Johan Fourie's blog

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Archive for December 2015

Rainbow Nation: The Force Awakens

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ForceAwakens

As I stare out of the train window, watching the neatly-spaced Dutch farms flash past, I spot a faint rainbow on the horizon. Make no mistake, during this time of year the weather is miserable. But thanks to El Nino (or the weather gods), the Dutch have had a ‘light’ winter so far, meaning that once every few days you can actually see the sun. My attention is drawn to the rainbow: it is unlike the rainbows we get in South Africa. There they appear after a thunderstorm, shiny and brilliant, connecting one side of the horizon with the other, and signalling the arrival of fine weather. This one, instead, sits low and distant. It signals the coming of rain.

Trains are wonderful for thinking, and I’m thinking about the year that’s been. One thing is certain: 2015 won’t be a year we are likely to forget. Globally, the Syrian war had far-reaching geopolitical repercussions: hundreds-of-thousands of refugees are still streaming into Lebanon and Turkey with a few thousand lucky ones ending in Sweden or Germany or Canada; the continued emergence of radical terrorist organisations resulted in the tragic events of Garissa, Kenya (148 students), of Sousse, Tunisia (38 people), of Paris, France (130 people), to name a few; the near-Grexit and the shift towards a more fragmented Europe; the rise of xenophobia and, most recently, Islamophobia, notably in that country most famous for freedom and opportunity. Russia and Brazil’s economies are tanking: the expected GDP growth per capita of both these countries is -3.8%. The world at the moment, it seems, is fragile.

But my thoughts are mostly with my own country. I don’t think many would disagree that 2015 was one of the most tumultuous years South Africa has had as a democracy. Yes, in 1998 interest rates moved upwards of 20% following the Asian crisis. The Rand collapsed after 9/11. In 2008 we experienced country-wide xenophobic attacks. We’ve had periods of extended strikes, notably after the 2010 World Cup and again in 2014. And 41 mine workers were killed by police at Marikana in 2012.

But 2015 felt more intense: the EFF was forcibly removed from parliament in February; in April, at least seven foreign nationals were killed in violent xenophobic attacks, and the firing of Finance Minister Nene in early December sent the Rand into uncharted territory. But the major events of 2015 emerged from an unlikely source: the leafy, calm campuses of some of South Africa’s best universities. Rhodes fell. Verwoerd was moved. Students, angered by the slow transformation of university infrastructure, curricula, and personnel,  staged sit-ins, occupied public spaces, toppled statues, renamed buildings, and ultimately halted the sharp increases in student fees that had become the norm.

But these protests did more than just halt fee increases: they gave rise to a movement for social change that moved beyond party politics. They empowered rather than disempowered. They weren’t exclusively black, although they did – and continue to – confront the notion of white privilege. In truth, it is a conversation we should have had a long time ago but which, perhaps, needed the frankness of a new generation.

As I reflect on my own conversations with colleagues and students, one thing stands out quite prominently: the rise of female leadership. Of course, there had been female political leaders before: both the mayor of Cape Town and the premier of the Western Cape are female, for example, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, won Time’s prestigious Person of the Year award. But across South African campuses, women leaders rose to the fore. Their influence, I suspect, is a major reason the movement remained non-violent, even in the most testing times of police brutality.

My thoughts continue to return to a conversation I had with one such student leader earlier this year. We spoke about Stellenbosch and the difficulty of black students to call it home, when she remarked: ‘Johan, we don’t live in a world of rainbows and fairies. The Rainbow Nation is dead.’ I wanted to appeal, but had no immediate response. She had made her point.

I think about what has happened since that conversation: to Rhodes, to Verwoerd, to Blade, to Zuma. There is no doubt that the Rainbow Nation my generation envisaged has not materialised. (No matter how hard I try, though, I cannot let go of the euphoria I feel when thinking of the young, promising country, for me best memorialized in this (an inevitable sport) moment. Just watch the last seven minutes.)

But let’s not dismiss the idea of a Rainbow Nation entirely. There’s been an awakening. The rainbows and fairies may be gone, but the inclusive and passionate student movements of 2015, to me at least, suggest a different kind of rainbow. One that is less shiny and brilliant. One that is not entirely complete. One that signals the coming of the rain.

And in a country scorched, rain is exactly what we need.

*This is my 42nd and final post of 2015. During the last 12 months, more than 100 000 unique visitors arrived here. As always, I have to thank my lovely wife Helanya for her patience and proofreading skills. Because of the success of the blog, I’ve been offered a contract to write a monthly column for Rapport (in Afrikaans) and Finweek (in English) in 2016, a challenge I look forward to. Do have a blessed festive season. Travel safely. Rest.

And, finally, if you’re worried about the global economy, look at it this way: Ethiopia, India, the DRC, China and Bangladesh are predicted to grow at more than 5% in 2015. They are unlikely to slow down significantly next year. Together, they comprise 41% of the world’s population. That is still improvement on unprecedented scale. We’ll be all right.

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‘The dam wall has given way’

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Rand

Last night South African president Jacob Zuma fired Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene. More than anything else that has happened in a turbulent 2015, this event will likely affect the South African economy – and therefore, ordinary South Africans – the most. As expert economist Cees Bruggemans wrote this morning: ‘The dam wall has given way’.

Minister Nene was an excellent appointment one and a half years ago as Minister of Finance. He had a tough job: amidst global instability and weak growth prospects and domestic political pressure to continue the unfettered spending on everything from government salaries to South African Airways, he had to somehow find a way to reign in public spending. And he managed to do so, even as demands on the budget – like student fee protests demanding out-of-budget expenditure – increased. When he finally stood up to the gross mismanagement of SAA last week, meddling directly in the ability of Zuma to capture an even greater share of the budget, he was removed.

We are now in a free-for-all. The new Finance Minister has no credibility, and it is likely that he will succumb to the political pressure to spend on Zuma’s pet projects. Expect debt levels to rise and the interest on the debt to increase as the Rand depreciates (see picture of what has happened to the Rand in the last 24 hours). Inflation is likely to increase significantly, followed by higher wage demands and greater levels of unemployment. To balance the budget, the only alternative to the new Minister will be to raise tax rates significantly. Or to print money, although the Reserve Bank is the only institution not yet under the remit of Zuma. How long it will take for that to happen is now a valid if tragic question.

On my Facebook feed I see friends asking what they can do. Not very much, is the sad answer. For those who can, focus on export markets, as South Africa will be much cheaper for foreigners in the foreseeable future. Advertise a room on Airbnb. Sell your design, editing, programming, consulting, or whatever service it is you do to an international audience. Change that planned European trip to a Kalahari getaway. If you can, diversify your investment portfolio into offshore markets (although you should have done that before the free-fall started).

But to stop the rot we would need to change the source of the problem: our head of state and his political cronies. Much as it pains me to say this, what he has said and what he has done now makes it clear that Zuma has little regard for the welfare of ordinary South Africans; his only aim is to fill his own pockets and those of family and friends. However much we want to hope that he will somehow reverse this course, his willingness to remove a well-respected Minister of Finance with no justification except that he stood in the way of further enrichment suggests that he won’t.

While the upper classes were busy fretting over postcolonial memory and white privilege, Zuma has orchestrated the perfect coup right under our noses. He has captured the state. No ANC member in parliament can vote against him; their livelihoods depends on his goodwill. Even those members high up in the ANC executive who may be worried about the latest turn of the events are too isolated to do anything about it. No, the only change can come from the ballot box. Unfortunately, that opportunity is a distant three years away.

We have local government elections next year. But even a considerably poorer performance by the ANC at these elections are unlikely to have an impact on the macroeconomic policies of a ruling elite now clearly uninterested in anything besides their own prosperity. Perhaps protests like the #FeesMustFall movements this year will spur change, but mass (non-violent) action like that will only hurt working South Africans with minimal inconvenience to the elite. Zuma is a survivor, and no Twitter campaign is going to change that.

No, things are likely to get much worse before they get better. And that, sadly, is the best case scenario.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 10, 2015 at 10:36

The last two weeks, and a vision of the future

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Leuven-0503

15 Stellenbosch students, 15 Leuven students, several support staff, and a random concrete mummy in the office of the rector

One of the great things about teaching at a university is that you sometimes get to meet remarkable people. At the start of this year I was invited to join a new ThinkTank as academic advisor: 15 Stellenbosch University students, handpicked from the best the university has to offer, would deliberate with 15 students from KU Leuven in Belgium around the theme of the ‘City of the Future’ . The plan was that they would meet regularly, listen to experts from various disciplines, and then, in November, travel to Belgium to produce a document and present their findings to the media and university community.

I’ve just returned from the two week trip to Leuven. My voice is gone, I have a cold, and I needed a few days just to catch up on some lost sleep. But it was certainly worth it: the several months of expert presentations and countless discussions via Skype calls and Facebook messages and WhatsApp chats paid off last week Tuesday as the students presented their vision of what the City of the Future will be. They structured their presentation into three pillars: Survive, Breathe and Thrive. Survive identified the challenges the city of the future will face. Breathe suggested practical principles that can be adopted to mitigate these challenges. Thrive allowed the audience to dream of what the future city could look like; the audience were at some stage even asked to blindfold themselves and explore the endless possibilities of their own imagination. (An article in Dutch is available here. Also, Matieland reported on the ThinkTank here.)

Leuven-0433

Yannis van de Velde (KU Leuven) and Rebecca Matsie (Stellenbosch) were the masters of ceremony

But a ThinkTank is more than just the content it produces. It creates new friendships, networks and partnerships that will last much longer than the few minutes of the presentation, or even the two weeks of exchange. I got to know some incredible young scientists, theologians, accountants, artists, farmers, engineers and teachers, to name a few of the students’ professions. After what was a difficult year for most South African universities, talking (and singing and dancing and drinking and playing football) with these students made me aware of the passion they share – even if they disagree with me, or among themselves – over the future of South Africa.

Students are often portrayed as either ignorant apathetics or bloodlusting revolutionaries. This was not the students I got to know over the last two weeks. They are thoughtful, eloquent, passionate, accommodating, knowledgeable and not scared to test their comfort zones. They value social justice, transparency, ingenuity, creativity, diversity.  They are, in a sense, the perfect citizens of the future city.

If this is the caliber of the next generation, I thought to myself during the final evening’s awards ceremony, our country is in good hands.

*Our hosts in Leuven were fantastic. Anse Heeren (second to right in the group photo), in particular, worked tirelessly to make sure everything and everyone is on track. Rector Rik Torfs (front, center), who had signed the initial agreement with the late Russel Botman, gave an engaging closing address, acknowledging the hard work the students put in. Next year the Belgian students visit Stellenbosch. Let’s hope we can return the hospitality in style.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 9, 2015 at 10:32