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Elon Musk is dead wrong about Mars!!

(This piece first appeared in Port Elizabeth’s “Weekend Post” on 1 July 2017)

 

I am inspired by the phenomenally innovative work of, California based,  Elon Musk. You may know him as the founder and CEO of the ground-breaking Tesla Company. You may know that in spite of Elon growing up with the smell of mind-numbing bureaucratic paralysis in the Pretoria air, his thinking on electric cars and battery storage is proving to be hugely disruptive. His bold ideas will absolutely and fundamentally change the way we all live and work. This dramatic transformation will happen very soon and I am very excited to see it all pan out.

 

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But I heard Mr Musk speaking the other day about his planned missions to Mars to build a colony there. I just can help feeling that that this kind of thinking is just a lot of crap, perhaps not unlike the kind of thinking of other technologists like (the American) J. Robert Oppenheimer,  who applied his incredible skill to enable our species to blow up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I can see that I think a little differently to Musk and Oppenheimer. In my reading and in my quiet time, I have come to see that we, as a species, have evolved here on this planet and are an integral part of it, perhaps like our gut bacteria are an integral part of us. To just plonk us somewhere else, is misunderstanding just how integral we are to our ecosystem and to what extent we are a product of it. I see this in the writings of brilliant and enlightened souls and I see this when I watch my cattle going about their business in the pasture.

Pasture and grasslands are a fascinating subject, but I do understand that it  is quite possibly more interesting to me than it is to you. Books have been written about pasture. Entire library shelves filled. The important thing to take from our knowledge of pasture is the undeniable fact that we are dealing with a living interconnected system. In a very real and observable way cattle and grass and soil are part of the same “organism”. Grass has evolved to thrive on nutrient provided by herbivore manure, which in turn is digested by specifically evolved  soil based mycelium and bacteria. Grass had evolved to look, taste and behave the way it has because of grazing animals like cattle. Cattle have developed their size, shape and biology because they have evolved in the pasture (alongside their predators) eating the grasses that they do. These are not just curious facts of anatomy and biology. These are fundamental truths. They are absolute “laws”, that whether we choose to or not, are a governing force in all of our lives. It may appear to me that I, as an individual, am a separate organism to the people around me and to the things that I consume and to the things that try to consume me, but in truth, with the perspective of evolution and of time, I am not.

So much of what I see around us attempts to convince me that I am a separate organism, that I am able to survive even without this planet; that I am separate from the earth. The spectacular 1960’s project to send a man to the moon, walk around up there and take photographs of the blue planet from that far off position, is one in a sequence of events, since the beginnings of consciousness, that have made us feel more and more comfortable with the argument that we, human beings, are a separate and distinct organism.

But when I sit in the pasture. When I observe the earthworm magically building soil from excrement, when I appreciate the cattle, I let the picture remind me of who I am. I let the picture remind me that I am a part of an organism that is beginning to show signs of disease caused largely by  people (people  very much like me) that have somehow come to forget the obvious truth that they are only a small (yet very important) part of a big and complex organism. Perhaps, with time, we will come to see that the disease afflicting our planet is like the disease of cancer that afflicts so many of our bodies.( A disease that killed my own father.)  Some doctors say that a cancer cell is a cell that has forgotten that it is part of body, that it is part of an organism. A cancer cell consumes energy and replicates very rapidly, but it has forgotten its function within and as part of the organism. Cancer cells grow and grow until they kill the very same body that it forgot that it was integrally part of. Cancer cells form tumours that are fuelled by excess sugar in the system. In the same way perhaps as our bodies make up rapidly growing populations that cluster in cities that have become distorted way beyond any useful shape and size by the injection of excess energy in the form of over exploited fossil fuels.  Perhaps tumours, cities and Elon Musk behave in this way because they have forgotten what our species has known since it has first emerged from the cradle of human kind all those years ago.

So what do we do about all this? I can only suggest that you come sit with me in the in the pasture one afternoon. Perhaps we can be still, observe and help each other remember.

GDP growth no measure of how well we are doing.

(this piece first appeared in The Herald on 12 May 2017)

I don’t eat much sugar at all. In my experience, sugar and starch cause me to become fat and lazy. So I drink bitter coffee by day, red wine at night and water when I train. So I’m personally not too stressed about government’s plans to tax the consumption of sugar in the same way it taxes cigarettes and alcohol. Selfish of me perhaps? (for the record though, I don’t think the amount of sugar I put in my tea, or how many hours I spend watching TV or whether I spend enough time in gym are the business of government at all.)

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Bitter morning coffee at “Cafe Blend”

I think what interests me more is the game playing out as the sugar industry attempts, through the media, to argue the case against introducing such a tax. I recall that the initial attempts by the makers of fizzy cool drinks was to rubbish any of the science that has growingly begun to link increased carbohydrate intake with a number of ailments including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. The merits of that discussion we will leave to another, perhaps more scientifically oriented, writer.

What I notice though, is that the sugar industry’s PR campaign has now shifted to how many jobs will be lost and the general impact that this new tax will have on the economy. The latest headline reading “Sugar Tax – blow to GDP!”… or something like that. And this is what I would like to talk about here today. Not Sugar, not tax, but our community’s continued focus on GDP growth as a measure of whether we are doing well or not. We seem do descend into a collective state of panic when Treasury projects a 0% growth rate. We seem all to be in awe of Indonesia or Ghana when it reports GDP growth of 7 or 8%. But if that GDP growth has occurred as a result of the economic activity resulting from the logging of thousand year old forests, or the activity of building roads and rail to move logs from the 1000 year old forest to the Port that was built for no reason other than parking big ships that will move these logs across the ocean, then can such 7 or 8% growth really be good for any country?

Because GDP growth, at the end of the day, is a simple measure of how much money has been spent in economy. So … to use cigarettes as an example. If a farm is bought to plant tobacco, that transaction is counted as part of the GDP, so it the cost of ploughing the field and planting the tobacco seed, harvesting, drying, transporting, rolling into cigarettes in huge factories, advertising, marketing….. all part of GDP, but also all the medical costs of people dying of lung cancer or buying twisps or patches in an attempt to free themselves from nicotine addiction. Each and every transaction in the value chain is counted in the calculation of the GDP figure. So perhaps the question that you and I need to ask is: “Is it automatically good for us just because it makes up part of the GDP figure?” (Because I suppose, if everyone suddenly stopped smoking cigarettes, those people who used to smoke would spend their money on something else and therefore still show up in the GDP figures.)

I am arguing that we need to develop of ourselves a more sophisticated measure of whether or not something is good for our community than the measure of GDP growth. A measure that reflects on the value that is added by the purchases we make with the money circulating though the economy. A measure that can distinguish the value difference between money spent on a bottle of imported whiskey or the planting of a fruit tree. (Both of similar value but one of lasting contribution to the well-being of the community). A measure that helps us decide whether or not it’s good for our community to build a new supermall outside of town, or a nuclear plant at Thyspunt or a new Chinese motor vehicle assembly plant at Coega. You see, what I am introducing is the question of how do we quantify the “qualitative”. We all know through life experience that some things, some experiences, some places are better than others. We all know this, but find it very difficult to argue or prove. We know that it is better to see our economy directed to spend money of the “better stuff”, but we also know that it is so difficult to adjudicate between two parties that claim that their stuff is better, that we just tend to abandon the whole concept of quality and focus more on what we can, without doubt, quantify, and that ladies and gentlemen, is why we have this obsession with GDP growth! Not because it is useful measure of if we are doing the right stuff or not, but quite simply because it can be quantified in such a way that invites very little dispute. But this is where you and I come in. We have a duty as individuals to be vocal and outspoken about what we as individuals view to be the “better stuff”. What is your favourite building? Your favourite place to view the sunset? Your favourite street vista? Make it an issue. We don’t need consensus in order for it to be reality.

Perhaps quality cannot be quantified, but that does not mean that it’s not real?

What are your rights in the privacy of your own homes?

(This Piece first appeared in the Weekend Post on 8 April 2017)

I have quite a full and busy life. So I really don’t find time in my daily routine to grow or smoke dagga. But friends of mine, who do find the time, are very excited to hear that the Western Cape High Court has last week seen to it that the chances of armed police bashing down their door and confiscating their favourite pot plant in the middle of the night have now been significantly reduced. To be honest I have, for quite a long time now, considered what herbs people choose to grow in their own gardens or sprinkle on their own muffins to be completely and entirely their own business. The Western Cape High Court judge Dennis Davis has now taken the same view. I’ve read the judgment. Interestingly, Judge Davis does not seem to be very much of a dagga fan, but he clearly is a big fan of personal privacy and of the constitution of the Republic, that guarantees such personal privacy. In a nutshell, Judge Davis has told the legislature that while they are fee to hold a view on what may or may not be good for society, they are not free to write legislation that deprives us to our right to privacy in our own homes on the basis of very flimsy evidence of possible societal harm (that in this case, is alleged will be caused by sprinkling dagga on your muffins)

While dagga lawIMG_3240.JPGs only bother me on an intellectual on philosophical level, there are other state imposed attacks on my privacy and freedom that do bother me in a much more practical sense. As you can imagine, controls and restrictions on my freedom to express myself in the built environment cause me particular frustration. I have a confession to make. In my back yard, I have a little wooden treehouse that I built in the Avocado Pear tree for my daughter’s seventh birthday. I have broken the law in building that structure. I have read the “National Building Regulations Act” again and again. I have read and re-read to regulations promulgated in terms of the Act. I have worked backward and forward through the SANS codes that have been “Deemed to Satisfy” the Act. Believe it or not these documents all confirm that that my daughter’s tree house is in fact a “building” that required me to have an approval letter from the Municipality’s Building Control Officer before I proceeded to build it. I can tell you that have made no attempt to obtain such a letter. In fact, as an act of public protest, I now refuse to ever make any attempt to obtain such a letter and in so doing publicly challenge the state to act. I challenge the long arm of the law to barge into my bedroom in the early hours and throw me into St Alban’s with other criminals. I make this challenge because in spite of the fact that it is a very pretty treehouse, made from very nice recycled timber, the Act mandates the state to affect my “imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months”.

And it not just tree houses. The state restricts me form selling a coke from my living room as it contravenes the conditions of my property’s zoning. I have changed the colour of a balustrade of a property I own in Central. By doing this I broke the law because I require a permit to do this where the property is older than sixty years. If I build a staircase too steep to a study in my loft space, or if I build a ceiling to low in a room I allocate to my (very) short nephew, or if I keep six laying hens instead of the five that the bylaws permit, I get in to trouble with the law!

If I had time I would try to make an issue in the High Court about my treehouse. I think though I will not rush into a court action just yet (unless of course the Police to bash down my door tonight) I will rather invest the little time I have to start a discussion with you about privacy and about what level of meddling we should permit in what we do with our own time in the privacy of our own homes. And another thing! Just because judge Davis ruled against Dagga laws in this matter, does not mean you and I should label him a “Dope Head”. In the same way, just because I am miffed about having to consider jail time for building a treehouse, does not mean you should label me an “Anarchist” (not that I think that is a particularly bad label). My appeal is that we refrain from jumping to labels in an attempt to discredit, but rather that we mature to the point where we discuss, agree and find the way forward together. What do you think?

Is your life like an inbox?

For the last two weeks I have been “unsubscribing”.  Every time I get a mail in my inbox that I don’t want to be there, I take the time to unsubscribe. The good news is that my mail box is getting clearer and clearer and more full of mail and messages that are important to me. I mean; really!? Who puts me on these lists? Conferences in Dubai and Singapore, Solutions for document management, special deals on earth moving equipment and once in a lifetime offers to travel to Bali or Budapest. I did not ask to be on these lists, or at very least I may have been interested three years ago, but have not taken the time to click on the button at the bottom of the offending email that says “unsubscribe”. What happens is that eventually the flood of junk mail becomes so big that I become exhausted. I give up trying and just resign myself to an inbox that is not of my making, of no interest to me and from which I can expect no joy or fulfillment. Bear in mind that I am not here speaking of “junk mail”. You know the kind of mail about erectile dysfunction and instant cash loans. That king of email does not even allow us to opt out. We have to me more violent with that by employing IT guys at our internet service provider to develop special filters to protect us.  No, I am talking about that stuff in our inbox that comes from legitimate operations, offering legitimate services, that at some time in our lives may even be interesting to us, but that frustrates us because it is not what we want for ourselves right now. For this the solution is simple ….”UNSUBSCRIBE”.

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I am beginning to see though, that what is true for my inbox is true for my life. I have “subscribed” to many things that at this point in time frustrate me, or bore me or are just not what I am into any more. It’s easy to unsubscribe from some of these. “Sorry, I just don’t watch the news any more” or “Sorry, I just don’t eat carbs anymore” or “sorry I don’t wear long hair any more” or “sorry, I don’t schedule business meetings over the weekend” or “sorry, I just don’t check voicemail”. These actions and others like them have all been quite easy for me to take and have all had a refreshing impact on my life. I am glad I picked the small “unsubscribes” first. They are easy to do and they show instant results, but I think the real benefit is that they give me the courage to begin to tackle the bigger “unsubscribes”, the more complicated ones, the ones that will be resisted by people that may have become comfortable with the benefits that flow to them from me being a subscriber. And this is I suppose as far as we are able to stretch the “life is like your inbox” metaphor.

 

There are things in life that each of us are responsible for, that we can’t just opt out of because we have lost interest or we have “moved on”. But what are those things? What are we really responsible for and what is it can we unsubscribe from even if it causes some disappointment? This is a million dollar question. A question I would guess many of you reading this are wrestling with in your own lives right now. Maybe the point to remember here is that everything is negotiable. Even your “responsibilities” can be negotiated. Let’s say for example you are responsible to pay your bond every month. You can’t just click “unsubscribe“ to make the bond payment go away, No! Of course not. But you can negotiate. You can say, “How about if I sell the property, pay the bank what I owe them, then I won’t be responsible for the bond every month.”

  • Of course the banks not happy because they would prefer to profit from your monthly bond payment.
  • Maybe your kids are unhappy because they quite liked the swing in the backyard of the bonded house.
  • Maybe your friends are unhappy because now they have to update your details in their contact list.

The idea is to realise that I am responsible for the commitments I have made and do go to each of those you have committed to and make good through renegotiation. Don’t just say “Fuck you all! I don’t like paying the bond every month so I won’t, and you can just do your damdest!” No that’s a recipe for years of unnecessary and completely avoidable misery.

But don’t give up on your attempt to “unsubscribe” .Go back to each of those you have made commitments to and say:

  • “Dear bank, I know I said I would pay this loan off for the next 20 years, but I’ve changed my mind. I’ve sold the house. Here’s your cash (and the penalties you made me agree to)”
  • “Dear Kids, I know you liked the backyard swing in the old place, but how about now that we have this smaller place that daddy prefers, we walk to the park and swing there every evening, and then with the money I save on the bond we go swing at Disneyland at Christmas time every year”
  • “Dear Friends, I know you like the idea of knowing where I stayed. But you know what I’ve moved to a new place. Get over it! And by the way I’m having a house warming braai at my new place on Saturday – see you there!”

 

You see! That wasn’t so bad. You’ve negotiated out of your responsibility, you have unsubscribed in a way that does not leave unhappy people in your wake and you dealing with consequences for many years to come.

 

Because I see in my own life that I become stuck with that which I believe is can’t be “unsubscribed from”. Someone I’ve employed, a project that’s irritating me, a city or a place I find myself living in. The feeling that I can’t do anything about it is debilitating. Its depressing. It robs me of the energy I need to get out of bed in the morning.  So my promise to you is this. No more capitulating, No more giving up. No more putting up with it in the hope that it will pass. If in my heart I know that my circumstance is not aligned with my higher purpose, I will feel it. And when I feel it I will find the courage to act. And when I find the courage to act, I will act in such a way as confront and negotiate the responsibilities I have toward the people around me and ecosystem of which we are an integral part.

 

Mark my words!

More return in rural infrastructure

(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 23 January 2017)

I try at the beginning of each year, during my break from office life, to pull off at least one lasting “capital infrastructure” project at home or at the farm. I do this because I’ve seen that a change of work routine is much more refreshing to me than “vegging out” on the couch. For the last few years I have been focusing on farm projects rather than home projects. A few hundred metres of fence, replacing the rusted roof on the old cottage or installing solar panels for off grid electricity. I insist to be “hands on” with these projects, so I spend the time physically working, lifting, hauling and digging.

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Cattle can give us milk and meat from grass, but they need water and fences.

It’s a kind of a therapy I suppose. This year I spent time running the heavy duty electrical cables that bring the municipal electrical supply from the roadside to the cottage. You make ask, “What do you need and electrical supply for when your previous project was installing your solar panels for off grid power?” A good question; and one with a very unfortunate answer. The panels were stolen (twice in fact) causing me painful financial loss and even more painful self-flagellation for allowing this to happen. But I don’t want to talk about going off grid today; I don’t want to talk about crime today. I rather want to talk about what goes through my head as I haul cable, as I dig trenches or as I cool down under the tree by the dam.

I’ve spent a good part of my professional life working on capital projects that provide infrastructure to those of use trapped in poverty. I am really grateful that we live in a country where we are able to attempt to provide infrastructure that addresses basic needs.  I am grateful that our system is able to build RDP houses, roads, electrical supply and sanitation. I am glad that the less tangible “infrastructure” of birth registration, identity documents and title deeds is in place and working reasonably well.  My concern is that while this infrastructure makes the urban poor a little more comfortable (and maybe relieves the middle class of a little guilt) it does not make the poor any less poor. The infrastructure does not offer any real improvement of the prospects of the urban poor of entering the economy which doggedly continues to exclude them.

I know it’s completely different, but what I see in my holiday farm infrastructure projects, is that every little investment of time and cash dramatically increases my potential to support revenue generating projects. When I install fences, I am able to keep cattle that will give me beef and milk. When I install electricity, I can brood my day-old chicks that will become free-range drumsticks and chicken fillets. When I install pipes to pump water from the spring I can irrigate my Pecan Nut trees in the dry months and generate revenue from a nut harvest. When I spend time and cash on replacing the windows on doors on the derelict farmstall, I can generate revenue by selling, pecan pie with fresh cream, free-range eggs and chicken soup. What I have come to see is that investment in basic rural infrastructure has the ability to give a much greater “bang for the buck”, especially if we measure that “bang” in terms of its ability to continue to provide regular revenue. This is especially true if we consider that the infrastructure that is currently being provided for the urban poor has all kinds of revenue generating potential, if only it were installed in a rural location where it could unlock the ability to enter the agricultural economy, if even on a micro scale. I’m talking about giving individual title to well located, small acreages with basic water supply, basic fencing and electricity. Just the essentials to allow people that would otherwise be stuck in poverty to at very least provide some of their own food, but with very little extra effort be able to produce a modest surplus. It’s not rocket science, especially when we live in a confusing reality where millions of us are unemployed yet millions of us eat chicken everyday imported from the Brazil and the USA. Perhaps it’s time that we get out of the mind-set where we believe that the only route out of poverty is 12 years of formal schooling and a 4 year degree. The truth is that many “unemployable” urban dwellers actually possess motivation and skillset that can be geared into real income and wellbeing in a reimagined agricultural economy on the periphery of our towns and cities. Let’s give thought to providing infrastructure in locations where our people can be productive in the agricultural economy. We must give this thought because our metro and every other municipality in our province includes much more rural land than urban land. We must give this more thought because our democratic process  is skewed  in such a way as to allow urban dwellers to direct public spending, through the IDP process, to the urban areas where they currently live and effectively away from any future possible improved rural existence perhaps just 10 or 20 km  away. We must give this thought because it is foolish delusion to think the city is separate from its rural hinterland, or that “they” are not separate from” us”, or that you are separate from me.

 

 

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Don’t let culture be reason to isolate ourselves from others

This piece first appeared in The Herald on 12 January 2017

December holidays in South Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, are a glorious celebration of idleness; an annual reminder to all of us that there is so much more to this life than working for a boss.

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The young man returning from the bush dresses in a certain way (Photo: Tamarisk Glogauer)

But, other than idleness, December in our region is also dominated by significant “cultural” and “traditional” obsessions. In my family, we follow both Xhosa and European traditions, so December means Mgidi season and Christmas season. This year was particularly intense as my second son (recently matriculated) went to the bush to participate in the thousand year old Xhosa tradition of circumcising boys and initiating them into manhood. So, this December was not just about attending the various celebrations as a guest, but rather hosting a huge feast (called an Mgidi) in my back yard in Walmer.

Of course, once everything was done with the Mgidi, the marquee taken down, the last of the ox eaten and the last Mqomboti drunk, I quickly got into Father Christmas mode and rushed off to the mall to get the gifts, the turkey, the gammon, the crackers and all the other paraphernalia that is absolutely required to make Christmas a success. It all worked out well and so many of our friends are patting us on the back for being “multi-cultural” and for “promoting diversity”.

But I have been thinking about this a little over the holidays, as the fog of burnout begins slowly to loosen its grip on my brain. I really don’t want to make myself unpopular, but I am just no longer sure that all of this talk of “embrace your culture” and “be proud of your roots” is going to be good for us in trying to build a society and a culture that attempts to pull together in the same direction. The thing is that your family traditions (be they Diwali, Imisibenzi or Christmas) are very, very useful tools at making you feel part of “the group”. There are so many little rules in these cultural events that we all “just know”. Those of us that celebrate Christmas know that Father Christmas comes down the chimney, not through the front door; we know that gifts must be wrapped and shiny paper and must be given on 25 December. We know that the Christmas dinner must include a turkey and that it is absolutely essential that you wear one of those flimsy paper hats while you eat.

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Clad in brand new white blanket the young man turns his back on his childhood and heads home – Phot0: Andrew Hewitt-Coleman

Those of us that attend Mgidis “just know” that the young man will come home from the bush in the morning to the loud bashing and clanging of pots. We know that he must be adorned in a clean white blanket and must carry a blackened stick. We know that he will be smeared in red clay by his sister and given a new name. Knowing all these rules and sub-rules makes us feel comfortable, makes us feel part of something larger than us.

But the truth is that cultural events like Christmas, Bar Mitzvahs or Mgidis originated at a time when everyone around us in any direction for a thousand kilometres spoke the same language and held the same beliefs. Cultural events were therefore a comforting and regular reminder that we are all on the same page. The reality of course is that we don’t live in that world any more. So, my fear is that the very same cultural events that evolved all over the world to make communities stronger are now having the opposite effect in an age of multiple overlapping Diasporas. What we call “culture” has the very real effect of making someone who does not know all the little rules feel like an outsider and in a very real way, unwelcome.

I may have lived next door to Greek neighbours for ten years but would still feel like I don’t belong at a birthday party where there is bearded guy dancing in circles while his mates chuck the crockery on the floor.

Otherwise intelligent friends of mine speak about South Africa being a cultural “melting pot”, where the (completely unscientific) belief is that if each family just keeps on following the same routines that our great-great grandparents did, that we will somehow magically develop a new culture and tradition that is uniquely South African. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. What I see from where I am standing is arrogant conservative backlash that says “this is how we have always done things and to hell with all of you!” I know that Trump supporters and Brexit people may tell you otherwise, but this mind-set can only be a recipe for extinction.

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The temporary structure the boy stayed in is burned to the ground along with all boyhood possessions – Photo – Andrew Hewitt-Coleman

So what can we do?  My suggestion is that we begin to discuss the challenge of culture, but not from the perspective of trying to conserve some dying detail, but rather from the perspective of “What aspect of my family’s tradition can I soften, explain or modify to make accessible to everyone? What can I do make it easier for those around me to understand and participate in?”

And another thing: Get over yourself!  It’s just not that serious! These traditions are just a game that we play. Because deep down, in our quiet time, each of us know that we are so much more than the language we speak or the village we come from.

Let’s lighten it up a little!

#Feesmustfall, brass bells and the pain of the taxpayer

 (This piece first appeared in The Herald on 19 October 2016)
A few days back, I made a short presentation on some of my recent work to a, polite audience at the newly renovated Tramways building. To be honest though, the small group of architects, historians and academics had mainly come out to hear from my colleague, Professor Albrecht Herholdt, with whom I shared the stage that evening. You see,  Professor Herholdt, is one of our region’s finest architects and he spoke that evening on the fantastic work that he and his team is doing with the MBDA to bring the historic 1820 Settler Campanile  back to life as a working tourist curiosity. The work being done there is really impressive. The bells are going to chime once again, the crumbling brickwork will be repaired and the old clock will once again be a reliable resource for those passers-by who do not wear a watch.

I was pondering this lovely presentation as I dreamily cast my eyes from the third floor window of my Clyde Street office the next morning. From my desk, I have an unsurpassed view of Algoa Bay. On a clear day I can see all the way to the Port of Nqura.  But it was not a clear day. It was not even a quiet day. In fact, I was startled out of my dreaminess by the sound of chanting and toyi-toying coming past my building. A noisy protest was making its way from Cape Road to Town. Hundreds of angry students in #Feesmustfall regalia, escorted by a massive police contingent, including a huge big water cannon truck, which had just been decorated in dripping turquoise by a protestor’s “paint bomb”. The students passed without incident. The chatter in the office was all about “Well the ANC promised free education…” and “Why don’t they just stop burning down the Libraries?”.
But I’ve been thinking about these protests a little. And the more I think of it, the more I see that these students are raising an important question that we have not yet fully debated as a country. If I am able for a moment to look past the arson, the intimidation and the thuggery, I can just see the beginnings of a meaningful inquiry into what we as a community feel is reasonable or unreasonable to expect our tax payers to pay for. I ponder this question now as I sit writing this piece in the Wimpy Bar in Port Alfred. I have stopped to rest a little from my drive back from a project meeting, coordinating the spending of hundreds of millions of tax payers Rands in new buildings to accommodate various government departments’ administration and management needs.  The driving was tough as I navigated the “stop and gos” caused by the hundreds of millions of Rands invested in widening and generally improving the coastal road from East London the Port Elizabeth.
The thing is, I have been in business for the last twenty years or so. I have paid a lot of tax in that time. I have paid Vat, PAYE, Transfer Duty, Import Duty, Capital Gains Tax, Municipal Rates, RSC levies and those taxes you pay on alcohol and fuel that I can remember the names of. Though I feel good about the fact that, through my taxes, I have been able to make some contribution to the effort to improve our country, I am also deeply conscious that every time I fork out tax money, I am not doing so voluntarily. You and I are compelled to pay tax by force and by the full might of the state. If I don’t pay, I will be jailed. If resist my captors, I will be shot. It is not overly dramatic for me to say therefor, that you and I pay our taxes at the threat of death.  It’s just a fact.

Today though, I am not making an argument for or against taxation. I am rather arguing that this money, which has been extorted from us, must be treated with a far greater measure of respect. If we are to accept taxation as a necessary evil, there must be some understanding that tax money can only be used to deliver something that the private sector would not otherwise be able to deliver.  So, I would like us all to begin to ask of each other: Why is it not a good idea to spend tax payers money to support struggling students? Why is it a good idea to spend taxpayers’ money to make it easier for lorries to drive from PE to East London, or for container ships to dock at Nqura or for for SAA so compete with Kalula.com? Can the huge industries and corporations that run these transport and logistics operations not pay for this? Why is it a good idea to spend tax money on massive brass bells in the 1820 Settlers Campanile? Can the lovers of bell chime music not pay for this? I am asking the question not because I claim to know the answer, but because I believe we have allowed ourselves to be side tracked by fear mongers and haters. We have been side-tracked to such an extent that we have not been able to hear the valid questions the students are clumsily asking…”What projects, should we as a community, invest taxpayers money in?”  “What investments will ensure the best of possible futures for our people?” “What investments can wait a little longer until we have helped each other emerge from the scourge of poverty and desperation?”