Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas is the time for taking

As a South African, one is used to industrial action, so it was strange to see the UK up in arms over a public- sector strike recently.

Some two-million public-sector workers, including teachers, healthcare professionals, university lecturers (including myself) and other civil servants, refused to work as government sought to cut pensions and force workers to work longer. The unions described the strike as the biggest in a generation. Government felt it was futile.

I do not wish to rehash the views of the unions and government, but rather highlight the split in opinion on the strike between public-sector and so-called ordinary private-sector workers such as retailers and workers in companies.

The argument from the private sector was simple: public-sector workers still have pensions, so why are they complaining about cuts and having to work slightly longer to get their, relatively speaking, generous payouts. Private-sector workers generally have no pensions, or their pensions were cut years ago. Currently, the mean average public-sector pension is about £7 000 a year, whereas in the private sector it is £5 000.

But what is mystifying about these arguments is that they somehow imply that what has happened to private-sector workers is right, or that if one sector of society is going to be screwed by big business and the pension companies, then everyone should. Two wrongs do not make a right.

The rich, of course, remain immune to all this. The annual pension of 346 directors from 102 of the UK’s top companies will be £200 000, compared with the average workplace pension of £8 100, a study found recently.

The current pension fight is also the thin edge of the wedge. A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that, by 2080, the average person will have to work to 74 to get a pension. Further, figures suggest that the public sector may lose 490 000 jobs in the next few years. This will play itself out in the lives of ordinary people.

As the public sector shrinks, for example, waiting times in hospitals and teacher-to-pupil ratios will increase. Despite attempts to portray the public and private sectors as separate, they are also integrally linked. An enormous number of people in the private sector is dependent on the public sector for contracts.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average family in the UK will lose £2 500 in annual household income, compared with three years ago.

So this is not about the public sector versus the private sector – this is about government choosing to support the very rich at the expense of ordinary people.

Bankers, who caused this crisis, continue to steal from taxpayers unashamedly. Directors’ pay rose by 40% last year. A total of £4.2-billion will be paid out in bonuses to bankers this year in the UK.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, now 84%-owned by taxpayers, is still intending next year to pay its top bankers £500-million in bonuses. Last year, the bank made a loss of £1.1-billion and paid out £950-million in bonuses. The top 100 bankers received over £1-million each.

Taxpayers are paying for these bonuses. So when nearly five-million people are told their pensions are going to be cut, including teachers, social workers, soldiers, firefighters and the police, it makes perfect sense they are angry, especially when they have been paying their contributions to pension schemes in good faith.

Now is the time to work together. But instead of the working public uniting to say enough is enough, different sectors of society are hurling abuse at each other. This is akin to having an argument on the deck of the Titanic about who is going to be affected the most when the iceberg hits, while the super-rich row off in the lifeboats.


This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 16 December 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Does size matter?

There is a story about Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple, and it goes something likes this: When the first prototype of the iPod was produced, it was shown to Jobs by one of his engineers. The initial reaction from Jobs was to ask why it was so big. The engineer protested, saying that, for its size, it was incredible and it could hold a 1 000 songs.

At this point, Jobs took the iPod, or so the story goes, walked over to a fish tank in his office and dropped the iPod into it. He then pointed to the bubbles that came out of the submerged device, noting that they were proof that there was still space inside and the iPod could be made smaller.

This story, whether true or not, highlights the link between technology and size, and the general trend towards increasingly smaller gadgets.

The first computer I used in the 1980s had a 10 Mb hard drive and was a giant hunk of metal. The hard drive alone weighed as much as a brick and was close to the size of a brick. At the time, 10 Mb was con- sidered to be an enormous amount of storage space; today, the average app is bigger than 10 Mb and a flash drive 1 000 times the size would be no bigger than your thumb nail.

The rapid shrinking of devices has prompted some technology analysts to note that we are no longer in the midst of a computer revolution but rather in a time of evolution.

Evolution implies a gradual practical adaptation to the environment. This is largely true when it comes to computers. For example, the more people travel, the more likely they would want a lightweight and small laptop, and manufacturers respond accordingly. However, modern society creates aberrations in a logical technological advance towards the minuscule.

In the 1980s, it was the size of your ghetto blaster that was critical to your street credi- bility. Destroying your spine by dragging around a 4 ft radio on your shoulder with speakers large enough to blow your head off was the epitome of cool. This was replaced by the tiny iPod with mini earbuds.

But, recently, I noticed that the use of discrete earbuds has been replaced by oversized headphones. Sound quality aside, one reason for this is that, as iPods have become smaller, it is harder to show off your shiny new gadget. So highly visible headphones, with the designer labels showing, have become the new fashion accessory.

The use of 4 × 4 vehicles in cities is a further example that bucks the trend toward miniaturisation. No one really needs a car the size of a tank to drive around a city, and a small micro car would make more sense. But that does not stop from us buying large vehicles completely unsuited to the urban environment. Some argue this is about comfort and safety, but we all know a 4 × 4 is also a status symbol.

So size is not only dependent on functionality but is deeply linked to social standing. The question, therefore, is whether we are, in fact, evolving or not? One thesis is that modern life is causing a slowdown in evolution, but other scientists argue we are adapting even more rapidly to different environments, foods and lifestyles.

But I simply do not trust humans to do what is in the best interests of the species. Driving environment-destroying cars is a case in point.

You would think we would have evolved to have a ‘sensible gene’. Such a gene would prevent us from using things that destroy the planet or eating food that slowly kills us, not to mention wearing overpriced impractical sound cups on our ears in busy public spaces. We would do well to remember the words of Wendelin Wiedeking, former CEO of Porsche: “If size did matter, the dinosaurs would still be alive.”


This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 28 October 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Who is fit to lead the moral regeneration of a broken society?

If you are anywhere in the British Isles, it is difficult to think about anything else this week than the riots that flared up across England. The wanton looting and extensive property damage were not only ferocious, but pervasive, stretching across a range of cities, suggesting a deep-seated problem.

Explanations for the riots have varied. During the riots, Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed the riots were pure and simply criminality. However, in a speech after the riots, he backtracked slightly. Although he felt the behaviour of the protestors and the influence of gangs, particularly, were still the main problem, he acknowledged a plethora of other causes for a broken society.

These included problems in the education system and family breakdown, and, as a result, he promised to transform the lives of around 120 000 families and parents. He talked of a “slow-motion moral collapse”. He acknowledged the need to show higher moral standards across society, noting the banking crisis, the abuse of expenses by UK Members of Parliament (MPs) and the phone hacking carried out by journalists as examples of “greed, irresponsibility and entitlement”. In essence, he called for tougher security measures and a social fightback.

That said, he did not feel that race, government cuts or poverty were the main causal factors. In contrast, Labour leader Ed Miliband said inequality was a factor, and he, too, noted that rioters were greedy, immoral and selfish, much like some bankers, MPs and journalists. He felt a commission of inquiry and national conversation were necessary to address the issue.

Despite the eloquent words of both politicians, however, as I read through the speeches, I found myself feeling somewhat queasy. The reason for this was that I struggled to believe the promises implicit in either analysis.

Will the lives of thousands be turned around? Will the gap between the rich and poor narrow? Will bankers, who were bailed out, ever pay taxpayers back or have their bonuses curtailed? Would another commission uncover the truth? I doubt it.

Maybe I am cynical and my jaded view of the world is not fair on politicians who, in many cases, are doing their best. But if I feel like this as I read the speeches on my shiny Macbook, in my middle-class suburban home, how estranged must people without my level of social security feel?

I am not sure if politicians in the UK, and South Africa for that matter, realise how little faith the vast majority of the public have in them. Everyday, it seems to me, ordinary folk feel they have less and less chance of influencing the direction of the State.

In Britain, when a million people marched against the Iraq War, they were ignored. When the public were morally outraged at MPs fiddling their expense claims, a few MPs were prosecuted, but most were given the chance to pay the money back (maybe the looters could also get off if they returned their goods?).

In South Africa, when people voice their opinion about government corruption, they are deemed racists or sell-outs. Or, when black South Africans point to the excesses of white businesses living large on apartheid gains, they are dismissed as misguided insurrectionists.

Feeling estranged from the State, especially a democratic State, does not fully explain or justify violent riots and unrest, but my point is that I fear that those in power have not grasped the disconnect between themselves and the populace. This makes any talk of political leaders leading the charge in repairing the social and moral fabric of society sound farcical.

Moral and community reconstruction is not something you can do to others. Fixing a moral collapse starts, in the throwaway words of popstar Michael Jackson, with the man in the mirror. This means questioning your own moral compass, acting against injustice, toning down the rhetoric and throwaway solutions, and taking more time to listen to others respectfully.


This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 August 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, October 28, 2011

OFMDFM Response to CSI Strategy

OFMDFM have now published all the Consultation Responses the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Consultation process on their website, which includes 288 submissions. The consultation also included 11 public meetings and 15 sector specific meetings.

They have also produced an independent Consultation Analysis Report on the responses received.

They have published a response too, OFMDFM Response to the Consultation on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Living the loopy Gautrain dream

South Africa has many things to be proud of, including a peaceful political transition, many famous scientists and musicians, breathtaking natural wonders and, most recently, the hosting of the 2010 World Cup.
However, if you speak to many South Africans, at least those living in and around Johannesburg, it seems that the Gautrain surpasses all these monumental achievements.
The 80 km mass transit railway system that can quickly ferry passengers between the airport and Sandton City, and soon a range of other destinations, seems to be loved as much as biltong and Castle Lager.
The Gautrain must be the only train in the world that has a Facebook page with some 10 000 people “liking it” and a Twitter page with some 7 000 followers. The Heathrow Express going between Heathrow Airport and London, which has carried over 60- million people since its launch in June 1998, does not even have a Facebook page.
Against this backdrop, my concerns about people who feel they can be ‘friends’ with a train on Facebook aside, I felt compelled on my last visit to South Africa to take a trip on the famed Gautrain.
There is no doubt the train is comfy, fast and what my grandmother would have called swanky. The stranger part of my journey, however, concerned my attempts to leave the train when I finally got to my stop at Rhodesfield after visiting Sandton.
As I attempted to leave the train, I was told I could not as the compartment I had entered was for people travelling to the airport only. Oddly, I, along with six others, had to watch as other people metres away left the train and we were held prisoner in our luxury compartment.
A bolshie security guard inhospitably informed me that an announcement had been made about the fact that the compartment I was in was for airport-bound passengers only. Of course, I protested, saying that, although I looked stupid, if such an announcement had been made I would have moved compartments. I then resigned myself to the fact that I was trapped. I said I would proceed to the airport (next stop in two minutes) and there swap compartments and travel back to Rhodesfield and get off.
To my amazement, I was told, in no uncertain terms, and now surrounded by four security guards, that I could not do that. The only option was to go to the airport and then travel back to Sandton (passing Rhodesfield) and change compartments there, and then return once again to my stop. At this point, I gave up, convinced I was in the Twilight Zone.
So I – and the other six detainees – settled down for another trip to Sandton, a quick carriage change (a walk of 3 m) and a second return journey. Finally, after travelling back to Sandton and then again to Rhodesfield, I was let off the train.
Needless to say, my Gautrain experience left me with mixed emotions. On one level, I was pleased to finally be off the train as I had feared a slow death in my plush seat, as I travelled endlessly up and down between the airport and Sandton. I figured I would have starved to death in the end as the fines for eating on the train were set at R700 and I only had R200 on me and a half-eaten peanut bar.
On another level, my enthusiasm for the project did not wane. It is great to come from a country like South Africa, which sometimes tries the impossible, quirks and all. The Gautrain is a symbol of what Africa should strive for, notwithstanding the need for a little flexibility at times and recognition that, given the challenges South Africa faces, progress is not always going to be as easy as moving from point A to point B.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 July 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Place or national identity and affinity for strangers

I realised recently how fickle I am. This happened while watching the 2011 US Masters golf tournament on TV.
Going into the last day, 21-year-old Northern Ireland prodigy Rory McIlroy was leading and it looked like it was going to be a dream win for the young man. But he then fell apart, slipping despondently down the leaderboard. I felt my heart sink.
However, suddenly, South African national Charl Schwartzel emerged from the pack and snatched the tournament and the coveted Green Jacket. My mood lifted instantly, and I found myself filled with national pride.
My rapid shift in mood and allegiance are, on the surface, easy to explain. After all, I am a South African living in Northern Ireland, and it makes sense that I feel some sort of affinity for both players.
I know Hollywood, McIlroy’s home town. I have friends who are members of the golf club where he grew up playing. In fact, some of them even placed bets on him winning the British Open years ago when they saw him playing as a boy. More tangentially, I was also once on an aeroplane with the wild-haired young man (and 250 others).
As for Schwartzel, I had heard of some of his previous golfing exploits, but knew little else. He grew up in Johannesburg, as I did, along with over six-million other people. I have never shared any form of transportation with him.
So my real connection to these two individuals is spurious. My support for them is seemingly linked to some strange sense of national or geographic identity.
So, what is it about a sense of place or national identity that makes so many of us feel affinity for strangers?
Clearly, there is something comforting in feeling part of a bigger whole, especially when the whole is a nation. According to academic Anthony D Smith, there are many ways to define nationalism, including ‘the process of forming a nation’, or ‘a movement on behalf of a nation’, but nationalism can also be a sentiment or consciousness of belonging to a nation. Smith notes such a sentiment can exist without it being linked to an ideology or political belief.
Sport is one of the arenas where such a sentiment finds fertile ground. Although I see myself as a multicultural global citizen, seemingly, I am also an easy victim to some forms of national schmaltziness, especially when it comes to my country of birth, South Africa.
But does national sentiment really explain my support for McIlroy?
I now have a residential and familial connection with Northern Ireland, which probably played some part in my support for him. However, I think my support for him is probably linked more to the underdog syndrome. Most of us love the story of the unexpected winner, the small-town person made good, and when David defeats Goliath. The underdog appeals to our sense of righteousness. When the under- dog wins, we are left with a sense of possibility.
But how deep is such support?
We should never forget that supporting the underdog generally only feels good when they win. Most people like to back winners, not routine losers. During the Masters, when McIlroy started losing, the broadcasters quickly lost interest.
But being filled with national pride and defining yourself as part of a group have other dark sides. The more we define ourselves as part of a group, the more we inevitably delineate ourselves from those not part of our group.
In this context, I am embarrassed to admit there was an even darker side to my picking sides in the Masters. Actually, I now realise, with hindsight, that it was not that I really wanted the South African or the young gun from Northern Ireland to win, but what really delighted me was that, actually, an Australian came second.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 6 May 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Proper political analysis of Libyan conflict is needed

I do not wish to come across as stupid, but I have no idea what is going on in Libya. Granted, my historical knowledge about the country is patchy, but I have been making an effort to follow the recent political uprisings in the media. Unfortunately, however, my labours have left me none the wiser.

I guess it goes without saying that Libya is democratically deficient in the extreme, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is an old-school dictator who has lost touch with swathes of his people. However, I am also befuddled as to who constitute the so-called opposition, their ideological positions and who is fighting who.

Obviously, given the media restrictions in Libya, it is difficult to get sound information, but I also think understanding the Libyan situation is being hampered by the instant-media revolution.

The Internet is currently flooded with video clips about the Libyan conflict filmed by ordinary citizens. Many of these clips are revealing and, at times, harrowing. Conflict is shown in a raw, unedited form, and the brutality is indisputably visible. Renowned broadcasters like the BBC are also increasingly relying on such clips to disseminate information.

But, generally, these clips lack analysis. It is easy to be drawn in by the violence they display and the human stories behind them. However, most of the videos do not explain the complexities of the current Libyan conflict. It is also difficult to get a sense of the persons behind the camera, their motivations and the veracity of their claims.

On the odd occasion when an analytical report is aired, these too are peppered by an avalanche of comments and views. This is typified by a scrolling text bar at the bottom of TV news reports generally made up of SMS comments or tweets. I remain to be convinced that it matters that John from Essex thinks “Gaddafi is a crackpot that dresses funny”.

That said, I am not a media purest. I do not think that professionally trained journalists should hog the airwaves, the Internet or newspapers. Intuitively, concepts such as ‘citizen journalism’ appeal to me. The idea that ordinary citizens can report on events that affect their lives and get their stories out into the world is important. This is inherently democratic, especially in a world where big media companies often control the media and what we hear.

But is publishing SMS comments really giving people a genuine voice? Are YouTube clips newsworthy and genuinely informative or just making the mainstream media lazy? Why spend your time as a journalist trying to write a complex article about a conflict situation when you can get a bigger audience by showing a dra- matic YouTube clip and then commenting briefly on it?

In addition, are the consumers of news being taught that news is no longer about analysis but rather drama, visual sensation and sound bites, measured by the number of hits on YouTube?

It is fantastic to live in an age where a video can find its way across the world in minutes. And I want to live in a world where ‘citizen journalists’ can give voice to the voiceless and shape history. But are we really using new media tools to their best potential? Are we not confusing the speed at which a quantity of digital media can be collected and the rapid ease of dissemination of material with quality? Surely, we can all do better than this.

So, please, can someone out there do a proper political analysis of what is happening in Libya? I do not even mind if you throw in an odd video or an SMS from some bloke living in the Karoo – just tell me what is going on in an informed, well-researched and learned way. I will be eternally grateful and will post a ‘thank you’ on my blog, which, of course, you are free to comment on.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 March 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lessons for combating stress

University is meant to be educational and I did learn a few academic things while I studied at university. But there were also other life lessons I learned. One of these popped into my head again recently as I struggled with an unwieldy workload.

The lesson came from a comment made some 20 years ago by a professor of mine. This professor, after bumping into me in a corridor, asked me how I was. I said I was feeling drained and had a holiday planned. The professor replied, to my astonishment: “You do know that holidays are for people who do not know how to manage their time.”

Of course, her statement is dubious, and I am sure the occupational health depart- ment of the university would have disagreed, but it has always stayed with me. I have taken the words to mean that, in between any busy schedule, you should find time for a ‘holiday’. This might mean taking five minutes for a quiet cup of coffee, listening to an audio book in your car, or, perhaps, stepping into a museum for 30 minutes if you happen to pass one while rushing somewhere.

In fact, in my more extreme moments and, perhaps, suggesting that some of the madness of my professor has rubbed off on me, I sometimes try to convince myself that I am always on holiday and work is the thing that continually interrupts it.

Nowadays, with roles reversed and me working at a university, I always make a point of asking students how they are in the vain hope I have some effect on their lives too (although I don’t repeat my professor’s mantra). Students, like most of us when asked this question, generally say they are very busy, despite some of them being masters of factoring in relaxation (aka drinking) time into their schedules.

‘Busy’ seems to have become the buzz- word of our age. But being busy has many different meanings. There is also a lot of cache attached to being busy. Saying you are busy is linked with social power. It says you are needed by others and engaged in important activities.

I generally use the term ‘busy’ more when I am stressed. At these moments, I am often not very focused and I tend to waste a lot of time by writing lists, which just make me more anxious about what I have to do, often immobilising me. According to Jared Sandberg, who took time to research people like me, about “30% of listers spend more time managing their lists than [they do] completing what’s on them”.

It seems that when I am at my ‘most busy’ is when I have lost perspective on what really needs to be done. For me, the proof of this lies in the build-up to a proper holiday (not one of my little in-the-middle-of-day ‘vacations’, as my professor suggested). When I plan to leave the office for a few weeks, every task on my list seems the most important thing in the world. Invariably, not everything gets done. However, one week into the holiday, what seemed really important a week before miraculously seems less significant.

Therefore, I have concluded that managing your time is not merely about organising tasks; it is about getting the tasks into perspective. It is partly a state of mind. But developing a healthy attitude to what is important and what is not seems to require time and space for reflection.

So, perhaps, my professor had a point after all and we all do need continuous ‘stress holidays’. This would benefit both our health and our productivity, and work would surely benefit from a regular dose of perspective. My New Year’s resolution is to take more regular breaks – so, right now, I am off to work on a list of actions needed to make this a reality.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, January 2011. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 28 January 2011.