Moneybags: Saving advice to change your life

Posted: December 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm

For the last couple of months I’ve been working with the team at Just Money to launch a new consumer saving portal called Moneybags. The site has equivalents around world, but is a first of a kind in South Africa, focusing on helping consumers save whether it be around money matters, health and wellness, shopping or entertainment.

Having sat with the team, I can attest that they really have scoured the country to find great deals in the verticals they are looking for. Unlike deal and coupon sites, the deals that Moneybags brings are not paid for on the site: by signing up to the site you gain access to deals, and are able to download and print vouchers to be redeemed at small and large vendors across South Africa.

It’s important to note that Moneybags also offers businesses, large and small, the opportunity to publish their deals on the site. Local relevance is important, so if you are looking for Sushi in Gardens, or burgers in Fourways, the site is able to serve up relevant local deals content.

In addition to deals, the site also has a strong editorial focus, and you can sign up for the weekly newsletter to find out ways in which you can save money in your day to day spending, including up to date content for the season, whether it be pumpkin carving for Halloween or Christmas Tree Alternatives.

If you sign up before March 2013, you have the chance of winning a financial make-over with an award winning financial advisor worth R10 000; a great prize for any South African looking to save money.

Anticipations versus Expectations

Posted: April 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Today I faced one of those delightful project management dilemmas: the missed deadline. It wasn’t my own (thankfully) so I had the pleasure of dissecting this horrible occurrence with the benefit of hindsight and objectivity.

As I’ve noticed whenever I’m asked to do one of these things (and I’ve swallowed my shame of being the cause of more than a few missed deadlines myself after 10 years in the bespoke financial software industry), the core issue is (mis)communication.

When trawling through the emails, the phone call logs, the GANTT charts, and the recrimination, a missed deadline almost always pivots around expectations (from the recipient of the work which has been ‘deadlined’) and anticipations from the deliverer of the work.

I could get really existential and link this to the receipt (RVP) and delivery (DVP) of stock versus payment, a really mundane and essential part of my work at Global Back Office but I won’t.

The person who provides an estimate of time builds this estimate on their anticipations of the future. This is a confluence of prediction and assumption – considering this, how is it that we ever expect an anticipated deadline to ever be met? Experience teaches us to temper our predictions and ignore our assumptions, and many project management and timing methodologies have been developed to sort of dry out optimism and leave us with tasty biltong of a good estimate. This doesn’t happen ever.

Why? Because no matter how perfect the anticipation, and no matter if what is agreed at the outset to be delivered on the deadline, there is an entirely unencumbered beast related to any deadline: expectations!

The word sends chills down my spine. From dashed expectations comes the social science of ‘managing expectations’, the stock in trade of business analysts, project managers and other serial apologisers for the failure of software engineering. Whether you build from scratch, or implement something pre-existing, no matter what the expectations of the client will quietly and confidently self-inflate until what you thought was little balloon of value to be delivered is suddenly crushed by the weight of unmanaged expectations.

Developers anticipate. Clients expect. These aren’t the same thing. They require constant checking, deflating, adjusting and revision. This requires reconciliation between the two. This requires communication. And thus a career is formed.

It’s horrible because it would be much easier if one was removed from the equation. Clients need to have expectations, but do we need to anticipate when developing software and/or systems? I would say NO! This is the mistake. Once we anticipate we communicate that anticipation – which the client quickly translates into expectations. If we don’t anticipate, but rather reflect expectation then can talk about the same thing with clients.

How can you reflect an expectation? And how can you avoid the natural tendency to anticipate time lines? The Agile/Scrum zealots would suggest the answer is to decompose the problem into bite size chunks: stories. This is a good metaphor generally, however the estimation/complexity grading means that anticipation is embedded by design into Agile methodology.

Consider this: Clients don’t care about Software Development Methodology. How can I say this? They are as disassociated from it as a jewellery wearer is from mining. Ask the next woman you meet at a jewellery store if she prefers open pit mining to shaft mining when it comes to extracting the minerals for the ring and you’d see the face that clients give when asked their preferred methodology. The client WANTS something, they don’t really care HOW that something is delivered. We should all be clear on that, because every day we consume goods and services which we have no interest in knowing the means of manufacture. Software should be no different, but developers, obsessed as they are with the inner workings of systems can’t relate to this blithe disinterest in the detail of method.

So… back to how we can address expectations without actively ‘managing’ them. We can’t. They have to be tracked, recorded, prioritised; as you would at the moment. My take away from my work today has been the right thing to do is eliminate anticipation from your production pipeline (aka developer). Don’t estimate – KNOW!

If the client expects to know when the software is going to be delivered then you need to perform an analysis. The output of the analysis, to meet the expectation, is not an estimate but rather the plan to achieve the outcome, which details exactly what the client can expect at each stage in the process. Timing can be provided as long as the client is informed that it is anticipated, and not an expectation. This needs to be repeatedly communicated to clients. Failure to meet expectations is a problem. Failure to predict the future like a crystal ball in forming anticipated deadlines simply can’t be one.

Stock of the day: Telkom $JSETKG

Posted: April 2, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Disclaimer: I currently don’t hold any TKG stock and will not for at least the next fortnight. I held positions in TKG over Q1 and Q4 of 2011, both in long equities and short contracts.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Telkom as a share. It’s been an absolute dog because of the chronic poor management and strategic missteps. The unbundling of Vodacom saw a deep sell off in the stock, as the perceived engine for growth in the business was carved out.

But there are fundamentals to like about Telkom. Its trading well under NAV per share. This is rare for a telecoms stock, and speaks to the analysts dislike of the stock.

With the competition commission hating them, ICASA forcing local loop unbundling on them, and with judges denying upgrades to the network it would seem that Telkom faces poor current performance and a dark future.

That may be the case if you are expecting Telkom to be a high tech Telco. But it isn’t. Telkom has some interesting aspects as a company that should be thought about.

  1. It has a lot of property in its portfolio, which is currently heavily discounted by analysts
  2. The government is its biggest shareholder, which provided some protection
  3. It throws off a dividend
  4. Neotel aren’t performing

Telkom aren’t going anywhere. 8ta continues to improve, and their role in the vital infrastructure of the country means that I believe they should be assessed more as a state utility, or in the case of The Intelligent Investor, a railway stock.

Telkom is a beaten down and decidedly unsexy stock. It isn’t going to experience a rapid turn around, and it hasn’t shared in the rally of 2012, but for value investors viewing a 5 to 10 year time horizon there is something to consider when assets are trading at a discount.

Small fund with great performance versus Big fund with great management fees

Posted: April 2, 2012 at 5:19 pm

I haven’t written anything on the blog for ages. I’ve decided to start writing again, around my investment fund for 2012, and the challenges of setting up a micro hedge fund in South Africa.

I’ve been gearing up to start formalising my investing into an onshore SA hedge fund in 2012. One of the dilemmas for me is whether or not to continue trading my own (meagre) assets or to start soliciting attracting some external cash to manage.

It’s much easier to get outsized returns off a smaller capital base, especially if you can live with the risk, which is certainly more the case when its your own money and there is no anxiety of having to report dismal returns to the investors (besides your wife/husband).

Why then consider formalising and getting client money? Management fees for one. While the average unit trust is offering fees in the range of 3-4% management a year, most hedge funds work on the 2/20 model, in which case 2% of assets are charged annually as a fee, and 20% of the profits are also swept up by the hedge fund manager: nice work if you can get it!

Of course, if you back yourself (and my personal philosophy is that no fund should have less than half of their assets held by the fund manager so that his or her skin in the game keeps things pumping) then you wouldn’t need a huge asset base, as the 20% of profits should be a big incentive.

But increasingly the 2% starts looking attractive, especially when performance looks hard to get in an increasingly uncertain and teetering market. 2% on a bar placed is hardly going to pay the rent; so naturally hedge funds look to swell the assets; of course the larger asset base becomes burdensome when it comes to trying to outperform other managers and the market itself.

As a value investor, I suppose I shouldn’t be too keen to take investor’s money – its better to be patient with my own funds and see how performance tracks; at the same time its hard not to be tempted by the possibility of others joining the journey, even if for nothing more than to provide a cash buffer when there are head winds in the market.

South Africa’s strikes are justifiable.

Posted: July 14, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Imagine you drove a truck with millions of rands worth of dangerous material around for a living. Imagine if you had to work long and hard hours, well past the regular work hours of others. Consider that you would often conduct your work at night because of the danger of your cargo.

Now consider that you are employed directly by the company who gets you to distribute their precious cargo, but rather through an agency which takes a spread on top of your labour to manage what historically would a relationship between employer and worker, and which now has become multi-national to labour broker to worker [in effect to insulate the MNC from strike action].

Now imagine you earn less than R6000 a month. Your monthly pay would only buy 600 litres of the hundreds of thousands litres of fuel which you transport around the nation. Your pay can’t properly feed, clothe or house your family. When you or your dependents fall ill days are spent in queues at clinics and hospitals.

If South Africa’s middle class wants to grow, and ultimately extend the political power of the middle class, it needs to support increased pay and rights.

Let’s establish a few facts:

  • Labour brokers are not the working class equivalent of a recruiter (which as an employer I can tell you is a whole other kettle of fish when it comes to bottom-feeders and effective brakes on growth). They are the worst form of gatekeepers. They remove the protections that should be afforded worker’s and their unions, and they increase the cost of labour with little to no utility. It is shocking that a capitalist party such as the DA would not support the banning of labour brokers. If there is too much protection in our labour laws so that we are uncompetitive then let’s have that discussion, but to allow for gross flouting of our labour laws whilst enriching middle men is no way to establish global competitiveness in our nation.
  • A high minimum wage is a good thing in the long term, as it encourages a strong middle class. If it is applied universally, then the cost of business does increase in the country, but at the same time those who have jobs are economically able to provide better educations to their children and thus grow the country long term.
  • Capitalism should not become economic Darwinism. It will only lead to pain and suffering for all in the long term. The gap between rich and poor must contract for the good of society, and the way in which to do that is by raising revenues from the rich, and/or encouraging appropriate payment for labour.

Middle Class South Africans are sometimes too in love with overseas. When there is a strike in South Africa it is not a European strike, where people are fighting for a 25 hour work week, or 3 months of vacation time: South African strikes are often fighting for rights and payment that the middle class rightly demand and receive already.

Does a promo girl from UCT girl on her winter break deserve to be paid R1000 for a nights work punting a new whiskey, when a 40 year old truck driver earns that in a week, making arguably a far bigger contribution to the countries economy? No! If South Africa is going to escape the middle income trap, where there is essentially a super-rich Caucasiastan attached to a miserable impoverished and suffering African country, then we need to build a Middle Class South Africa. Yes, middle class it would be back to driving a boring family car (Kia Sorrento anyone?) instead of a new X5, but at least JuJu wouldn’t have an eager audience dying to hear him talk about coming into your home to eat your cheese (Who knew JuJu like a thick wedge of imported Stilton?)

When ever I encounter the demands of striking workers in South Africa I am astounded. I am astounded because I wouldn’t be peacefully striking for the terms being denied by business, I would be lathering at the mouth and tearing the whole damn temple down. What is good pay? People who get good pay are often convinced that they should receive more, but in the same breath want to pay their downstream workers less, and squeeze them for every last cent. Consider that every rand that gets to flow into the working class and the working poor, is a cent which has the potential to assist them to lift themselves out of the working class and ultimately poverty as well.

Paying the impoverished extremely well often doesn’t work of course, because the money is often poor utilised, which is why uplifting the working class is that much more important. When a truck driver for Engen can earn enough that he can save to start his own trucking company after 10 years of saving, then his job can be taken by someone else. If you deny people fair pay you deny them their opportunity to improve their lot.

The people who should be SUPPORTING these actions (i.e. the increase in pay for the working class in South Africa) are the DA, but they know which way their bread is buttered (as do the ANC). The DA believes in an opportunity society, but as a centralised liberal democratic party it believes that those opportunities should come from business, but more importantly government. I say who the hell cares where the opportunities come from? More money to the working class is essential for dignity and a better life for the generations to come.

If we want a safe and prosperous South Africa, we have to take concrete steps to improve working conditions and increase pay to those earning below a national benchmark average, who have met targets of personal training and productivity, agreed to at the time of employment. I am not advocating increasing pay just for the economic utility benefits – otherwise its just redistribution – but the long term policy goal should not simply be more people in jobs, but also more people who are in jobs earning more money when they are below the national benchmark (let’s say R15 000 a month) – if you earn more than that… well then its up to you to fight for yourself!

Economic liberation in our time?!

Posted: June 29, 2011 at 12:54 pm

South African chattering classes have begun to discuss the enduring economic hardships that are effecting the vast majority of South Africans largely because the spectre of economic insanity has been raised by Mr Malema and his sycophantic chorus at the ANCYL congress.

Economic liberation is apparently the goal which this generation must struggle for. To the economically literate economic liberation may be considered a suitable and sustainable level of wealth and earning potential to live a decent, humane and edifying life. But this is not the product being sold to the unemployed masses of uneducated black youths. Rather there self-anointed leader speaks of economic liberation as if “Economy” itself is something to be vanquished.

This is of course a very dangerous meme. Economics is not an imposition of legitimised collective will, as the law may be considered, rather it is a natural by-product of human existence. The tyranny of economic reality that Mr Malema claims to want to overthrow is like running a campaign against dependence on oxygen; you may say that we as human beings should have “oxygen liberation in our lifetime” but if we were to actively remove oxygen we’d find ourselves dead pretty quickly.

Similarly, arguing that economics are a bondage or oppressive ‘thing’ to be conquered like Apartheid is a false analogy. The world is being more and more competitive economically; interventionist fantasies are punished in the 21st century far more brutally by unfettered free markets than they ever were in the 20th century: just ask a Zimbabwean.

So… while the capitalist and bourgeoisie classes (to steal a phrase from that most early 20th of Century thinkers Mr Malema) may want to now engage the ANC in a discussion on the state of the economy, they may find themselves having the wrong argument by presuming that the economic liberation sought by the ANCYL is the rational one: it is not.

The ANCYL in their proposed policies are premised on the irrational post-colonial narratives of Zimbabwe and Venezuela. They ignore some basic realities of the South African economy, and its history of capital formation and exercise. To the educated, the idiocy of the proposal is so clear to see that refuting it is ignored: people presume the stupidity is implicit.

But therein lies the beauty of the ANCYL’s position. Its dangerous idea is so ignorant of even basic economic understanding, that when it is poo-poo’d by the intelligentsia they can go back to their uneducated constituents and say that ‘the oppressors’ are rejecting the poor’s legitimate desire to be uplifted from their poverty; when in fact, the economic fantasies of the Malema-Kleptocrats are rejected because they would assure the further misery and poverty of the vast majority of South Africans.

It is very paternalistic to think that the minority of South Africans who benefit from the status quo and who are not ignorant of the economic forces at play in our country and our world, should answer and resolve all problems for South Africa’s poor majority. But at the same time, the educated minority, black and white, must do more to educate and communicate the dangers of what is being sold presently to the poor.

It is not hyperbole to say that if South Africa’s farms where illegally expropriated, or our mines nationalised without full compensation, that South Africans, and by extension (due to our maize exports) most sub-Saharan Africans, would starve quite quickly. Food security is a far bigger issue than many realise, and South Africa will not have the luxury that Zimbabwe had of a large economically stable neighbour to procure goods and services while we send our country into complete and utter oblivion.

Should we be afraid of Mr Malema and his public advocacy of theft? Not simple of farms and mines, but rather the theft of the chance for a better life from the MILLIONS of South Africans who DESERVE BETTER!?! When people have nothing left to take, you can only take their lives and their future. First Mr Malema will take their future by raping our economy, and then he will take their lives in the civil maelstrom which would sadly have to follow.

But we should not be afraid? Mr Malema is a lone voice. No one in the ANC proper has advocated his shared radicalism. All senior leaders of our nation suggest that issues such as Mr Malema wishes to raise must be dealt with in a constitutional context (The Constitution is something Mr Malema would no doubt like to wipe his arse with). We should also have faith in our fellow South Africans that they will choose the path of moderation and not desperate fury; but those of us who are lucky to be financially well off need to do more to uplift our fellow South Africans from poverty.

We need to look at creating more opportunities for employment within our businesses, within our labour laws (rather than whining that they aren’t employer friendly). We need to look at uplifting workers who we are in contact with (sadly, often gardens, labourers, maids, etc.) and give them the opportunities to grow and thus be replaced by someone else.

We, who let’s face it do largely own the economy, must figure out ways to share our wealth through growth. That will mitigate our fears and improve our nation.

Why do the ANCYL and their leader Julius Malema matter?

Posted: June 25, 2011 at 9:44 am

malemaIt’s been an amazing week, with white and black farm and mine owners joining together, along with constitutionalists of all stripes and political parties, to begin the slow and steady defeat of the economic insanity being advocated by a small kleptocratic minority in the name of the vast uneducated and unemployed impoverished South African youth.

I have been mailed by a few readers, as well as asked by some of my clients, why does the ANCYL and Julius Malema have such a big stage? A cynical answer would be that his rantings sell newspapers, and that is no doubt part of it, but when the ANC is campaigning to have a million members, and the youth league can brag 300 000, then we can understand that the Youth League is a core constituency within  the ANC. BUT, we must not forget that South Africa also has a youth population bulge, not unlike the countries currently undergoing the Arab Spring, which leads to young people having a traditionally disproportionate influence on elective politics.

In a traditional democracy, young voters are generally disinterested and vote in relatively small numbers; South Africa, a young democracy both in terms of the nation’s democratic age and our demographic make up, bucks that trend. When so many fellow South Africans are unlikely to live past 50, and are most likely to never hold a permanent job after matric, the definition of ‘youth’ as someone under 35 takes a rather extended meaning.

What follows is a bit of a political primer for those who’d like to know, in a tongue in cheek fashion, why the ANCYL has a legitimate claim to a large space within our national body-politic, in their own opinion:

ANCyouthleague_logo2The ANC was historically, until the 1950s, a non-violence movement in the mould of other native people’s congress movements – such as Ghandi (and later Martin Luther King’s) civil disobedience campaign, which involved passive protest such as pass burnings, passive stay-aways/strikes, church meetings, etc. It is ironic that Ghandi and MLK achieved their goals far faster than the ANC did by remaining committed to non-violence but that is another matter. Between 1944 and 1948, Walter Sisulu and his legal practice partner, Nelson Mandela (Madiba), along with Oliver Tambo and others – the “Young Lions” that they were, were frustrated by the non-violence of the core ANC movement, so they started a movement for the youth specifically: The ANC Youth League (ANCYL).

It was the cadre’s from the YL that would join the communists, during the high apartheid of the 1950s and 60s, to form MK (the spear of the nation) and wage a guerrilla campaign [of arguably negligible effectiveness] against the Apartheid state. The generation who fought the struggle largely came from the ANC Youth League of the 1950s and and 1960s. When some of the former ANCYL cadres were released from prison in the mid 1970s (those with lesser sentences during the crackdown of the 1960s: Rivonia Trial, etc.) they instigated and lead a further way of youth resistance, which reached its peak in the 1976 Soweto Youth Protests (which will be celebrated this year as always, on Youth Day, June 16th, the day that Hector Pietersen was shot by police during the Soweto School Boycott).

Can you see a trend forming? The ANCYL played a pivotal role TWICE in the ANC’s history of moving the ball forward in the struggle; first by aligning the ANC (a historically peaceful congress movement) with violent militarism aided and funded by Communists to aid South Africa’s envisioned National Democratic Revolution (NDR, still the official core policy of the ANC), and secondly by making a generation of South African labour uneducated and ungovernable by de facto completely disrupted the entire Bantu Education system from the mid-1970s to the mid 1990s [This is perhaps the greatest tragedy in our nation – while NO ONE could argue Bantu education was a good thing, it is hard to argue that taking a generation of South Africa youth out of school and university was a good thing, simply to fight Apartheid which was collapsing under its own moral hypocrisy at a rate of knots – what country would we have know if that generation of South Africans had been properly educated?]

A 3rd phase of ANCYL militarism was envisaged in the early 1990s, where children, such as Malema, where inducted into the Masupatsela [Trailblazers/Young Pioneers], given weapons training and taught to disrupt government processes, as well as assist in mass action and protest rallies. It is important to remember that during the transition, the demographics of the youth remained an important plank of ANC policy, and even Mandela felt that suffrage (i.e. the right to Vote) should be extended to South Africans as young as 16 – we still have vestiges of this, in the fact that 16 year olds are allowed to place their names on the voters roll (this is an important distinction from other countries – if South Africa allowed everyone on the voters roll to vote, it would include people as young as 16 – however the 1996 constitution does not allow for this).

Of course Apartheid ended fairly peacefully, so the Masupatsela kids never had to rise up in armed rebellion. Some of them went back to school, and even managed to get E’s for Woodwork, like our friend Julius. To answer your question re: airtime and the youth league:

- The youth league claims the historical legacy of activism against the Apartheid state when the main ANC was not meeting them head-on

- The ANC Youth League has always been the ‘radical’ arm of the ANC, and therefore unfiltered/un-discussed views are more likely to be spat out there, making better headlines

- South Africa has one of the youngest median age populations in the world; with most South African set to die well before their 55th birthday, and more than 50% of South Africans who matriculate going to their graves NEVER having had a job, the Youth League generally speaks for this constituency of our population: poorly educated, unemployed, often disease ridden, young people who were used during Apartheid by both sides, not given a better deal at the end of Apartheid, who are now being further manipulated to hide the malfeasance of the tenderpreneurs in the ANCYL.

Legal analysis in debating

Posted: June 2, 2011 at 12:40 am

My friend Pieter Koornhof, a law lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, has just completed a series of debating ‘training’ videos for the South African Nationals University Debating Championships 2011 to be held at TUKS (aka The University of Pretoria) in July this year, and we’ve uploaded the videos to YouTube:

 

For all debaters out there who want a bit of a refresher course check it out – a pretty good series of videos.
I may go further, and say a lot of good advice for anyone who ends up in an argument about the law when you aren’t a lawyer.

Ambition

Posted: March 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm

What motivates a man
to be more, to be all he can

The world, the wind, lapping at his heels;
Urging on, to tilt at clouded wind mills

How shall we recoil from a losing embrace;
And state with pride into God’s powerful face

Time and mystery do not allow,
A life lived eternally, to one solemn vow.

We are prisoners of this universal harmony.
Victims of time and space’s satanic unity.

Let me disavow my humanity.
So that I may reach for timeless eternity.

What motivates a man?
A loss of will and want.

What motivates a man,
when he realises his simply can’t?

Now let’s slide into oblivion;
let’s slide into mediocrity
let’s cast off sacred talents
And instead embrace common stupidity

For reaching for History’s cup
Will only bring a drought to the soul.
For man’s desire, is found in no achievable goal.

2010: An uncertain end to an uncertain decade

Posted: December 20, 2010 at 11:52 pm

As the first decade of the century draws to a close, it is hard not to feel a bit bewildered at the complete listlessness of the start of this century: the hangover of the certainty that the Long War of the 20th Century (to steal Philip Bobbitt’s assessment in The Shield of Achilles) provided the world.

Our security is more assured than ever before in human history: nations paralyse themselves to stop terror threats that are little more than nuisances in comparison to the dangers of social welfare collapse in Western democracies, and centralised capitalism without personal liberty as championed by China among developing nations.

Markets have proven themselves incapable of self-regulation, as the world still lists in a recovery of questionable quality, but certain value when one considers the economic catastrophe that the world marginally avoided.

This past decade has shown in stark light the frailty of institutions: whether social in the form of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, economic in the forms of the collapse of the world’s financial system in 2008, political in the inability of Western powers to curtain their rage at a few terrorists who wished the West ill, and instead lead to deep expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The decade past shows us the power of globalisation, and the new risks which come with it. The global village presents all the challenges of a village, from everyone knowing each other’s opinion of one another (thank you WikiLeaks) to dangerous familial strife (North and South Korea continuing to duke it out).

Commentators want to speak of the decline of the US in the face of the 21st century’s obvious challenges. Certainly the U.S. is in a state of relative decline – that is not to say the world itself is not in a great position to once again leap forward in progress as we deal with a more networked world, and deal with challenges such as climate change.

I don’t know what the future holds, as no one does: but I do have some sporting predictions for the next decade. I am going to list them here publicly as no more than a fun anecdote for myself in 10 years time:

  • Africa will continue to democratise and growth will outstrip expectations
  • South Africa will be the service gateway and hub for the entire continent
  • China will experience a Japanese style property collapse, placing the breaks on its economic growth
  • The United States, Brazil, India and Russia will fill the manufacturing void caused by a weakened China
  • European austerity will leave Europe financially stable, but demographically under attack as it prepares to collapse under immigrants over the course of the next century.
  • Islamic terrorism will continue to spread across the globe as long as oil remains the dominant form of energy, and attacks will increase in frequency and decrease in effectiveness.

In defence of the personal computer

Posted: November 7, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I love computing. It’s something that has been with me my entire life that I can remember. My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81 that my father had bought, my elder brother had really used, and that I figured out how to make do elementary things by pressing a few buttons. I was 5 years old and it blew my mind.

Later, my father traded an old bashed up car with my uncle to get our family a Texas Instruments Professional Computer. It wasn’t IBM compatible and included such classics as WordStar and Microsoft Multiplan (aka the pre-Excel spread sheet). We loved it – until a keyed in version of a BASIC game from an old 70s version of Byte magazine (no doubt meant for another BASIC interpreter) fried the computer’s clock.

At this point, if you aren’t a techy (and you are still reading) you might be wondering why all the context… well, there were other PCs along the way – a 286 which i burnt out by flicking the power supply to 110v from 220v while my sister played Snake, a 586 AMD MMX-wannabe (our first colour PC), and so on and so forth; to put it in a nutshell: I’ve only owned one car but I’ve owned nearly 10 computers.

And I’m not counting mobile phones either, as they have rapidly become the most popular computers of the age. Iphones, Blackberrys, Android, Windows Phone, Nokia Symbian – the list goes on and on.

I love phones (currently I have the Nokia N900 – a surprisingly crippled and yet amazing phone). They are computers. They are personal. But they are simply not replacements for what has been termed a PC in the last 20 years.

Adam Pash has written a great piece on Lifehacker about the value of smartphones – and rather than it denigrating into a puff piece, he’s really tried to be balanced and convey the degree to which he feels the phone has occupied the personal space that the PC previously claimed.

I agree with many of his sentiments. But for me the PC was never meant to be personal in the way in which we experience our phones – our phones are personal in a deeper and more intimate way that anyone should experience a PC. They are digital devices to which we have outsourced our need to remember numbers, check up on friends, collect memories, remind ourselves of work, or consume media.

They use computing to achieve those noble utilities – but they are not computers for us. They are devices, they are personal extensions. But just as we, people, don’t expose our ‘computational’ nature to one another, so too the smartphone or mobile device is all about dropping the thinking to the background, and making the face, and the voice, and the sight seem effortless (thank you Apple).

PCs on the other hand, as well as being better for data capture (typing) and the creative process, which Pash agrees with are also personal in ways that our personal devices are not. They slice computation away from the hive mind. First they did that by giving users power away from mainframes : that may seem ridiculous in a cloud-enabled world, but running everything centrally in one approved way (a-la Google) isn’t the panacea that everyone makes it out to be.

PCs enable us to be ourselves with regard to computing. Mobile devices need to fall away to be valuable. PCs on the other hand create a unique, personal abstraction space. A phone is a device, a lens if you will, to which you view a condensed image of your world, your mind and your experience. The PC, which in truth has long abandoned the ‘office desks, drawers, folders’ metaphor of the 80s, is personal without being about identity. It’s exactly what it always was : a completely shut off room in which the mind can wander and be enriched.

As a nerd of sorts, I find it really intriguing that the gadget culture of the 21st century is not well populated with nerds and geeks (you know, the people who actually design hardware and software). It’s become a consumer world – no doubt one day the Turing Award will be something akin to a Technical OSCAR – something the nerds get a few nights before the ACM hands out an IT Award for best marketing campaign on industrial design.

This isn’t a bad thing, its just different from what computing has been about for so long : guys and girls who don’t really fit in the real, and so instead create the abstract.

The computing problems we face today are of such complexity and scale I don’t think there are really very many people who can fully fathom them. As billions tweet, facebook and google their way through life, the slew of mobile devices, supposedly personal, are denying those who previously would have become hackers, coders and other true nerds from personal computing : i.e. computing under your personal control.

As more and more people use computers, use programs, use social networks and the web, it would seem less and less people actually have any clue what underpins it all. As a knowledge worker it becomes more and more difficult to meet even programmers who know what is going on within the systems and devices they supposedly are expert in.

The personal computer made computing personal. The mobile devices we now carry do no such thing – they provide access to services and utilities which people are free to enjoy and consume. But like television, they are not going to provide anyone with the power to change the world, unless they get off that couch and learn something new for themselves.

Sharing the burden and blame of South Africa’s Corruption

Posted: October 30, 2010 at 7:37 am

Blaming the government for everything is becoming an increasingly loud whinge of the ineffectual and shrinking middle class of South Africa. The tax burden is set to increase in coming years as the shining welfare state the ANC has planned to secure its political hegemony "until Jesus returns" is going to cost money, and that money is going to be raised from South Africa’s approx. 5 million tax payers. That in a country with close to 44 million citizens and millions more in foreign ‘invitees’.

A narrative alternative to an ever widening social net is developing in the minds of taxpayers it would seem – taxes will be raised, programmes begun (NHI anyone?) so that another tender fuelled graft-o-thon can take place, in which the coffers of the State are further raped by greedy tenderpreneurs and government officials. You’d think that government is only corrupt in South Africa the way people see it!

But this concern, hyperbolic at times, is grounded on a dangerous and evolving new reality – that has more to do with South African business and its ethical or unethical behaviour than it does with the weak civil service which has been repeatedly undermined by the system of patronage and incompetence that is cadre deployment.

Corruption does steal from the State, and thus from the people. This is a terrible crime and should be investigated and punished far more deeply. Unfortunately South Africa seems to be moving toward less government oversight of corruption.

Corruption in South Africa is unique in that the majority of citizens do not pay taxes beyond the VAT they are occasionally charged as end consumers. Outside of this tax, the burden of tax is as unequal as the spread of wealth. Abstractly, I agree with this principal – those who have the most in society and therefore gain the most by society’s stability should bear the greatest burden – however, there is a risk in a democracy such as ours, that with the burden of the purse not being borne by even remotely a majority of the citizens (I think you’ll find the DA’s % of the vote tallies quite neatly to the majority of tax payers… hrm… something to ponder), the majority of the citizens will not PUNISH the party in Government (often misunderstood as the government: just the way they like it…) for thieving from the public purse because the link has never been made that the money was theirs (the people’s) in the first place.

Perhaps tax payers, instead of worrying about keeping taxes in place, should rather be spending some money educating the poor and untaxed that once taxes are paid over to the state IT BELONG TO ALL OF US! That tax revenue is common property for ALL CITIZENS to be managed and stewarded by the government on ALL CITIZENS behalf – and therefore when government officials steal they are stealing from ALL of us.

Of course, that tax revenue belongs to all, raises difficult questions about money spent on mowing grass lawns, or protecting the rich from marauding troops of monkeys on their mountainside villas, when so many South Africans remain without humane living opportunities.

But we should all start thinking about our taxes as belonging to us all, through the State. That is, if you boil it down, the frustration that lies beneath so many taxpayers rage. There is an acceptance, in so many taxpayers I know, that our taxes must be used to develop the country, uplift and support the poor, and create opportunities for all citizens. The upset and anger comes when the majority do not punish the party in Government, the ANC, for facilitating and often directly engaging in the theft of the monies paid over to help the poor and the needy and to develop the state by tax payers.

Of course there is corruption in other countries: we are not as unique as we think. However the corruption that endures in our society has a flipside. It is not only the government, riddled with cadres, that engages in corruption. It is also those who corrupt public officials who must be brought to book – and those will almost without exception be found in the private sector. For every Zuma there is a Schaik.

The business community in South Africa has turned a blind eye to their own complicity in the corruption of the state. This is unacceptable. If South Africa slides into ruin and misery due to corruption, business will have to shoulder a far larger share of the blame than is widely publicised. Besides the usual procedural corruption that business engages in to grease compliance and tax issues, there is a far more insidious side to the corruption that presently befalls us all.

Businesses which profit from ill-gotten tenders are uncompetitive and they bring the economy down. They suggest to men and women who are well connected politically, and who have little to no real business skill, that they are in fact real business people. Being a business person is not to receive a lavish tender and then to live in an expensive house, drive expensive cars, throw lavish parties. I understand that from the outside looking in at the rich white business people during Apartheid this may have seemed that all a business person does. But these are the spoils of war – the real definition of a successful capitalist is someone who allocates capital and human resources to create more value than was started with. Companies forged on tenders DO NOT DO THIS – they simply move the same money around the money supply, except with small amounts of capital outflows in the form of profits gained by Western capitalists running companies like Breitling, Range Rover et al.

If South African business is going to become stratified into a struggling and tax burdened small business sector, a historically entrenched big business sector, and a politico-tenderpreneur economy then we are pretty much economically doomed. Already our manufacturing sector is collapsing – as many countries in the world are similarly experiencing – as the world now manufactures in the East. This is a fact – fighting it may well be a losing game. Therefore South African business needs to look itself in the mirror and decide what it can do to bring in flows of capital from outside the country, employ a LOT more people, bring them into the tax loop so that they can align their interests against the current ruling party and save the country.

The government can’t save business. If anything, government handing out tenders on the scale it does now corrupts business, and makes businesses less competitive since good businesses suffer under adverse trading conditions whilst AWFUL businesses (Aurora?) continue to operate because of their political backers largesse.

How can this be fixed by policy? The treasury claims that it is going to enforce tighter procurement policies and work more closely with SARS to ensure that tenders are only granted to companies that pay their taxes properly. It is shocking that this is not already the case – but this too, while necessary, is not enough. It still amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul, because all the treasury is really saying here is that they want to ensure than some of the profits generated from tenders returns to the state in form of corporate tax.

This can be fixed by a policy of ensuring that any company which wishes to receive a tender above a certain threshold can show that they make revenues exceeding the annual value of the tender already from other business. WHAT? Yes, I am saying that should a business bid for a 20 million rand project over 4 years to rebuild CIPROs database then that company will have to present audited financial statements showing non-government business with revenues exceeding 5 million rand a year.

Why? Because this way South African enterprises that have a proven track record of delivery and value OUTSIDE of supplying to government will be rewarded. It means that businesses must first prove themselves in the real economy before receiving the benefit of lucrative government contracts. This also will allow for those ‘aspirants’ that Mr. Malema et al. say should not be denied what ‘whites’ have – everyone can be free, with the appropriate BEE credentials based on existing procurement policies, to bid for the business of government if they already do similar work in the private economy.

The threshold can be for tenders of 500k or more. This means that companies can boot strap themselves from a start up phase on purely government work – but to really go into the stratosphere of government opportunity a business (and therefore its leaders) must have shown themselves to already be doing work in the real economy and thus expanding and strengthening our industry.

Then, when aspirants and others who have arrived at their goals, throw lavish multi-million rand parties, the common citizen – happy, healthy, safe and employed – can laugh at the gaudiness of the rich, but be pleased that that citizen too has contributed properly to the country, and not simply to the party to steal the resources of the majority through the vehicle of the Party-State.

The best things in life are free

Posted: October 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm

The checklist:

  • Great artwork from The President… check!
  • Awesome writing from the boys and girls who bring us http://www.mahala.co.za/… check!
  • Free in the postbox as promised… check!
  • The sweet smell of fresh litho… check!

This beautiful site greeted me today:

20101011_001

Mahala’s first print issue is out, and I can say that its all that the website has given and more… nothing like getting one’s paws on a fresh and innovative magazine that has the creative sense of a renaissance painter tripping on acid, and the production quality of ‘Foreign Affairs’.

The magazine is tricked out with contemporary writing and imagery – do your best to grab hold of a copy. It is certainly worth it…

And definitely not from one of the Big Four media houses – so expect your reading to be ‘Diversity Assured’ and ‘Media Tribunal Compatible’.

The Living Wage and South Africa

Posted: September 8, 2010 at 1:03 pm

The strike is suspended. The government and COSATU both claim victory. The ANC cheers on government, and the unevenly applied principal of ‘no work-no pay’. Some provinces and departments are capable of docking pay, others are not. Equality under the law se voet.

Now that the fraternal squabble between the ANC and COSATU using the government and its workers seems to have reached a point of pause perhaps it is a good time to ponder labour and its relation to the country as a whole, particularly the political landscape. CropperCapture[9]

The ANC, which increasingly looks to be beholden to nationalistic and tenderpreneuristic impulses, was the ‘vanguard movement’ in the lingo of the SACP that was supposed to bring the broad national democratic revolution to the country as a precursor to socialism. That clearly has not happened. It might have something to do with the fact that increasingly the ANC in deed, but not its words, has little interest in public welfare. The plotting and intrigue of the exiles has been inculcated in the youth movement, and the noble struggle against suffering and disenfranchisement has been pushed aside in the mad scramble to rape the State’s coffers.

This has left the trade unions, in an increasingly unholy alliance, to placate and molify the working electorate; not to speak of the millions of unemployed who seem to have no political role to play in the Alliance besides when it comes time to vote. COSATU looks increasingly to be the true voice of opposition to the increasingly kleptocratic desires of the ANC and its every increasingly broker cadre system.

Name the most powerful opposition politician? Who makes the government fear for its continuity? Helen Zille? Please… Terror Lekota? Give me a break… If there is one citizen who the government and the ruling party should rightly fear it is Vavi. How does the Alliance hold when there are clearly factions which are deeply at odds with one another when it comes to the vision for the future of the country? Clearly history has something to do with it, also the myth that it is so ‘cold’ outside of the Alliance.

But there is another question which should be asked: Is it good for the country and its development and future if the Alliance is in constant battle with itself, creating political and economic uncertainty? I would contend that it is DEEPLY undemocratic that contestation of ideas, policy and economic direction is being set in the policy conference of an Alliance that is at war with itself. The constitutionally mandated location for formulation and contestation of legislation that effects the whole country is Parliament. The continued big tent Tripartite Alliance is marginalising the intended role of Parliament and in doing so is pouring acid on the very foundations of constitutional democracy.

How can the voice of a citizen who is not a member of the ANC NEC have their voice heard? They simply cannot. They are as powerless and disenfranchised as they ever where under Apartheid. To say this is not so is to be an apologist. To suggest that simply because the majority voted ANC therefore the mechanism for legislation and oversight within the government are nullified is to pander to the worst sort of domination (the sort Mandela spoke out against in his statement at his treason trial, and which countless South Africans have struggled against over the years). Our country elects a Parliament, it does not hand the State over to the Alliance to simply do with it what is wills. As long as South Africa is under this regime of entitlement and thievery our constitution is undermined and our rights as citizens eroded.

I have included a picture of a poster from 1989, where COSATU told its members to strike for a living wage. Has that been achieved? NO! Have the promises made when the workers of the country were asked to stage mass action been achieved? NO! Have the many promises that the ANC has made to the poor and suffering unemployed, and the chronically underpaid working class been kept? NO! Why then do the people of South Africa continue in their millions to follow those who deny them the freedom that only economic prosperity can provide? Why do the majority of South Africans continue to follow leaders who are more concerned with the enrichment of themselves and their multitudinous families than development of opportunities for the majority of South Africans who just want the chance to provide for themselves and their families: Is that too much to ask of a Government that has promised it?

Despite the protestations of the middle class when they pay maids, car guards, gardeners, etc; South Africa does not have an acceptable living wage. What can be done about the enduring and grinding poverty that even those who are employed suffer under? The panacea envisaged by the current policies of the DA are simply soft soap: talking about an ‘opportunity society’ may make those who have all the opportunities in the world, the middle class, feel optimistic that once the poor and working classes are granted similar external opportunities then all the pieces will fall into place. But internal opportunities and social breakdown are also hallmarks of the poor and working condition of most South Africans, a good school isn’t enough if your father is an alcoholic or not around, and your mother lives with the emotional scares of rape and lack of education. The assertion that ‘opportunities’ will magically resolve the deep structural and social challenges is easy to throw out when you are in opposition, but what are those in power to do?

Clearly our economic policy is broken. It will remain so as long as the right and left, free versus managed markets (let’s not pretend COSATU are arguing for some sort of worker’s utopia: they aren’t, they are rather arguing for a more planned economy such as seen in many European countries, and emerging economies such as Brazil) approaches are housed within the Alliance. The Alliance is a muffle on open, free and democratic discussion because it centralises and limits power, and places policy and legislation as a servant of personal interests without the checks and balances which our ever increasingly weakened constitutional democracy should provide.

What should opposition do? In addition to providing good governance in the Western Cape and the municipalities which it governs, it should consider taking more proactive steps in hurrying the collapse of the Alliance. That is what combative politics is all about. How can opposition parties hurry the demise of this bloated cyst that weighs down our future? Firstly, there should be grass roots mobilisation. That is hard but has enduring benefits – look at how the years of the struggle, has resulted in liberation debt that continues to throw off a dividend for the members of the alliance. Secondly, there is the far easier and more achievable disruption of the Alliance from outside of it, by picking a side – and in doing so force the breakup of the Alliance. The opposition should consider coming out with deep statements of support for COSATU when ever it speaks against the ANC. In doing so, COSATU would have to deal with the fact that the opposition is agreeing with them 100% of the time whilst the ANC does not. There is no risk to the opposition if it is made clear to their supporters that for the opposition to become a national force in government it will have to make a shift, subtly, to the left to help deal with the problems and aspirations of the majority of South Africans who surely will find far more to like in a party like the DA if they softened up on some of the important social and economic issues that COSATU often speaks on their behalf for.

Can a liberal free market party like the DA be a party of social upliftment and poverty reduction? Can the DA become a party that marries social concern with free market principals. Despite their affiliation with the Liberal Democrats in the UK, the party that the DA should really be looking for guidance from doesn’t exist anymore: New Labour. Tony Blair’s amalgam of trade unionists and reformed socialists bound to Thatcherism brought a decade of prosperity to a stagnant nation. Surely South Africa has far harder challenges: but the idea that free markets and liberal values are irreconcilable with social and economic transformation and upliftment is balderdash. Only when those in the greatly underserved majority are given a viable alternative will the Alliance be pushed aside, and the husk of the once great ANC discarded on the scrap heap of the 20th Century where it belongs.

After the ANC defeats media freedom, then what?

Posted: August 16, 2010 at 11:07 pm

I really love the quaint civil society assertion that they will somehow be able to defeat this most vulgar attack on our freedom of speech and constitutional dispensation being perpetrated at present by the ANC, both in their roles as the party of government and supposedly the party of freedom.

Talking to friends, whether they be lawyers, journalists and other simple middle class professionals like myself (you know, taxpayers…) – there seems to be mass delusion taking hold – that the Protection of Information Bill and/or the proposed Media Appeal Tribunals will somehow not be pushed through by our pliant Parliament and increasingly compromised judiciary.

There is a very real, and terrifying possibility that should the bill and the proposed tribunals become law, and the opposition fails in its Section 80 referral of the law to the Constitutional Court (or indeed, even if that is successful), and a test case is sent to the ConCourt instead that the highest court on matters constitutional may in fact rule in favour of the ANC. Just ponder that one for a moment…

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That is the silence that precedes the complete collapse of freedom. South African patriots, democrats, constitutionalists, liberals, trade unionists and just plain old people (you know, people – the stuff that makes up the country itself) should start considering what they are going to do if this happens. It is no good to simply assert that it can’t happen – how is this different to the high priests of the Temple simply refusing to believe that the Romans would burn down their holiest of holies.

If the history of humanity is any guide, those who run rough shod over freedom don’t hesitate when something as trivial as a constitution faces the jack boot of despotic greed and a thirst to suckle at the teat of the state and the resources it can command even when oppressing a people as resilient as South Africans.

Look yourself in the mirror and ask: What will I do if I live in a country in which the press isn’t free and the common man has no public advocate? For many of the older generation of white South Africans the answer was easy – do nothing, watch Rugby, carry on as usual, and enjoy the benefits. But the new generation of South Africans, white and black, who never knew Apartheid, and have only known freedom will have to ask themselves afresh what it is to be a citizen of a country in which the state shoves its gloved fist down the throat of the citizen who wishes to expose corruption and moral degeneration in the party and the state.

The ANC is showing itself to be uncharacteristically competent in attacking media freedom. If only they had the capacity to deal with matters like service delivery and land reform with such clarity of purpose and vision.

We constantly hear of voices in the ANC being silenced, who in fact agree with the media and opposition, that the current attack on the media is not true to the heritage of the Old Struggle ANC (The party that looks to be buried along with Mandela when he perishes). But when the State President himself, in his capacity as ANC president writes that he sees nothing wrong in the current proposed policies of the party and state towards the media then we have long crossed the Rubicon.

If the few democrats in the ANC NEC think that they will somehow swing the party back to sanity and respect for human rights at the NGC in September then clearly they don’t listen to the party’s own president, spokespeople and publications.

I am a democrat. And whilst I may think it is helpful that the distraction of the ID is no longer going to waste the time of the Democratic Alliance – it is increasingly looking like the true majority buster of the ANC will not be the new majority of the DA, but rather, like so many other African countries before it – the saviour of South Africa’s democracy will come from a powerful and robust trade union based political party – most likely led by COSATU.

This party will most likely look a lot like MDC, and in fact you may well see a realignment (there is Zille’s word) occurring in which the DA happily veers to the left of centre to join COSATU in occasional coalition to legislate.

Of course all of this would be predicated on COSATU leaving the Alliance. Will that happen? Will the loss of our freedom of speech, which looks increasingly likely despite the pissing into the wind of the media and civil society, be the straw that breaks the donkey’s back? OR will Vavi and South African labour need an even graver affront to their rights and the constitution before realising that the rum sipping exiles and new black nationalists who loot the state coffers, have completely stolen the country that COSATU proved itself to be master of during the mass action of the late 80’s and early 90’s?