Farewell Matthew Buckland

It came as quite a shock to hear this afternoon that Mathew Buckland had died.

I first met Matthew at the Digital Citizens Indaba (DCI) in Grahamstown in September 2006, where I was speaking on the Web 2.0 panel. Matthew was editor of the Mail & Guardian Online at the time. Mail & Guardian online was then the pick of the local online media, punching way above its weight, and much of this was due to Matthew’s leadership.

I remember him passionate as we explored the possibilities of new media, and friendly and generous with his time.


Matthew Buckland at the DCI in September 2006. Picture by Gregor Rohrig.

Thinking back to when the DCI took place, it was a dynamic time, full of possibility and new creations. Muti had come out in January 2006. Written by Neville Newey, apparently I inspired him to write it and offered some ideas, but in reality I had little to do with it. I think such was the vacuum in those early days that this was why I was invited to DCI! The Rat and Parrot, and many great conversations. My first encounter with the famous Mushy Peas on Toast. Blogging was revolutionary and everything was possible. In the weeks, months and years following the Digital Citizens Indaba, there was a burst of innovation. And Matthew was at the heart of much of it.

Amatomu, which Mathew co-founded, and Afrigator launched within days of each other. Thought Leader launched in 2007. Memeburn a few years later, and he was MC at the launch of Silicon Cape.

The word inspire can be defined as to fill others with animation, a quickening or exalting influence. Reading the outpouring of support since the announcement, it’s clear he touched many people’s lives, and left a legacy far more influential than he probably realised.

Go well Matthew.

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Election arithmetic

It’s almost election time, and with 48 parties standing nationally (and a further 32 standing only at provincial level), there are lot of hopeful party leaders out there.

It’s safe to say the majority of them are going to be very disappointed when the results are announced. Let’s look at some election arithmetic:

First, nationally:

Year Parties contesting Parties that won seats Parties that didn’t win seats
1994 19 7 12
1999 16 13 3
2004 21 12 9
2009 27 13 14
2014 29 13 16
2019 48 (14?) (34?)

Even if the vote is split more than ever before, and, optimistically for the small parties, a record 14 parties are returned to parliament in 2019, that still leaves 34 parties that will fail to win a seat. 34 parties, more than have even contested before, that have spent R200 000 just to register, and who knows how much more to campaign (judging by the activities of some of the parties, that figure will be close to zero) for the promise of making a difference, or at least a cushy job in parliament, and will be sadly heading back to reality the day after.

What exactly did it take to win at least one seat in previous elections? The following table shows the smallest party (all earning one seat, except for the ACDP in 1994), and the number of votes they won to earn this.

Year Votes Smallest Party
1994 88,104 ACDP (2 seats)
1999 27,257 Azapo
2004 39,116 Azapo
2009 35,867 APC
2014 30,676 APC

Election queue 2004
Even if everyone in this queue votes for the same party, it’ll take almost 1000 of these queues for that party to earn a seat

What about provincially? In the Western Cape province:

Year Parties contesting Parties that won seats Parties that didn’t win seats
1994 14 5 9
1999 15 5 10
2004 20 6 14
2009 22 5 17
2014 26 4 22
2019 34 (5) (29?)

Do parties have a better chance of getting elected in the smaller pond of a province?

Here’s the Western Cape equivalent of the earlier table.

Year Votes Smallest Party
1994 25,731 ACDP
1999 38,071 UDM
2004 27,489 UDM
2009 28,995 ACDP
2014 21,696 ACDP

Looking at just the Western Cape, the answer’s a resounding no, parties don’t have an easier time provincially. You can even say it’s harder, as parties have to win a much higher percentage of the available votes to win a seat. Every party that managed to win seats also won seats nationally, leaving no room for the smaller, provincial only parties, while the reverse was very much not true. The majority of parties that won sets nationally failed to win a seat in the Western Cape. The most parties that have ever been represented was 6, and currently there are only four represented. Bad news for the 10 hopeful parties that have registered for the Western Cape only.

Again, even if we see an increase to 5 parties winning representation, a record 29 parties, more than have ever even contested before, will be sorely disappointed.

Notice that the number of votes won by the smallest parties is not much less than nationally. And in 1999, it was a lot more.

New parties have a hard time breaking into parliament without something major happening. A major split from an existing party, or a high-profile personality entering politics. Looking through the years, there are very few exceptions

1994

1994, as the first non-racial election, can’t be compared to a previous election, but of the seven parties winning representation, only one, the African Christian Democratic Party, didn’t have a substantial political presence before.

1999

In 1999, the number of parties elected nationally lept from seven to thirteen. All seven represented parties were returned to parliament, while the six new parties were:

  • The United Democratic Movement, made up of prominent former ANC and NP politicians.
  • Azapo, a prominent liberation movement which had boycotted the 1994 elections.
  • The Minority Front (MF), a party led by prominent politician Amichand Rajbansi, ex-leader the of the National People’s Party, the dominant party in the House of Delegates election (available to South Africans classified Indian/Asian only) during apartheid.
  • The United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP), led by Lucas Mangope, president of the Bophuthatswana bantustan during apartheid, who had also boycotted the first election (putting it mildly).
  • Federal Alliance, led by South African rugby supremo Louis Luyt
  • Afrikaner Eenheidsbeweging (AEB). Probably the lowest profile party to win a seat, leader Cassie Aucamp was still a relatively prominent Afrikaner nationalist and I believe church leader.

2004

In 2004, the number of represented parties was reduced to 12. One new party, the Independent Democrats, was led by the well-known PAC politician Patricia de Lille, and who had increased her national profile with her work in exposing the arms deal.

Two parties were not returned to parliament, both newcomers in 1999.

  • Federal Alliance – the party ran jointly with the Democratic Alliance, and later merged with the Freedom Front Plus
  • AEB

2009

2009 saw an increase to 13 again. The New National Party folded, while two new parties were elected:

  • COPE were formed from a major split in the ANC after the ousting of President Mbeki
  • The African People’s Convention were formed from a split in the PAC, with the deputy president leaving to form his own party

2014

2014 saw the number of return parties remain static, but some churn amongst the makeup. New additions were:

  • National Freedom Party, formed from a split in the Inkatha Freedom Part, and led by the former IFP chairperson.
  • Economic Freedom Fighters, formed after prominent ex-ANC youth league leader and President Jacob Zuma supporter Julius Malema was expelled from the ANC.
  • Agang, led by high-profile Mamphela Ramphele, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, managing director at the World Bank and former partner of murdered activist Steve Biko. Her dalliance with the Democratic Alliance before the election also increased her visibility.

Out went:

  • UCDP – Mangope was expelled in 2012
  • MF – Rajbansi died in 2011
  • Azapo – probably a victim of the EFF’s success.

The point is, it’s extremely difficult to get elected. Once you’re in, with all the resources and free media coverage, it’s a little harder to leave again, but the death or removal of a prominent leader puts the personality parties in particular at risk.

2019

So, what does this mean for 2019? Putting on my soothsayer hat, the following parties are in danger:

  • Agang is at risk after Mamphela Ramphele left shortly after the 2014 elections. Although new leader Andries Tlouamma has been making the most of his media coverage, and perhaps his twerking will be enough to keep the party in parliament.
  • PAC – again experiencing bitter infighting, as they have before every recent election, will this be one election too far for them?
  • AIC – some thought their surprising result in the 2014 election was due to being placed right next to the ANC on the election ballot. With similar colours and a similar logo, perhaps people were confused while voting? But their results have been steady since, and with their new national profile, they may be on track to at least retain a seat.
  • APC – the party seems to be quite active on the ground. but their aim of a million votes (up from thirty thousand in 2014) is pie-in-the-sky stuff. They rather need to look behind them to hold on to their seat, with Azapo running again, the EFF gaining prominence, and other new entrants such as Black First Land First, the Land Party, all playing in the same zone.

So, who are the possible 2019 newcomers to parliament?

  • Good, the party formed by Patricia de Lille on her expulsion from the Democratic Alliance, are very likely to earn a seat, and will be hoping to do as well as the Independent Democrats in 2004 and 2009.
  • The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party have prominent trade union backers, and if they can tap into their organisational capacity, they should win representation.
  • The ATM is backed by the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ, who have a hefty following. If they can tap into this, they also have a good chance of representation.

Beyond that, I struggle to see any of the newcomers gaining a seat. There’s still some time left, and things could change, but most seem to be relying on wishful thinking that the support of a few people close to them, or in their community, will get them over the line.

And most are going to be horribly disappointed.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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Wondering who to vote for in May?

It’s very rare that you come across a political platform that jumps out at you in the way this one did. From the moment I first set eyes on it, I knew this was the one.

Meet the Alliance for Transformation for All.

ATA logo

They have two main policies:

1) Subsidies for taxis (we’re talking minibus taxis here of course, not sedan taxis)
2) Less government regulation for taxis. Taxi drivers should regulate themselves.

What more needs to be said. The surefire way to cure all of South Africa’s ills is to give more money to the taxi industry, and at the same time back off on those annoying regulations, and let them decide what to do with it.

I’m sold, I don’t need to look at what the other 47 parties are up to.

OK, so maybe ATA are not for you. I present another surefire winner…

“Prisoners go to the Badlands where they grow their own food, build their own accommodation. Prisoners are chipped and cannot remove the chip or leave the Badlands without it exploding.”

Wait, which party is this? Perhaps the Death Penalty Party is getting soft and now thinks prisoners should rather just have bombs attached to them?

Well, to my dismay, it’s the Green Party of South Africa. If I had to pick a political home, it would be a Green Party, but a European-style Green Party, such as the German Greens, which were born out of the environmental, peace, new left, and new social movements.

Not one that thinks strapping bombs to prisoners is a good idea.

Did I misinterpret things? No, it’s a direct quote from their website. A combination of Mad Max and Survivor (just don’t get voted out, or kaboom), I can only hope this will be televised. It’ll be a great foreign exchange earner.

Except that “Banks and use of money suspended”.

Hmm, there may be some chaos, and the Badlands will be getting a little full, but don’t worry:

“A state of emergency is declared…” To deal with the collapse of the financial system, starving hordes trying to break into the Badlands where at least some food is being grown?

No. “A state of emergency is declared till we have set South Africa onto a path to reduced population”

Except that the country will immediately be on a path to rapid depopulation, since women will be permitted a maximum of two children, below the replacement rate, because “Women giving birth to second child have tubes tied”. Forcible sterlisation of women, not men. Maybe a kind of reverse Handmaid’s Tale?

GPSA logo

Continuing the weird sexist theme: “Women volunteer to be trained for running local clinics in skin, nutrition, common ailments to adjust behaviours that are destructive to health and pick up medical problems before they become too bad and direct them to professional care.”

In case you’re worried that suspending money overnight will lead to some disruptions in the food supply, and the country may need to rely on food aid from the rest of the world, fear not. I can assure you, no food aid will be arriving, because, “within a month, no fossil fuel powered ships may dock in South African ports”

So there may be a shortage of things like computers arriving too, which won’t be a problem, because we’ll be experiencing a cultural revolution II, with “De-urbanisation for anyone prepared to work with renewing the biomass of the soil, or plant and grow organic food, reforest or care for animals will hopefully motivate many to disperse over the land.”

It’s a little unclear what that means – there no mention of coercion, but what exactly will attract everyone to a life of toil on the fields isn’t specified.

But wait, maybe we need those computers after all, because “Schooling will be over the air so the necessity to be near the city for education of kids will be reduced/ This will mean that families prepared to work on the land or on any of the above, can move out into the country.”

If working on the fields doesn’t appeal, there are other options. You can register as a plumber:

“People with aptitude register to be trained as plumbers and plumbing parts manufacturers. The whole country is to be replumbed for circular systems of use naturally treated in wetlands. This means that the same water will be used over and over again for toilets, paper and solids will be separated locally and composted. No more pit latrines, chemical toilets sewerage in aquifers, rivers or sea and plenty of food for microbes.”

And also no composting toilets and biomass incinerators?

Plumber doesn’t appeal? How about drug manufacturer?

“Because drug abuse shortens life span, people who wish to take drugs and are prepared to watch a film showing what eventually happens to drug takers get a licence for free drugs.”

Good to know that the motivation behind free drugs is not primarily reduction of harm to society, or care for the addicts, but because it’ll speed them on their way off this plane leaving more space on the fields for the rest of us to toil on.

I think I’ll choose the free drugs.

(On the off chance that the party doesn’t sweep to power and their website doesn’t stand the test of time, here’s a screenshot of the page as of 19 April 2019)

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Images from Wikipedia:

The Emerald Isle?

At its peak, following the last ice age, Ireland was covered in forest. The first humans, initially hunter gatherers, arrived around 9000 years ago. About 6000 years ago the forests began to disappear as farming began to take hold. By 1600, forest cover was still substantial, but as population pressure grew, and in particular clearance for sheep grazing, by 1800 less than 1% remained. Even by European standards of destruction, this was an impressive feat.

Sheep farming in Ireland

Today, Ireland has around 10.5% forest cover, still placing it at the bottom in the list of European countries. The average in Europe is about 30% – Finland leads with 73%, and even heavily developed Germany has 32%. Ireland trails even the Netherlands, with a population density of 416 people per square kilometre, compared to 69 for Ireland.

Ireland is nearly unique among developed countries in that its population is far below its peak. In 1841, the current area of the Republic of Ireland had a population of 8.51 million. The Great Famine initiated nearly a century of population decline, as both starvation and emigration took their toll, and by 1926 the population had been reduced to less than 3 million.

The causes of the Great Famine are complicated. The best land was reserved to meat production for primarily British consumers, and when a potato blight struck, destroying around half of the potato crop, exports of potatoes to Britain continued apace as impoverished primarily Catholic Irish could not pay the required prices. Ireland always produced enough food to feed its people, but most of it was exported to Britain, similar to what happened with other famines under British rule, such as in India. Some Irish saw and still see this as a form of genocide.

But back to the forests.

Ireland is now afforesting quite rapidly, and aims to get to 18% cover by 2046. The government has policies in place to support private landowners planting forest, and now almost 45% of Irish forest is privately owned. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this is non-native, mostly Sitka Spruce, planted mainly for its potential use for timber and paper.

The non-native Sitka Spruce

Wandering around Ireland, the Sitka Spruce ‘forests’ feel dead. Almost no birdlife, and an acidic soil that prevents anything else growing under them. The largest patches of natural forest grow in Killarney National Park, which by contrast is lush and alive, supporting a wide range of flora and fauna. However, the entire reserve is a tiny 102 square kilometres.

Wild forests in Killarney National Park

It was Ireland’s first national park, created in 1932, and until 1984, the only national park in the country. There are now 6 in total, protecting just under 1% of the country. Ireland is certainly lagging in this regard,

But it’s intriguing to me too see how much sway meat production has in the country. I have visited three national parks while here. Killarney, which is heavily wooded, as well as the Burren and Connemara. The latter two have almost no tree cover. What’s more, they don’t look like getting any soon. In the Burren, the reserve seems to find it important to preserve the concept of winter grazing, and is concerned about animal farmers moving to less taxing means of production, and no longer grazing the Burren.

The Burren is unique – beautifully stark and rocky, with numerous rare species. The famous quote “There isn’t tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man” purportedly comes from one of Oliver Cromwell’s general during his campaigns in Ireland in the 1600s. And yet once it too was covered in forest.

The Burren

Connemara National Park is similar. Sheep and goats graze right to the top of the highest peak. I can understand that it’s been thousands of years since trees grew in these areas,and so conservation has a different meaning that in an area much more recently touched by humans, but I still find it strange that, with such a demand for afforestation, and government subsidies, there seems to be so little attempt to regrow the ancient wild forests that would once have covered the Emerald Isle.

Sheep grazing just below the highest point in Connemara National Park

Images from Wikimedia Commons (1 2 3 4 5 6)

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Written in the Stars

When meeting someone through online dating for the first time, things can go a number of ways. You can decide to meet them again, or not to meet them again. You can have a fun time together, or not such a fun time together.

I thought it time to expand on the possible outcomes.

I check Google Maps – damn, it’s a little further than I thought, but I should just about make it on time. Last minute review to see I don’t have toilet paper on my shoe or yoghurt on my nose, and hop into the car.

The driveway gate doesn’t open. I’ve had to try once or twice recently – probably the battery – but it usually opens eventually.

Not this time.

After about 100 presses, including walking right up and shoving the remote into the sensor, I’m not getting anywhere. I’m going to be late. I message her explaining I’m stuck in my house, and not yet sure whether I’ll actually make it out, but will keep her posted.

It occurs to me that as first impressions go “I’m stuck in my house” is not a particularly good one, but what can I do.

I go back inside to look for a spare battery. Multiple hidden cupboards and draws see light for the first time in years, but no spare battery makes an appearance. I open the remote and jiggle the battery around, and step outside to try again.

It doesn’t budge. Back inside, mostly walking around aimlessly hoping a battery will manifest on the floor. It doesn’t.

Back outside again for more aimless pressing. No response to my message yet, she should be there by now.

I press again. This time the gate lurches into motion, violins play as the battery opens the gate for the last time in its existence.

I’m now outside the house. I suppose I should close the gate. No go. I disassemble the remote, perform CPR on the battery, whispering sweet nothings to it while visualising lightning storms. Reassemble for a final go. Miraculously, the battery coughs up its last sliver of life, and the gate closes. I’m on my way, sending a quick message about being there in 20 minutes.

Which is also about 20 minutes too late.

At some point I decide I should call to make sure she’s got the message. There’s been no response, and she may not have data. I see my message about being there in 20 minutes has not gone through. In fact I seem to be out of data. I try call, the call gets dropped and I’m told I can dial emergency numbers only.

This shouldn’t theoretically be possible, but it’s almost full moon, every second person seems to be pre-menstrual, and my phone has decided to join the party.

I reboot the phone, hankering for an ancient Nokia where switching it on and off again was almost instantaneous. The phone crawls through its reboot process. Happy days – just the interminable animation from the manufacturer to go.

I could almost have been there already!

The phone is back, and I have voice and data again. I dial. The phone goes straight to voicemail. Great. Has she left her phone behind? Or is she calling a friend to complain about her idiot Tinder date who’s kept her waiting for 20m.

The reboot and animation has overtaxed my phone, and, taking inspiration from the remote, the battery is about to die. I scramble around for the car charger, and remember it sitting in the draw at home where the spare remote battery should have been. I think the Singularity is close and the batteries are communicating with each other, messing with the humans.

There’s enough life to send an old-fashioned SMS. If she’s got her phone, she’ll get the SMS. – no data needed. Finally I’m driving again. I picture her, pre-menstrual, and me arriving 25 minutes late, slightly flustered. This is going to be an entertaining evening.

I drive past the place we’re meeting, adding another minute or two to the delay.

Finally I pull up, race inside. The owners are standing around. They tell me the place is closed, but describe my date and ask if I’m meeting her?

Yes, she’s here! It’s destiny, a classic romantic tale of overcoming obstacles before the happy ending.

Actually no, she’s just left.

Her phone had been stolen, so there was no way for her to get hold of me, and she wouldn’t have got any of my messages.

I decide to go walk on the beach, on the off-chance I may randomly bump into her. Every second person looks like it could be her, but most have screaming kids, affectionate partners, friends (and they’re not talking about being stood up by some idiot on Tinder).

I’m getting a few glances as I stare at everyone, listen in on their conversations. I really should be paying more attention to where I’m walking, and discover that not all owners clean up their dog’s shit.

Enough asynchronicity for one day, time to head home.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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Patreon meltdown

Patreon just made one of those decisions that look good when explained to investors in the boardroom, but are utterly suicidal when rolled out.

Patreon image

They changed their fee structure, so that instead of the finance fees being charged to creators, they are now charged to patrons. The motivation is sound. Previously, the actual amount paid to a creator was not clear. The patron is charged whatever they pledged. Patreon takes 5%. And then whatever finance charges there were would be passed on to the creators. Patreon saved fees by only charging the patron once, for all of their pledges. So a single $1 pledge would see a chunk taken taken off, but if the patron makes, say, 10 $1 pledges, the fees would be relatively lower.

All of this means that creators were never sure what their income would be. Patrons would change other pledges, and this would affect the amount the creators made. All in all, a bit messy.

After the change, finance charges will be added to the patron’s account. So a single pledge of $1 will now have finance fees added on top of it. What really makes the whole idea a disaster is that the full finance charges are added on to EACH $1 pledge. For those making multiple small pledges, it’s a noticeable increase.

I am still following all the threads, but it appears Patreon are doing this, not to gouge extra money for themselves (by keeping the savings on the finance fees when they batch them), but so that creators no longer get ripped off, with patrons pledging money, getting access to various tiers of rewards that many creators offer, and then cancelling their pledge before it goes off.

I can see the motivation. But the result is that far more of my donations would go towards finance charges. I’m happy to support artists. I’m happy to support Patreon as a platform. But if there’s anyone I would not like to be offering needless money to, it’s multinational financial institutions.

The results have obviously come as a surprise to Patreon – huge numbers of pledges being cancelled, especially those, like myself, that make multiple small pledges, and now see more of this being gouged by a middleman.

Many artists are alarmed, reporting on disappearing patrons, anxious as they see incomes they’ve worked hard to build now under threat, disappointed that Patreon would do something like this.

In March 2015, I started a series 30 Artists in 30 Days, experimenting with Patreon. It was fairly new to me then, and I loved the concept, the ability to support artists almost directly, with the actual artist receiving most of the donations.

It’s sad to see Patreon going the other way, and to see artists losing out.

I had consolidated some of the list since March 2015, but after this recent announcement will cancel most, if not all, of my pledges. I like to see my donations being well-used.

But I’d still like to support many of the artists.

I’m probably not the average patron. I support multiple creators for small amounts simply to support them in their art. Many artists have complicated tiers offering all sorts of rewards. I understand why they do that, and I’m sure most people like to feel they are getting something extra for their support. I am just happy to contribute something to reward artists that I appreciate. I listen to their music on SoundCloud, watch videos on Youtube, all for free. In this way I can give a little bit back. I don’t particularly care that I get to listen to their new release a few days earlier, or have an opportunity to appear on their album.

So what are the alternatives? There are many Patreon-like platforms, but one that appeals is Liberapay. They’re a non-profit organization, and the code is entirely open source. They don’t take a cut of the pledges.

That’s right. Nothing. 0%.

So that leaves just the payment processing fees. These look a little higher than Patreon’s, at least for credit cards, but overall the cut is still far lower, and payments are batched like Patreon’s used to be. There’s also the advantage for artists of free withdrawals to a bank account in the Single Euro Payments Area. So overall, a far higher percentage of the donation goes to the artist.

With no commission, how does Liberapay sustain itself? Liberapay relies on donations, and one can support the Liberapay project through the Liberapay platform. I still have concerns about sustainability, as Liberapay currently earns very little, but hopefully it can build itself up to be sustainable.

Liberapay logo

Liberapay is not Patreon. It’s missing many features, has an interface that could be greatly improved, and is also set up as a donations platform, rather than one to provide rewards and tiers. So it may not appeal to all artists. But it’s open-source, meaning that you anyone can contribute to the development of the project.

It’s a distressing time for many artists as they lose substantial numbers of small-scale supporters.

But as I said, I’d still like to support some of the artists. So here’s my commitment. To any artists that I used to support on Patreon, if you come across to Liberapay, I’ll match my old pledge to you there.

Hope to see you on Liberapay!

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Observatory energised

Democracy, ideally, represents rule by the people, but in a world with powerful centralised nation states, antiquated voting systems, and social media quickly spreading misinformation about remote events, in practice, it’s far from that. Just look at the state of most so-called democracies.

Obs Special General Meeting

But democracy in its current incarnation can work reasonably well at the local level. Individuals feel their participation is valued and makes a difference, and are mostly informed about the issues.

I lived in Observatory, a suburb of Cape Town, for much of my adult life, only moving out late last year to be closer to my son’s high school.

Named after the location of the astronomical observatory built there in 1820, Observatory was at the time a distant outpost, remote from the bright lights of Cape Town. As the city grew, Observatory become an urban suburb, close to the city centre. During the apartheid era it remained one of the few ‘grey’ (mixed race) areas to survive the ravages of the Group Areas Act, which ripped up much of the fabric of the city and divided people by race.

The turbulent end of apartheid saw the Heidelberg Massacre, when a number of APLA operatives opened fire in the packed Heidelberg tavern. A few years later, I was sitting in Diva’s in Lower Main Road as a bomb went off just down the road, courtesy of PAGAD (an anti-gangster and drug vigilante group), who presumably targeted Obs thanks to the then-constant cloud of marijuana smoke usually hanging above the suburb. And of course, Observatory has had its fair share of crime and grime.

Like much of Cape Town, the area has been changing, more high-rises have been making their appearance, and all sorts of developments have been proposed, leading to scraps between developers and community groups.

And so we come to the present.

The Observatory Civic Association (a body open to all that reside in Obs, and which has been a thorn in the sides of many developers wanting to rush their plans through) recently held their AGM. Attendance was surprisingly high, and a number of new faces were elected onto the committee. But all was not as it seemed. A large block of new members signed up on the day, voting en masse for a number of candidates, including a new chairman, who turned out to be an architect with interests in a number of developments in the area. It turned out that many of the new members were ineligible, having given false phone numbers, fake addresses, and in one case, listing their residence as a vacant development owned by the new chairman. So, results of the AGM were annulled, and a new AGM called.

Immediately, the management committee member sending the correspondence was sent a threatening legal letter. The usual bullying, lots of dubious legalese, followed by a threat that if she didn’t back down, the costs of any further actions would be for her account.

This kind of intimidation is nothing new to citizens groups across the world. Individuals often don’t have the resources to stand up to the threats, and the intimidatory tactics work. In this case, the person stood down, handing over to an interim chair, who the next day received the same threatening letter.

However, Observatory is not easily intimidated. Old members rushed to renew their memberships, new members rushed to sign up, and word of the attempted takeover spread quickly. A special general meeting, held under the thread of an interdict, saw a record attendance, and the community voted to render the previous election null and void, that the previous OCA management committee continue to hold their posts until a new election is held, and that a new AGM be called within two months.

It’s great to see the Observatory community energised and working together. Hopefully it won’t take another attempted takeover to see this happen again.

Articles and Videos

Image courtesy of Maxwell Roeland and GroundUp

Before the Flood

Today I watched Before the Flood with Dorje. The film is currently freely available on National Geographic’s Youtube channel. Of course I’ve talked to him about climate change, meat eating, pollution etc, but it’s different seeing it presented visually, and it seemed to have much more of an impact on him. Words alone will struggle to convey the scale of fossil fuel-related destruction of the tar sands, tropical forests, coral reefs.

The documentary has attracted some criticism from those who feel it didn’t go far enough (see this review on Treehugger), that Di Caprio was too deferential as he met various political and other leaders, that his criticism should have been stronger.

But I think he got the balance right between laying out how critical the situation is, and optimism that there’s still hope to turn things around. Without that optimism, there will be no personal action.

Outrage and personal attacks are never persuasive. All they do is posture for those already in the in-group, pushing away everyone else.

As Dorje jokingly said, “it’s your [adults] fault everything is messed up”. Sadly it’s no joke, and the consequences fall on his generation.

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Global warming and the sun
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Learning Man and the Talent Exchange

I’ve just come back from Learning Man festival, held on a farm just outside Riviersonderend.

The festival describes itself as a call to co-create a great social experiment in community resilience, focusing on Experimenting with Off Grid Living, Adventures in Freedom, Learning skills for an empowered life and Using Our own Economy.

Learning Man continues until after New Year, and I’m back early, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but mainly because it was too hot. If anything will make me emigrate to New Zealand, it’s not to see hobbits, it’s because (for now at least) it’s usually a lot cooler there. There was a river to swim in, and ample showers, but mostly I spent the time feeling too hot. Since today was 40° in Cape Town, I’m very happy not to have been roasting out there today.

Besides the heat, I need to up my camping game. The tents next to me included such must-haves as:

  • misting spray to keep cool
  • outside lights to guide the way back at night (after my first after-dark return was spent bumbling around in the dark with all sense of direction gone)
  • blow-up mattress (I used the sleeping bag as a mattress)
  • camping chairs
  • food (I had the bright idea of fasting while I was there and taking only a box of chia meal along for emergencies. Not so easy when all around are cooking and inviting you to eat with them)
  • bug repellent (I’ve come back having provided much sustenance for the local insects)

So, I was hot, not particularly comfortable, and missing Dorje who didn’t come with.

The festival is highly child-friendly. Dorje has many advantages over my childhood, but one of the ways he’s worse off is in rarely experiencing the freedom to roam without supervision, and the festival would have been perfect for this.

As the name suggests, one of the main purposes of the festival was learning, and there were numerous interesting talks and demonstrations on offer, such as How to build a compost-heated water system, Fire walking, Money alternatives – crypto-currencies and community exchanges, Sacred economy: The re-emergence of the collaborative commons and peer production as a viable economical model, Conduism and Channeling with the Ancient Shamanic Plant Medicine Iboga. There’s a longer list at Learning Man website, and there were also a number of spontaneous offerings, such as a couple’s discussion on their experiences with polyamory.

The festival was used as an opportunity to boost the Talent Exchange – all offerings at the festival needed to be either gifted, exchanged, or exchanged for Talents. There’s been a burst of new offerings as a result, but the concept was also challenged, as some of the participants objected to being “forced to join a website”, or “expected to sell things in order to earn Talents”. The discussions were animated, some misunderstandings were cleared up, and once again the Talent Exchanged proved a great way to introduce many financial concepts to people.

The festival is still ongoing, but it’s been an interesting experiment in bringing different communities together. Many of the people that attend the Space of Love events, based on the Anastasia books, were there. Those gatherings are usually much more contained and intimate, and there seemed to be differing expectations of the levels of participation, volunteering, and so on. Similarly, it’s likely there’ll be a big influx just for the New Years party,which may change the dynamic some more.

There was a police visit during the festival. I’m not sure if it was for a drugs raid, but they would have been highly disappointed at the findings (I didn’t even see any alcohol while I was there), and seeing child-friendly areas of the festival where not even smoking cigarettes was permitted.

It’s been a worthwhile experiment, and hopefully will continue to develop in future years.

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Le Chocolatier and the chocolate scam

When I was involved in Ethical Co-op (from its startup in 2005, until April 2014), there was a remarkable stream of dubious products presenting themselves for potential sale, trying to market themselves as organic in order to charge higher prices. One of my favourite tasks was investigating and rejecting a product due to not meeting our criteria. Many times it was simply ignorance on the part of the supplier, but quite often the information was intentionally misleading. Sometimes there would be a genuine attempt to correct things, in other cases the guilty would quietly skulk away.

My son and I have great fun looking at product labels. Recently we saw a mango juice that, on the front, boldly proclaimed that “mangos are a good source of vitamin C”. Looking at the ingredients on the back, the juice contained 0% vitamin C. I don’t know the updated legislation well enough to know whether this is illegal, but it’s clearly unethical, and meant to mislead people into thinking the artificial “juice” in the bottle is a good source of vitamin C, is “healthy”.

Reading between the lines of a misleading label is one thing. Then there’s Le Chocolatier.

This month, someone created a Facebook group, Le Chocolatier South Africa scam. According to the documents on the Facebook page (all well-documented, so go take a look), their 70% bar at the time claimed to be:
* Sugar-free
* Fat-free
* Organic
* Raw

A true wonder bar! Everyone loves chocolate, and just about every health-conscious person out there would be attracted to a chocolate like this. Except that every one of these claims appears to be false.

First, the sugar. According to the two tests listed on the page, the product contained 30.89% sucrose, and 27.9% sucrose. Sucrose, in case you’re not clear, is plain old sugar.

The fat content turned out to be 40% (and on one of Le Chocolatier’s own labels, 39g/100g (39%). There also appears to have been a change of label, where the fat-free claim was removed, and replaced with “banting and paleo”, two other health buzzwords.

The organic certificate holder, Pronatec AG, stated they don’t sell to any South African companies. That left the possibility of them buying from a wholesaler, but Le Chocolatier never responded to the organic certifier.

Pronatec also rubbished Le Chocolatier’s claim to be raw, saying they they don’t sell raw chocolate.

If all of these claims are true, then it’s very unlikely that Le Chocolatier has just made a few mistakes on their labels, and more likely that they’re just another in the long line of fraudsters attempting to make a quick buck.

The people behind the Facebook group initially (and may still be – I haven’t followed the thousands of posts!) opted to remain anonymous, which aroused suspicion. Why remain anonymous if you are sure of your facts? In their statement, they said that it was the “practical reality of dealing with a human being who has a reputation of trying to legally bully those who expose him” and that “just because something is easily defendable in Court does not mean that you still won’t have to spend R100k+ doing that. Whether it is true or not we have been warned by more than one person that this is the kind of thing that Daniel is liable to do.”

And that’s just what Daniel Waldis has been doing. As a result of the exposure, a host of people have publicly and often at their own expense tested the products. Some were ardent supporters of the chocolate until their suspicions were raised. To my knowledge, all of these people have been threatened.

His marketing leaves a little to be desired if, as a supposedly organic chocolate, he’s threatening legal action against a whole bunch of organic retailers.

It might sound trivial, but sugar for many is a poison. There have been diabetics and cancer patients, whose health is at serious risk if they consume sugar, happily buying his products and putting their health at risk (read one account here). Some had even expressed their doubts to him, only to be personally assured of the product’s integrity.

Daniel Waldis seems to have had an interesting past. He is (or was) also, according to a press release, an “acclaimed dermatologist” who owned the company Swiss Dermal Technology, which performed “skin rejuvenation without plastic surgery”.

An anonymous blog comment, in response to a review, asked:

Can you please investigate this “doctor” further? He has a hell of a past.
He has been in the hunting business, he has been in jail in Switzerland several times.
Didn’t pay his rent in Willowbridge for the clinic etc etc etc. The list is endless!

So, a fun story for an investigative reporter to enjoy getting stuck into.

But it’s been interesting to see the positive coming out of the process. There’s a growing commitment to taking personal responsibility, especially in the shark-infested health food waters. And some collective action. Besides the growing likelihood of legal action against Daniel Waldis, there’s the potential formation of something so far dubbed CERA – the Conscious & Ethical Retailers & Consumer Alliance, co-ordinated by Debbie Logan from Organic Emporium (read the details on her blog).

My gratitude to everyone who helped expose this. It’s wonderful to see people caring and taking action.

In the meantime, there are more than enough great chocolates out there, so I’m happy to pass on Le Chocolatier’s, and on any retailer lacking integrity enough to still be stocking them.