commission suggests a spending limit of $70,000 for the mayoralty campaign which it suggests will help level the playing field and allow any viable, high quality candidates to stand. However no spending limit is proposed for the slates of candidates and these will inevitably endorse mayoral candidates one way or another.

First past the post will be the voting system which means a mayor and councillors will almost certainly be elected with less than 30% of the vote.

Unless he is struck by lightning in the meantime John Banks will be mayor and we can expect an acceleration of what he has delivered so far. He has consistently advocated the sale of Auckland community assets and managed to sell half the city’s stake in Auckland airport and the council’s housing stock in a previous stint as mayor. He gives lip service to public transport while driving a business-first agenda of roads, roads and more roads. It will be no surprise to readers that Auckland spends more per head on roads than any other Australasian city and yet becomes more gridlocked by the day.

Banks’s latest effort this year was a deeply earnest television performance where he declared the council would keep its rate increases to just five percent because “the people out there are hurting”. Two hours later the council voted to keep the city-wide increase to 5% but in the process voted to increase rates on low and middle-incomes families by over 10% while Auckland’s millionaires received a rates cut.

The commission says their proposal requires a local mayor who is an ‘inspirational leader, inclusive in approach and decisive in action’. Instead we’ll get John Banks.