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Archive for January 2015

South African xenophobia: We are all immigrants

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Consequence of the 1885 Berlin Conference? Source: Zapiro

South Africa is a country of immigrants. 2000 years ago, when Romans were conquering Europe, Chinese invented paper making, and Jesus was born in the Middle-East, only the San lived in South Africa. Visit Aliwal North, or Lesotho, or Fish Hoek, or Kwazulu-Natal, and you will find evidence of their existence. Around 300 CE, groups of blacks crossed the Limpopo, settling within the boundaries of modern-day South Africa. Roughly three hundred years later, these groups reached the Eastern Cape. This slow process of gradual migration – known as one of the largest migrations in world history – created the cultural differentiation within black society that we still observe today: the clicks of the Xhosa, for example, is the result of assimilating the Khoesan language. The reason they supplanted the ‘indigenous’ San was iron-working and crop cultivation: two key ingredients to support larger populations. Recent evidence shows that another group – the Khoe – moved into South Africa roughly between 900 and 1300 CE. A pastoral people, they came from Botswana, crossed the Gariep, and settled in the Western and Eastern Cape. (They were roughly 10 cm taller than the San, who still relied mostly on hunting and gathering, although with the arrival of the Khoe, the San often lived in a servant-relationship with the Khoe.)

It was the Khoe the Portuguese first met on their visit to Africa’s southernmost trip in the fifteenth century. And it was the Khoe who lost their land when the Dutch settled the Cape in the seventeenth century. And after 1652, that dreaded date in South African history, came more Europeans: Germans, English, French, Scandinavians. And with the Europeans came slaves from the East: mostly from modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Mozambique, but also China, Iran, and the coast of West Africa (even as far as the Canary Islands).

During the nineteenth century came more Europeans, British mostly, moving to sunny South Africa to escape the working-class squalor of the early Industrial Revolution. And when diamonds and gold was discovered, more came, this time from all across Europe, and America, and Australia. But the diamond mines required labour, and so millions of Africans came from across southern Africa: Tswanas from Botswana, Shonas and Ndebele from Zimbabwe, Makua and Tsonga from Mozambique, Chewa and Lomwe from Malawi. At the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 60 000 Chinese were brought to work on the mines, although the experiment proved disastrous and most were sent back. In Kwazulu-Natal, however, the settlement of more than 150 000 Indians on sugar plantations proved more enduring.

Immigration never stopped, not even during apartheid, comprising many nationalities, religions and ethnicities: Jewish, Portuguese, Greek, to name a few. The world wars brought thousands of Western and Eastern Europeans to South Africa. And mines continued to bring foreign workers to the country, in their tens-of-thousands. And it continued after 1994: Between 1995 and 2010, more than a million Basotho (from Lesotho) and Swazi (from Swaziland) traveled to South Africa every year. The New South Africa brought Chinese and Pakistani and Cuban and Bangladeshi and Nigerian and Somali and Congolese and Vietnamese and Senegalese immigrants to our shores. Many of the Italian and German and Irish and American tourists who fall in love with the country and its people, stay behind. More than a million Zimbabweans now call South Africa home.

South Africa is a country of immigrants. And yet, we treat our new arrivals like shit. This week, xenophobic attacks in Soweto relived the awful attacks of 2008. Poor communities are disgruntled because immigrants ‘steal the jobs of locals’. And while the attacks on foreigners are limited to townships, the vitriolic sentiment is pervasive, even into upper middle-class households. “Send them back to their own countries” is the standard response on news sites.

It is certainly sad that many of the foreigners’ origin countries are struggling economically, notably Zimbabwe. But South Africa should be thankful to these immigrants, welcoming them, offering them work visas (and, after a few years, citizenship) and allowing them to build our economy. They are not a drain on our resources, but a boon. The literature on the economics of immigration suggest that immigrants stimulate the domestic economy, creating jobs (and not stealing them). That is because immigrants are often better-educated, more resourceful and more driven; they have to make a success because their support structures (family and ethnic networks) are limited. Especially in South Africa where skills are in short supply, foreign skills are critical if our economy is to thrive.

South Africa, the rainbow nation, should be the one place where we celebrate diversity, where we live Thabo Mbeki’s vision of the African Renaissance. It is deeply ironic that we consider our African neighbours ‘foreigners’ only because they live in countries created by European colonial officials randomly drawing lines on a map.

Instead, we despise these ‘foreigners’. We attack them. We loot their shops. We don’t give them work visas, which means they can’t find work as nurses, or electricians, or university professors. They find it difficult to open a bank account, register a car, or buy a house. In short, we make their lives a living hell. (Read Jonny Steinberg’s latest novel – A Man of Good Hope – to get a sense of the hope and determination of these immigrants, but also of the sad reality of their unwelcoming arrival here. The Economist reviews the book here.)

I am sure we can all do better. For the future of South Africa, we need to do better. That a country which has survived apartheid can be so hostile to outsiders is perhaps the greatest indictment against our generation. Especially considering that we are all, essentially, immigrants.


Written by Johan Fourie

January 25, 2015 at 10:34

An easy history of the twentieth century

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Art by Spaska.

Art by Spaska.

I rarely get to read fiction books these days, but that changed this holiday when, on advice of Helanya, I decided to tackle Ken Follett’s Century trilogy. The books follow families (and later extended families) in five countries: Wales, England, Russia, Germany and America. And it is epic in scope: the first book, Fall of Giants, covers roughly WWI and its immediate aftermath (1900s to 1920s), the second, Winter of the World, covers the rise of socialism, fascism and WWII (1930s-1940s), and the third, Edge of Eternity, spends an inordinate amount of time in the 1960s (the rise of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassination,  and the civil rights movement in the US) but then moves rapidly to conclude with the fall of the Wall. A brief epilogue describes Barack Obama’s victory speech in Chicago.

Fall of GiantsThe story begins with Bill Williams and his sister, Ethel, raised in a strict (Godly) household in a fictional town in Wales. Billy is thirteen and about to begin work in the local coal mine, while Ethel, strong and sexy, works in the estate of Lord Fitzherbert and soon begins an affair that would have repercussions in all three books. To give a sense of the intertwined nature of the story (spoiler alert): Ethel’s illegitimate son fights in WWII against his aunt’s secret husband, becomes a Member of the British Parliament, marries an American women who is the daughter of a Russian bootlegger, and has a dyslexic son who becomes one of the world’s most famous musicians.

Ken Follett won’t win the Nobel for Literature, but he has created something quite wonderful. History writing is often criticized for being dry and detached – ‘just one damn fact after another’ – but this historical storytelling is everything but dispassionate. It’s easy to learn about historical events  – the Battle of the Sommes, the storming of the Winter Palace, Pearl Harbor, the Freedom Riders movement, Cuba, Vietnam, Watergate – when beloved characters are intertwined in the plot, often on both sides. Here the stories of two Russian brothers, Grigor and Lev, are a fascinating case in point: Grigor wants to go to America but ends up giving his ticket to his lazy and murderous brother, Lev. Their paths diverge dramatically: Lev will become a rich man, a movie producer, his (illegitimate) son a US senator. Grigor will start the Bolshevik Revolution, help introduce communism to Russia and remain a man of power within the Russian elite. But in comparison to Lev, Grigor’s family will be relatively poor, will experience continuous shortages of food and other basic necessities, will be continuously harassed by the secret police, will be ill-equipped in all the wars they fight, and, ultimately, will see the system implode on itself. For those who favour communism, this series is a stark reminder of why it does not work.

It’s difficult to be critical of such a series, but with such an epic scope, some things are missed. There is little mention of the world outside Western Europe, Russia and the United States. Latin America (apart from Cuba) hardly features. Asia (apart from Vietnam and Japan) hardly features too. Africa might not exist; I think South Africa gets three mentions, one on the Boer War and two on apartheid. The character who recommends that France remains in the post-WWI negotiations may have been Jan Smuts, but the remarks are attributed to a British lord. Nelson Mandela or African independence should have received an honourable mention, especially during the discussions on civil rights.

But these are small qualms. Together, the three books are more than 2500 pages. That’s already bordering on encyclopedic. Ken Follett has given us the easiest way to learn about a century that won’t be easily forgotten.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 18, 2015 at 09:32

What can you do with only matric?

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Of the 1 252 071 South African students who entered Grade 1 in 2003, only 150 752 (or 12%) matriculated with access to a Bachelors degree at university. That single statistic encapsulates the sad reality of the South African education system. Even worse, a large proportion of the 12% won’t ever make it to university, either because they have alternative plans or, more likely, because they cannot afford it. Those who make a success of their university education will go on to find well-paying jobs; those without access (or who fail) will have to compete with the 88% remaining 18-year old’s for a job in a country with a broad unemployment rate of close to 40%. The severe income inequality in South Africa today is perpetuated by the inequality of our education system.

In addition, fewer unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are being created. Mechanisation and computerisation mean that robots are increasingly doing the jobs of unskilled workers; walk into a motor vehicle assembly plant, or visit a maize farm, or go to a supermarket in a developed country and you can easily see how robots and machines are replacing human labour. I even get phone calls from electronic telemarketers (surely, those can’t be successful?). So, given the large supply of unskilled labour in South Africa and the dearth of demand for such workers, what can those matriculants without access to university do?

A lot. Although there are many jobs that are becoming redundant because machines can perform them better, technological innovation can also be complimentary to unskilled labour, i.e. robots can also create jobs for poor people. In contrast to the first phase of industrialisation – when poor, unskilled (blue collar) workers worked on farms or in mines and (manu)factories and rich, skilled (white collar) workers had cosy desk jobs in the services industries like banking and insurance – the trend is reversing: the highest paying jobs are now building and programming the robots who do all the farming and mining and manufacturing, while poorer, less-qualified workers work in the services industries. Yes, some service industries, like lawyers and accountants and dentists, are still incredibly well paid, but other service industries that provide work for unskilled labourers are also flourishing.

Consider cellphone repair shops in townships. A decade ago, only fixed-line pay phones were available in poor areas, and they were serviced by technicians of Telkom. Now, with a little bit of ingenuity and experience, anyone can be a cellphone (or laptop) repair man (or woman). Smart phones are not only connecting companies with clients, but also with a work force they would never have had access to. As The Economist writes this week, the future of work will increasingly be outsourced. That is true both for skilled occupations, like lawyers and HR and management consultants, but also for unskilled labourers. Consider Uber, a car service which was founded in San Francisco in 2009 and which already operates in 53 countries including South Africa. Technology allows anyone with a decent car to act like a taxi service, creating jobs for people that only need a drivers license. It will certainly injure the existing taxi services. But it is generating far more new jobs than it is destroying, simply because far more people will use the new (cheaper and more efficient) service. (Unfortunately, government regulations are very slow to adapt to new technologies, and it is incredibly disappointing that Uber cars are now being pulled off Cape Town roads simply because government officials are unwilling, or unable, to understand the immense benefits of the new service, killing jobs for those who need it most.) Or consider Handy, a company where you can find someone to clean your house, or do small plumbing jobs, or paint, or fix the paintings to the wall. Technology (such as smart phone apps) now allow the providers of such services to be matched to the suppliers of such services at very low cost, creating jobs for the unskilled.

What can be done to encourage more of this behaviour? Governments could ease regulation to make such exchanges legal and less complicated. Entrepreneurs should build apps that allow people to match their needs (dog sitters, electricians, massage therapists, tattooists, midwives, house cleaners, snake catchers, whatever) to those who can provide it. What we need is a Gumtree for the service industry, with an interface like Uber.

But kids leaving school can help themselves too. They can start by acquiring basic skills that will be needed in a future where robots are our friends. A drivers license can still get you a job (especially working for yourself through Uber), but perhaps Google’s self-driving car will make that obsolete in ten years’ time. So here is my advice: think about what services cannot be done by machines. Sport coaches. Au pair services. Beauticians. Chefs. Wedding planners. Gardeners. Music teachers. Barbers. Paramedics. The best thing is that none of these require a university education. And these jobs will be in-demand for a long time to come; in fact, chances are you are more likely to find a job qualified in one of these professions than if you were to leave university with only a Bachelors degree. Often they will require extremely hard work and long hours, but in most cases you will be able to work for yourself, which means you determine the lifestyle you want.

Robots are not the evil things that will destroy the jobs of the poor. They may destroy some jobs, yes, but they will create far more jobs in other places; in fact, they may be the saving grace for our faltering education system. To identify the opportunities new technologies offer, matriculants without a university access will have to innovate, experiment, be entrepreneurial and dedicated. They will also have to learn to work with robots, not against them.

*If you want more advice on what to study, click here. If you want more advice on what to do when you get to university, this might help.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 11, 2015 at 07:08

A happy 2015!

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Here's to a new start. Or anus tart. Whatever. (Via Rodney)

Here’s to a new start. Or anus tart. Whatever. (Via Rodney)

My best wishes for 2015, fellow earthlings. May it be an exciting and meaningful year, which I think are two key properties of a fulfilling life. May you choose wisely, act sincerely, and drink good wine (the De Toren Z would be my choice). And may you create happiness, for yourself and for those around you.

Yes, create happiness. Because happiness is not something that you find in the way a toddler finds his lost teddy bear, or I finally find my car keys in my pocket after searching the whole apartment. No, happiness is something you work towards, plan towards, build towards. It is something you can actively create.

But how? What is the source of true happiness? Advice comes from three very different economists: the first, Adam Smith, eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinker and doyen of Economics; the second from Paul Dolan in his new book Happiness by Design; the third from The Economist.

Smith, explained in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts, says that to be happy one must be loved and lovely. We all want to be appreciated, respected and admired (loved), yes, but we must also be loveable people (lovely), that is, we want to earn the appreciation and respect and admiration of others. How do we do that? One way to be loved is through fame and power. Ronaldo and Messi are loved worldwide for what they do on the football pitch. Others become famous by making music, or entering politics, or building a business empire. But such fame and money and power can often also be a black hole of unhappiness and, in any case, not all of us can be world famous football players. Smith says that’s the wrong way to be loved. The right way is to be loveable, and to be loveable, we need to be proper and virtuous. He emphasises three virtues: prudence, justice and benevolence. The short of it is that we have to 1) do what others expect of us (proper), 2) take care of ourselves (prudence) 3) not hurt other people (justice), and 4) help others (benevolence). This hour-long interview with Roberts explains these virtues and other aspects of the book very well, including why owning the next iPhone probably won’t increase your happiness.

Dolan, a behavioural economist at the LSE, argues that happiness is made up of two components: pleasure and purpose. Because we are confronted with so many stimuli, we have to make decisions about what to focus on all the time. Happiness comes from paying attention to those things that give us pleasure and purpose, and avoid the things that don’t do either. This seems intuitive, but very few of us, I imagine, consider carefully what we pay attention to. (Does Facebook give pleasure or purpose? Not really. Yet we spend a considerable amount of time on it.) More interestingly, Dolan argues that while we can save money now to buy something bigger tomorrow, happiness doesn’t necessarily work that way: we can seldom recuperate the happiness (pleasure and purpose) we forgo in the present for greater happiness in the future. Think of it this way: working every day a week for R100 per day means you can spend R500 on the weekend, but giving up 100 units of happiness a day because you have to do something you don’t like won’t allow you to recuperate 500 units on the weekend. He suggests that life is less about trading off happiness now for happiness later and more about trading off pleasure and purpose.

This trade-off is especially difficult for the rich. As The Economist writes,

More people at the top are trading leisure for work because the gains of working—and the costs of shirking—are higher than ever before. Revealingly, inequalities in leisure have coincided with other measures of inequality, in wages and consumption, which have been increasing steadily since the 1980s. While the wages of most workers, and particularly uneducated workers, have either remained stagnant or grown slowly, the incomes at the top—and those at the very top most of all—have been rising at a swift rate. This makes leisure time terribly expensive.

It is the paradox of leisure: the more we earn, the more we can spend on leisure, presumably doing things that make us happy. Yet higher incomes also increase the opportunity cost of leisure, which makes us work harder for longer hours and thus indulge in fewer leisurely activities. Behavioural economists now also know that the more we think about how much money we are not earning (by being on holiday), the less we enjoy our holiday. There seems no escape from the tyranny of time. The Economist continues:

Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some [the poor and unemployed] are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier. Not a few presume they will cash in on all their stored leisure time when they finally retire, whenever that may be. In the meantime, being busy has its rewards. Otherwise why would people go to such trouble?

Alas time, ultimately, is a strange and slippery resource, easily traded, visible only when it passes and often most highly valued when it is gone. No one has ever complained of having too much of it. Instead, most people worry over how it flies, and wonder where it goes. Cruelly, it runs away faster as people get older, as each accumulating year grows less significant, proportionally, but also less vivid. Experiences become less novel and more habitual. The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.

All the more reason to find happiness in the present. Time, it seems, is not money, it is happiness. Let’s make 2015 an exciting (pleasurable) and meaningful (purposeful) year.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 5, 2015 at 20:27