The Silence of the Lemming

November 6, 2017

The Creator has been out of action for a while. Godot has promised to come soon. Meanwhile, a little randomised stoff.


January 12, 2016

So what are those inscrutable Orientals really up to, and what are they doing in Africa?

The answer seems to be fairly simple. China wishes to expand its economy over the next five years by about 35%. Most of this expansion will be in manufacturing, since the Chinese government is rightly suspicious of the financialisation which drives the expansion of the Anglo-American economic nexus. Such an expansion also requires a massive investment in infrastructure, to provide the power, transport, educational development and social cohesion required. All this requires an immense amount of raw materials, more than China alone can produce. Hence China must expand its imports of basic raw materials, and also, quite possibly, of partly finished goods which can be obtained relatively cheaply from abroad, assembled or finished in China, and sold on to the world market.

Africa can provide raw materials, and can also provide partly finished goods in some cases because of its very low labour costs and high unemployment, making African governments willing to accept the building of Chinese factories under conditions which countries outside the continent would view as exploitative.

So, what Africa stands to get out of this situation is a reliable market for minerals and agricultural produce and a limited amount of capital investment for beneficiation of minerals and agricultural produce and also investment in (perhaps) low-level manufacturing. Also, in order to get the goodies out of the continent, China is willing to invest in transport infrastructure — roads, railways and ports. This all provides, potentially, a small expansion in employment, and a fairly large expansion in trade which might help African countries overcome their chronic trade deficits.

All this sounds pretty good, of course. It’s a bit embarrassing, the rounds of applause at the summit, the droolingly supportive rhetoric from Mugabe (not that anything he said was wrong — periodically it seems he’s the last sane political leader left in the continent) and so forth. And we should, obviously, be suspicious that the Chinese will either not cough up with the investment or that there will be all sorts of hidden strings attached. Plus there’s no guarantee that the Xi faction in the Chinese Communist Party will be able to stand up to the corporate oligarchs and prevent them from financialising the system and wrecking it — only a few months before those oligarchs nearly brought down the Chinese banking system Xi was talking about making things more oligarch-friendly.

In other words, it’s good, but it’s not going to bring the millennium. Even the full US$60 billion, divided up between several African countries, amounts to well under $100 per capita over three years — not totally insignificant, especially for the highly impoverished states, but not gigantic. But a useful kick-start, potentially, and something which could possibly be leveraged further.

What the Chinese expect to get in return, apart from the raw materials and parts, is a network of contacts with African politicians, most of whom are pretty much up for sale. So it’s entirely possible that the Chinese deal will corrupt African politicians. To which one could say, big, fat, hairy deal, they’re already corrupt and the Chinese are not going to make matters worse. They might even make matters better, because the Chinese have things which they need to do and will not want African corruption to get in the way.

So, this being the case, why should it be that so many people are panicking and complaining and whining about all this?

One reason is, surely, that the Chinese project might, to some extent, benefit the ANC government, which most of those who are complaining about the Chinese dislike. The ANC naturally basks in the reflected glory of the Chinese involvement in Africa, since South Africa is one of the BRICS countries and can plausibly (although untruthfully) claim that it has played a significant role in inviting China to Africa. Indeed, China plays along with this by allowing South Africa to behave as if it is China’s gateway to Africa. (In fairness, South Africa is certainly a more congenial place to do business than Ethiopia, Kenya or Nigeria, the alternatives which China might use; also, although the South African government is deeply pro-American it is not so supinely so as those three countries which are little more than American puppets.)

Another reason is that people are naturally suspicious, which is fair enough, but it’s worth asking why the same people are so much less suspicious when anybody else invests in South Africa, or indeed elsewhere in Africa; foreign investment by Europeans almost always seems to be front-page news as if it were a kind of charity, and the more rare foreign investment by the United States is welcomed as if the Pope had come to town, but substantial Chinese investment is viewed with narrowed eyes and scrunched-up noses. (For the benefit of Middle Kingdomites, this is not an unsuccessful attempt by Caucasians to look Chinese; it signifies distaste.)

In fact, however, the big reason for the complaining is surely that the Chinese are in competition with the Americans, and in this instance as in so many others, are plainly winning the struggle for hearts and minds. The Americans have more military bases, but if the Chinese have more financial and political clout then they will be more likely to succeed in the long run — especially because the Americans seem incapable of using their military power for any productive political purpose. And this upsets the South African elite, who naturally side with the Americans against the Chinese. And, when the white elite sneeze, the black hangers-on under them rush forward bearing hankies, and that’s why so many black pseudo-pundits are delivering various levels of Sinophobia — that is, racism — against alleged Chinese imperialism.

This also obviously explains the hostility to teaching Mandarin in South African schools. The Chinese understandably would like some South Africans to be able to speak their language, and rather than hire only South African Chinese translators — after all, the South African Chinese are often pro-Taiwan — they’ve offered to teach Mandarin to South Africans who aren’t Chinese. Well, we can’t have that, can we? No indeed, if the Democratic Alliance has anything to do with it, which, perhaps fortunately, they don’t.

In the end none of this matters. China will continue becoming a global power whether Africa participates or not, and probably will begin to dominate Africa whether South Africa has any input in the process or not. The only difference is whether we manage to get out from under the yellow bulldozer and perhaps can make some productive use of the levelled playing-field (which, though the bulldozer may level it, will always be tilted in favour of China) or whether we just get squashed. The Americans and their hangers-on in South Africa would prefer us to get squashed. Unfortunately, however, they are not the ones who will be left a gory pulp in a muddy plain.



A Note

November 12, 2015

Just dumping some stuff written in the last few months.

Sir Hugo and the Cheating Gentlemen.

November 12, 2015

Hugo is a name with a rather bad press in English popular culture. Sir Hugo Baskerville set his dogs on a damsel who refused to submit to him. Sir Hugo Drax deceived the Queen (God bless her!) by pretending to be a gentleman while actually cheating at cards. Oh, and he planned to vapourise London with a thermonuclear bomb in a joint Nazi-Communist plot, Nazis and Communists being all part of the same vast conspiracy. (But that wouldn’t have mattered, since London was full of nasty working-class people with bad manners and Labour membership cards, except that the bomb’s ground zero was near Buck House.)

Less familiar is another person deserving a bad press for English popular culture, the staggeringly incompetent writer and tasteless editor Hugo Gernsback, founder of Amazing Stories and coiner of the word scientifiction, which nobody has used since Gernsback died. To honour amazingly bad writing and editorial ineptitude, the Science Fiction Writers of America (which at the time amounted to about a dozen people) established a writing award called the Hugo, showing what their agenda really was. Basically they were giving awards to each other, legitimated by orchestrated write-in campaigns to magazines whose editors they were friends with. So, pretty much like the Nobel Prize for Literature, except with slightly less ruling-class control.

After about fifteen years the people excluded from the Hugo because they didn’t go to the right parties got fed up and set up their own award — the Nebula — which for a while was more prestigious than the Hugo simply because the Hugo had been controlled by the same gang of oldsters for such a long time that it had grown stale and bitter-flavoured, and because the people excluded tended to be excluded because they were smart and original (or had the wrong kind of genitals, or put them in the wrong places). As a free-marketeer would expect, competition led to a massive improvement in quality (this is a joke, alas) until the cyberpunks came along and stuck their stuff on line, or in technogeek magazines like Wired, in the 1980s.

And there the matter more or less rests, although the Hugo managed to reclaim a little of its prestige by being given to William Gibson once. Until last year, when a couple of writers (one named Wright, one going under the psuedonym of Vox Day) who felt they were not being invited to the right parties decided to organise an orchestrated online campaign to promote the kind of science fiction that they liked by awarding it all the Hugos, which these days amount to a truckload of crappy gilded dildoes because science fiction, or perhaps one should more honestly call it psuedo-science-fiction, makes a lot of money these days by providing numbskulls with loud explosions and implausibly computer-generated tits falling out of brass bras. What’s not to like?

The weird thing is that these writers felt, and feel, that the problem with science fiction is that there’s not enough loud explosions, and not enough of those tits. Instead, in between the loud explosions and the whooshing sound of rockets taking off, there’s a lot of blah, blah, blah about social issues and people talking to each other — some of those people are even women, and their breasts are not only not on show, but sometimes they aren’t even mentioned. This is unacceptable. We need to get back to the glorious days when science fiction was real! We need to get back to the writing of Robert A Heinlein!

In part, what this shows us is that these writers have not actually read Robert A Heinlein at all. Heinlein’s writing is extraordinarily eclectic, politically speaking — at least in his best and brightest period. An extraordinary amount of it pokes fun at self-centred nitwits who can’t get laid sitting in basements scratching their spots and bombarding the world with idiotic manifestoes which no sane person takes seriously, proposing that they ought to be in charge of everything. “The Roads Must Roll” is, in part, a satire against fandom (Technocracy, the dumb ideology specifically skewered in it, was big in fandom) and particularly against people thinking that because they know a lot they ought to be in charge. “Waldo” condemns people separating themselves from society — Waldo himself actually is a genius, but he has to learn to come out of his basement (actually his attic, since it’s a satellite) and interact with people. “Magic, Inc.” condemns people who work together to suppress the activities of others, telling themselves that they have a right to do so because they are cleverer.

So, broadly speaking, Heinlein disliked the kind of people who speak in his name today. What they really mean is that Heinlein was (using the term very broadly) a right-winger, but he was an intellectual, critical right-winger rather than a slavish follower of a specific ideology, and because he was surrounded by left-wing intellectuals and lived in a liberal society, he really had no choice but to acknowledge the existence of alternatives to his own viewpoint, and to argue against them. This is what these writers citing Heinlein as their mentor don’t want. So they are using Heinlein in much the same way that modern-day Republicans use Reagan. This is not surprising, because Wright and “Day” appear to hold political opinions consistent with the “Tea Party” wing of the Republicans, although also rather consistent with the Turner Diaries.

In 2014 their efforts to win themselves Hugo awards failed because they could not command enough support. 2015, however, provided a much better opportunity. For one thing, they decided not to try to win simply by write-in voting campaigns, but by trying to exclude those who were not themselves from the nominations, artfully supporting some people who were reactionary or corrupt enough to accept their endorsements. (Few people refused the nominations, showing the essential corruption at the heart of corporate science fiction today.) However, that wouldn’t have been enough; fortunately a small group of psychopathic online video-game players had banded together to denounce the women who will not sleep with them (or who stop sleeping with them once they discover better options than spotty pallid numbskulls), calling themselves Gamergate and quickly expanding their hatreds beyond mere misogyny into hatred of everything which has happened in the world since about 1950. (How modern of them!)

By calling on the assistance of this small collective, Wright and “Day” were able to expand their support-base well into two figures, and (incredibly) were thus able to dominate the Hugo nominations, revealing what a pathetically inbred gene-pool science fiction fandom represents. (Which is particularly significant since the people gaming the system tend to endorse Aryan Nation style politics, though without the muscle or the tattoos since they don’t like effort or pain.)

The result has been rather an embarrassment, because Wright got himself nominated in a number of categories. Since everybody knows that he was orchestrating the campaign, this is hugely foolish of him. (One of his fellow-orchestrators actually turned down a nomination, in an attempt to avoid being covered in ordure.) As a result, everybody knows that, with the exception of the novelist Ann Leckie, whose novel Ancillary Sword sailed through to nomination despite all opposition, this year’s Hugo awards are even more pathetic than usual and count for nothing. (Even Leckie is not running against any real opposition, as she would be if Gibson’s The Peripheral had not been kicked out of the running.)

En passant, it is striking that Leckie gets in. On one hand she is a woman, and there’s nothing that Wright and “Day” and “Gamergate” hate more than women, unless it’s blacks and gays and liberals. Furthermore, her primary conceit is to abolish gendered pronouns, though this does not appear to have any real social significance (at least in the first novel). On the other hand, her “Ancillary” novels concern the Radch, a brutal imperialist theocracy (the name echoes both “Reich” and “Raj”) controlled by a tiny genetically-engineered elite holding power by fraud and corruption — in other words, the book pretty much describes the situation that the people trying to take over the Hugo awards see as ideal. Leckie doesn’t actually seem to like the Radch much, but she’s sufficiently intrigued by working it out to be implicated in a quasi-fascist attitude.

In the end, of course, it is a tiny storm in a long-broken teacup. In the past it was possible to believe that science would Save The World, and also that science provided a position from which to critique the Horrors of Capitalism (or socialism or sexism or whatever bogeyman you set up in its place). This is no longer possible; science is simply one of the tools which the elite uses to sucker the boobs who vote for their puppet-shows, and hence organised science fiction is a toy telephone. Hence science fiction no longer has any claim to be a message-bearer for the wave of the future. Instead it is necessarily backward-looking, nostalgic for a future which was developed in the past, but which is never going to materialise — not the brave white male future of people like “Day” and Wright, nor the Trotskyite red revolutionary future of people like Banks and Robinson. The future does not belong to scientists, but to hunter-gatherers — or perhaps, nematode worms.

Still, it’s sad all the same. Science fiction may be a lost cause, but at least it’s a cause, a possible way of challenging the horrible brainless system which encysts us all for no good reason. It’s sad to see the system winning, the dreadful reactionary neoliberalism imposing its will and draining more happiness and thought out of the universe.

The Actual Legacy of Mangaliso Sobukwe.

April 14, 2015

Flipping through the re-issue of Benjamin Pogrund’s hagiography of Robert Sobukwe, How Can Man Die Better, one starts off by noticing that Pogrund has chosen a really trite and crummy title for the book. It would be difficult to find a more imperialist text than Lays of Ancient Rome, especially given the British ruling-class policy of pretending to be a replacement for Rome. Then again, one notices that the poem is about a man who risked his life by successfully protecting his country against attack, which Sobukwe did not do — he eventually died of cancer in bed.

Sobukwe enjoys an uninterrupted stream of praise in the media, mostly on the pretext that he was a genius and a marvel of humankind. He has a great big monument in Graaf-Reinet, though mysteriously people keep on vandalising it. Some have suggested that Fort Hare University be renamed Sobukwe University. Obviously there’s a lot of noise being made here, but it seems a lot like a football crowd chanting “Ooh-aah Sobukwe!” and blasting away with vuvuzelas. The problem being that it doesn’t take a lot of vuvuzelas to make a loud noise, and you can get people to join a chant even when they don’t know what they’re chanting about. Did Sobukwe do anything to justify this? Does Pogrund tell us?

Pogrund is a South African liberal in the classic mould — a thoroughly dishonest person who believes that his rich friends will buy him political power thanks to his ideology, which holds that what is needed is absolute freedom for everyone who agrees with Pogrund and obeys the same masters that he does. More recently Pogrund has become a firm supporter of racist mass murder provided that it is committed by Jews (or perhaps this was the position which he always held). This intellectual degradation is quite positive in this case, for it means that one can easily discern when Pogrund is lying, especially since he doesn’t acknowledge it even to himself, and frequently provides one in the book with evidence which contradicts his own propaganda.

Apparently, then, Sobukwe was marked out at an early age as a potential tool of white power and privilege. He went first to Healdtown, then to Fort Hare, where he was sponsored by white supporters on condition that he would return to Healdtown as a teacher. However, something went wrong. According to Pogrund, Sobukwe (who was President of the SRC, at that time making him a liaison officer between black students and white staff) gave a speech to a select gathering which was unduly Africanist in tone. Therefore, says Pogrund, Healdtown no longer wanted him, seeing him as a troublemaker. (Alternatively, it could just be that he wanted to leave rather than have to pay back the money he owed.) In any case Sobukwe, after taking his degree, went off to teach in a Johannesburg township in 1950. (He didn’t get any distinctions, although according to Pogrund he was considered good enough to get them; his main speciality was Bantu Language and Native Administration.)

But after a short while he fell foul of the authorities by giving a political speech. He was then notified that his contract would not be renewed — he was working in a government school. (So, rather than work for the missionaries, he preferred to work for apartheid? How interesting.) Normally that would have been the end of it, but the missionaries and Z K Matthews pleaded his case, and the government decided not to sack him. However, he went off to teach at the University of the Witwatersrand anyway. So he moved from a relatively low-paying job working in the interests of black people, to a much better-paid job working for, and largely teaching, white people. Interesting again. Also interesting that Wits wanted him. Was it because he was a genius, or because they thought he might be a useful lackey?

Throughout the early 1950s he was only modestly involved in politics, but he joined the ANC and began building up a personal power-base, especially in Alexandra. He was particularly associated with the Africanists in the ANC, who had their own newsletter in which they vilified the party leadership and the Communists, whom Sobukwe hated. Ostensibly he hated them because they were undemocratic, and because they were whites (though most of them were black) and because their allegiance was not to Africa. But then again, these Africanists were also remarkably friendly with white liberals like Pogrund, many of whom were on the “left” wing of the United Party, some of whom were thinking about forming a Progressive Party, and some of whom were thinking about forming a liberal pressure group.

This was Treason Trial time. The people who had taken over the ANC in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mandela and Sisulu and Luthuli, were all banned, and a lot of their friends were as well — and they were all faced with courtroom drama and the possibility of long sentences if they had a sufficiently corrupt judge who would take the ludicrous charges at face value. It was obviously a time which cried out for unity. Except, to people like Sobukwe and his friends, this was an opportunity not to be missed. The old Youth League crowd and their allies were all officially out of action — they were not allowed to participate in ANC activities and their movements were restricted. Now, surely, was the time for Sobukwe and his friends to move in and gain control of the ANC. Why not?

Well, the reason why not was that they were exploiting the oppression of the apartheid regime for personal gain — not an unfamiliar practice by Africanists. (As Pogrund coyly reveals, one of Sobukwe’s great allies and a co-founder of the PAC eventually decided that he did not like exile, and did a deal with the apartheid regime to return to the Transkei bantustan, where he became Minister of Police under the Matanzima dictatorship.) This obviously did not win friends among the ANC’s stalwarts, and a couple of the people from the Alexandra cabal who suggested this were expelled from the ANC, probably at the behest of the SACP, who loved expelling people almost as much as they loved the sound of their own voices.

Not liking this, Sobukwe and his friends decided simply to take over the ANC at the next Transvaal congress late in 1958. They showed up at the congress with about a hundred tsotsis carrying sticks, along with the people who had been kicked out of the ANC. To their dismay, Oliver Tambo, the Chair, allowed them all in, where they were considerably outnumbered by non-Africanists and where they were allowed to speak their piece. The problem was that Sobukwe and friends had nothing to say except that everybody should get out of the way and let them take over, something which the rest of the ANC wasn’t much impressed by. Tambo, meanwhile, set up a committee to investigate the credentials of all delegates — which is the typical ANC way of keeping out people you didn’t like, but which applied painfully well here because the Africanists were almost all either people who had been expelled, or Alexandra street thugs who’d never belonged to the ANC. Furthermore, because the non-Africanists were in the majority, the Africanists couldn’t pack the committee with their supporters. The actual assessment of the committee was put off to the following day, at which point Tambo had acquired sticks for the majority and the Africanists were easily excluded because their appalling behaviour fully justified it. Thus Sobukwe and their friends succeeded in splitting the ANC out of their incompetence and greed; they had nothing to justify their high-handed behaviour which could only serve the interests of the white minority forces.

Pogrund’s view of the period between then and March 1960 is interesting. On one hand he does his best to smear the ANC, declaring that they did nothing of substance apart from a potato boycott and preparations for the great anti-pass defiance campaign. However, they had at least three times the membership of the PAC — and, as Pogrund remarks, the PAC’s leadership was almost entirely middle-class (Wits allowed Pogrund to carry on at his lecturing job while being the President of the PAC, something which would never have been permitted for an ANC activist — it was almost as if the fact that the PAC was in constant contact with white liberals, as well as holding opinions which were very congenial to white racists, was helpful.)

The PAC picked up its membership predominantly in the Vaal Triangle, where Sobukwe’s friends had been strong, and in the Western Cape where there had always been distrust for the ANC and where factionalism was strong. The reason why these people joined the PAC seems to have had little to do with any ideological or practical motive, for apart from bombast Sobukwe and his friends offered no ideas. The suggestion was that they would be more vigorous than the ANC and would take advantage of the ANC’s failure. However, it was only in late 1959, after the ANC announced their plans to launch a massive national anti-pass campaign, that the PAC came up with its own idea — a massive national anti-pass campaign. In other words, the PAC had no ideas of its own.

Nor did the PAC have any planning capacity of its own. It did not even set a date for its campaign. It did not develop media or other material for its campaign, in spite of having  months and months to work on it. This was partly because the PAC had virtually no dues-paying members; in sharp contrast to the ANC the PAC focussed all its energy on people who were prepared to say they supported the PAC rather than on committed members. This, of course, would pose a huge problem were there to be a crackdown, because support would then melt away to nothing — it would appear that Sobukwe was blissfully unaware of the certainty of state repression, perhaps because, unlike the ANC’s leadership, he had never personally experienced anything except pampering from whites.

But once the ANC had announced that it would launch its anti-pass campaign on the 31st of March (much sooner than it wanted — it had originally hoped to wait until June) the PAC announced that it would launch an anti-pass campaign as well. Pogrund claims that the PAC was afraid that the ANC’s anti-pass campaign would fail, and that this would lead to a decline in support for liberation movements. This makes no sense; if the ANC’s campaign were to fail then the PAC could surely have prepared a better one thereafter. Instead, the PAC decided to pre-empt the ANC’s campaign with their own — unfortunately without effectual coordination, leadership or planning. Whether the ANC would have been able to do better is not certain, although it is likely.

Anyway, Sobukwe came up with the brilliant idea not only of launching the PAC’s anti-pass campaign on the 21st, but also of announcing this on the 18th, which ensured that the PAC’s campaign would definitely happen before the ANC’s. The PAC’s campaign was much more of a damp squib than has ever been admitted; it had any success only in the Vaal Triangle and in Cape Town, and in both places the chaotic demonstrations which took place led to massacres of PAC supporters (fortunately, thanks to the unexpected behaviour of Philip Kgosana, who took charge when nobody else would, the Cape Town massacre was on a smaller scale than at Sharpeville). The leadership of the PAC rushed to the nearest police station demanding that they be arrested, and duly were, which had the effect, completely unanticipated by Sobukwe and his friends, of decapitating the organisation and preventing it from doing anything. The ANC then arranged a stayaway to mourn the dead — Sobukwe attempted to disrupt the stayaway, but failed; it was the ANC’s most successful single action before the banning of the organisation, and showed the virtue of organisation as opposed to opportunism and blather.

But it didn’t, of course, save the ANC, which was duly banned along with the PAC. And Sobukwe was sent to prison — though only for three years, and the bitter complaints presented by the PAC leadership about how awfully they were treated in prison, which Pogrund reproduces in faithfully pitiful detail, simply shows how pathetically unprepared they were for prison, and how vulnerable the middle-class PAC leadership were to state bullying. It is hardly surprising that so many of them betrayed the movement and that others walked away from the PAC itself in search of a tougher and more effective organisation.

Pogrund also points out how deeply the PAC was entwined with the white Liberal Party. To Pogrund this is good — but it is also, obviously, the sheerest hypocrisy. On one hand they were denouncing whites as their enemies, on the other they were begging money and aid from them and writing cringing articles for white magazines. It seems likely that the PAC’s hostility to the SACP was driven partly from racism, partly from envy of the SACP’s courage and discipline — everything the cowardly and chaotic PAC was not — and partly from a desire to please their white patrons.

So what is left of Sobukwe that one can respect? Not much. He was a modestly able ANC activist in the mid-1950s who proved incapable of sustaining himself as a disciplined comrade, and whose subsequent behaviour was not worthy of respect or even close scrutiny. He was not even a Biko, a mock-intellectual with at least the courage of some convictions. He was, instead, simply a man who tried to do the best for himself and, because of his ignorance and bad judgement, ended up ruining himself instead. That wouldn’t be so bad if he had not contributed to the ruin of the ANC for half a generation, and if he had not promoted a foolish, parasitic strain in South African politics. Compared even with Jacob Zuma or Tony Yengeni it is hard to see anything of merit in him.

He deserves to be forgotten, not commemorated.

Cometh the Healers?

May 3, 2012

The Creator’s default assumption about any decision taken by the Zuma administration is that it is a) stupid, b) corrupt and c) will make matters worse for the general public. This was originally an assumption driven by hostility to the Zuma administration’s personnel, but it has been borne out by virtually everything we know about the consequences of virtually every decision taken by the Zuma administration. In other words, as usual, the Creator was right.

Of course one might sometimes be wrong. For instance, er, the Libyan rebels might have been the good guys. The fact that they weren’t does not reflect anything on the Zuma administration, because the decision to support the Libyan rebels was not taken by Zuma; the Zuma administration took office on the understanding that they would do what they were told. If Obama had decided to support Gadaffi instead, the Zuma administration would have supported Gadaffi.

And again, sometimes we know very little about what’s going on. Health insurance, for instance. Virtually nothing has been said about this issue in public — virtually nothing of substance, that is. The official line is just “Health Insurance Good!”, and as a corollary, “Critics of Health Insurance Bad!”. This line is generally echoed by the money-men who control our public discourse and pay our intellectuals and the pharmaceutical-company shills who are encouraged to play at doctors when they strut on the public stage. (Wearing white coats, naturally, like actors in old toothpaste advertisements.)

So why not have a look at what is being actually said? One might find something interesting, as we did when we had a look at the Protection of State Information Bill and discovered that (gosh, what a surprise) everything said about it by the media and the foreign-hired “civil society” organisations was bullshit. Or maybe one might find a confirmation of the sum of all fears. Let’s check out the “National Health Insurance in South Africa Policy Paper” promulgated by the Department of Health in August 2011.

The first thing it admits is that National Health Insurance was vaguely talked about for years, but for some reason unspecified was stalled, until it was suddenly adopted as a policy at Polokwane. Unlike almost all the other policies adopted at Polokwane, with the exception of abolishing the Scorpions, this one has been taken forward. No doubt the policy paper won’t say why, but at least it may give us some hints. A Ministerial Advisory Committee was established in August 2009 to figure things out. (Who was on that committee is unspecified.) The mandate is: “NHI will ensure that everyone has access to a defined comprehensive package of healthcare services. The covered healthcare services will be provided through appropriately accredited and contracted public and private providers”. OK, so that means that it’s a public-private partnership. Since the private sector charges six times more than the public sector, which is already supposed to provide universal access but doesn’t, how is this going to work out? They also say that there must be efficiency and value for money. To which the Creator says, uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good. But who knows?

There’s certainly a great deal of argument that National Health Insurance will solve all the problems of the country, increase GDP, extend lifespan and generally provide answers to all questions. That is, national health insurance will. But will National Health Insurance? Ban-Ki Moon says it will, but what does a Korean glove-puppet of the Americans know?

The kick-off is supposedly Primary Health Care. This was the pet project of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and was torpedoed by her opponents when they smeared her and hounded her out of the Health Ministry. It’s a good thing in principle; you provide small-scale healthcare at local level in order to a) prevent small problems from becoming big ones and b) identify big problems while they are still treatable, so that you can refer the victims of big problems to places with more substantial healthcare infrastructure. This, of course, requires a network of skilled, dedicated professionals covering the country, one which was envisaged by Dlamini-Zuma (and had been provided in, for instance, the KwaZulu homeland) but which has never come to pass, despite the plethora of clinics.

The idea is to provide 10 primary healthcare workers in every ward — that is, if there are about 10 000 wards in South Africa, we would need 100 000 primary healthcare workers. That’s a hell of a lot of them. How skilled and trained are these workers to be? Not clear at this stage. Then, there will be a nurse in every school, with a team of trained primary healthcare workers under that nurse. If there are about 30 000 schools in South Africa, that’s over 100 000 primary healthcare workers in schools. Then, there’s a district team, focussing on maternal and child health, consisting of the following doctors: an ob/gyn, a paediatrician, a physician, an anaesthetist, a midwife and a professional nurse — this is the minimum, and there will be support staff under them. How many such teams must exist? A thousand? Then that requires 4 000 doctors, plus 2 000 people with midwifery and nursing qualifications, and very considerable support staff, probably another 5-10 000 qualified people. So, all in all, we are talking about a quarter of a million trained medical personnal, although only 2-3% of those would be doctors and another 20% would have nursing training.

This is a gigantic project, well worth the effort in the Creator’s view, but it will be extremely expensive; it will cost at least R20 billion a year in salaries alone, and then there is the infrastructure needed and the cost of the equipment, medication and administration. We are probably looking at somewhere around R400 billion over ten years, or an eighth of our unaffordable infrastructure programme currently envisaged to kick-start the neocolonisation of South Africa. Is anyone intending to spend that much on healthcare? At present, the plan is to spend about half of 1% of that in the next year or so on the project, which doesn’t look promising. (About a billion rand earmarked, out of the 7 billion called for by the project.)

A problem acknowledged by everyone who has looked at the project is that South Africa doesn’t have the medical personnel to staff such a project, nor do we have the medical education structures to generate the staff for such a project — in the case of the primary healthcare workers, we have essentially zero structures. At present there are no plans to set up effectual training programmes towards this absent end. Another problem is that there is no sign of any administrative structure to oversee this system. The present primary healthcare clinc system, and the rural hospital system, are beset with maladministration and corruption. How is this to be prevented from replicating itself in the new system? Nothing in the document seems to even acknowledge that these are problems.

Nevertheless, this all looks much better than the rhetoric which preceded it — although unfortunately even here the rhetoric/reality ratio is painfully high. Meanwhile, there is a call for the delivery of district primary healthcare through private providers, to be paid by the state. How this will work in districts where there are no private providers is not specified.

We move on, however, to hospitals. The plan is to change the classification of hospitals, to District Hospitals, Regional Hospitals, Tertiary Hospitals (national ones which don’t have a medical school attached), Central Hospitals (with a medical school attached) and Specialised Hospitals (self-explanatory). Basically, this is what already exists to a large extent, so this is wind and verbiage. There is to be an Office of Health Standards Compliance, which provides accreditation and inspection to healthcare facilities throughout the country. In short, the quality assurance programmes which have done so much harm to educational and healthcare facilities throughout the country in recent decades are to be beefed up. Presumably nurses will have to fill in more forms.

None of this seems to matter much in regard to NHI, because NHI is supposedly all about paying for the programme. How are people going to pay? Where does this “insurance” come in?

Well, “accredited providers will be reimbursed using a risk-adjusted capitation system linked to a performance-based mechanism”. Ah, so an accountant wrote this. Also, “accredited and contracted facilities will be reimbursed using global budgets in the initial phases of implementation with a gradual migration towards diagnosis related groups (DRGs) with a strong emphasis on performance management”. An accountant wrote that, too. Then, “In preparation for contracting with private providers, mechanisms for achieving cost-efficiency will be investigated including international benchmarking from countries of similar economic development that have successfully implemented such processes”. This is all New Public Management jargon, which seems to boil down to finding excuses for giving private contractors more money without providing better services.

In case you were wondering, “the public and private health providers contracted by the National Health Insurance, will be assisted in controlling the expenditure through recommended formula, and adherence to treatment protocols for all conditions covered under the defined package of care. This will be necessary to ensure the appropriate level of service provision and avoid under-servicing which is a common characteristic of many capitation-based systems”. They really are concerned, very strongly, with finding ways to control expenditure, but also with bringing in the private sector. How is all this money to be got?

Aha: “universal coverage to affordable health care services is best achieved through a prepayment health financing mechanism. To achieve universal coverage, pooling of funds requires that payments for health care are made in advance of an illness, and these payments are pooled and used to fund health services for the population”. Well, duh; that’s what insurance is. The trouble, however, is that at present the money comes out of tax revenues to sponsor a large but apparently inadequate public healthcare system. Bringing private healthcare into the equation means that a lot more money is needed. They say “the revenue base should be as broad as possible”, presumably meaning that the poor will have to pay more. Also, there will be private “co-payments” — the rich will be able to get better treatment by coughing up, just as they do now, outside the NHI system.

The proposal is to just over double healthcare spending, from R125 billion in 2012 to R255 billion in 2025.  This will be funded by a tax, administered by the Revenue Service. This will be paid into a National Health Insurance Fund. Everybody will be obliged to belong to NHI.

What about existing medical schemes? Well, “There is existing expertise residing in the health sector in the area of administration and management of insurance funds. Where necessary and relevant, this expertise may be drawn upon within the single payer publicly administered National Health Insurance, to ensure that adequate in-house capacity is developed”. So that’s all right then, so long as the medical schemes don’t take charge. But what if they do?

Yes, it actually seems all right. A great deal of policy frameworks developed by this government seem all right. After all, one appoints noisy idealists to write the policy frameworks, because they won’t shut up unless they can, and by getting them to let off steam one can diminish their effectiveness to struggle for their goals.

However, it’s worth looking at the table at the end of the paper, which presents a timeline for implementation, and see that virtually all the deadlines have been missed. The ones which have not been missed are the ones which involve virtually no additional work for anyone outside the existing healthcare system (like auditing hospitals, which basically involves making overworked nurses, doctors and healthcare administrators fill in more forms). However, absolutely essential ones which have been missed include the training of the first 5000 primary healthcare agents (which was supposed to start in September last year) and their appointment (which was supposed to have happened last March), the establishment of school-based primary healthcare which was supposed to have been on the ground last November, and the refurbishment of 72 nursing colleges which is supposed to be completed by the end of this year, but which has not even been begun. Instead, a few areas with relatively good healthcare have been put forward as flagship areas and offered very little money to supposedly improve their healthcare. One skill which the present government possesses in full measure is massaging and making up statistics, so we may assume that these pilot projects will be presented as “successes”.

Without the primary healthcare system in place — which is the most expensive part of the National Health Insurance project, but also the part least likely to make a lot of money for consultants, corporations and medical aid schemes — the whole rest of the system crumbles away as an effective entity. It seems evident, therefore, that NHI is doomed to be a good idea which was destroyed by the corruption and incompetence of the present government and the hostile lobbying of the medical-industrial complex.

Which should come as no surprise to anybody. But the Creator has to admit that NHI seemed like a scam from the first — and it probably was. But it now seems that it wasn’t a complete scam, since there were some people who wanted to make it work. The tragedy is that they’ve been co-opted and the system is almost certainly doomed to fail, and be taken over by the medical schemes which were supposed to be sidestepped.

The poverty of optimism, alas.


A Void.

November 30, 2010

The Creator was listening to Eric Clapton, which should interest nobody, not even Clapton, and then Clapton started singing “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out”, and this got the Creator thinking deeply, again, possibly a first in history for Clapton.
That song is pretty clearly a Depression-era song (“Bought bootleg liquor, champagne and wine” locates it in Prohibition). It’s a bit more cheerful than the whining “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” but it has the same message: once you were all right, now you’re a nobody, and God knows when you’ll get back on your feet again. A lot of the gangster movies of the era, like Little Caesar, had essentially the same message (although at the command of the censors, all the gangsters had to get killed in the end). Meanwhile, even the pabulum of Ginger and Fred contained a message which paralleled this; enjoy yourself while you can. (“High hats and coloured collars/White spats and fifteen dollars/Spending every dime/For a wonderful time”).
So what the Creator thought was this: what has the cultural impact of the Depression been this time? Where is the radical iconography? Where are the haunting melodies in response to it? Where the defiant architecture? Where the theorizing?
The answer, bloody hell, seems to be “Ain’t none”. The popular music scene is every bit as vapid as Ginger and Fred (although, with due respect, people can’t dance quite as well even if they have prettier bodies to throw around — only Fafblog appears to have noticed the remarkable resemblance between Fred Astaire and Barack Obama) but there’s no visible depression-era content to it. The books which are being written are, for the most part, vastly less interesting than, say, Hemingway (to take an example of someone whom everyone agrees is overrated, so it is easy to make comparisons). The contemporary cultural icon, the blog/Twitter feed, contains nothing of interest at all on this matter. Movies? Visual art? Theory? Look away, look away. (Slavoj Zizek tells us we are living in the end-times because capitalism doesn’t work any more. No, Slavoj, there are alternatives to capitalism. If we are living in the end-times it will be because there are no alternatives to the natural resources we have used up. But there probably will be, for some of us at least.) You might argue that hip-hop is an exception, addressing the real world, but hip-hop is addressing a fantasy world which it created for itself two decades ago; the world may have decayed so much that reality is starting to look like hip-hop’s fantasies, but this does not make Kanye West a prophet.
What is accounting for this void at the heart of consciousness? One factor may, quite simply, be that culture no longer fulfils the function which it did even thirty years ago. In the latter days of apartheid South African culture was politicised, not because there was money in politicised culture, but because the public paid more attention to politicised culture; an artwork like “Butcher Boys”, a song like “Sit Dit Af”, could attract attention where less politicised artifacts simply looked irrelevant. (It did happen that the politicised culture of the time turned out immensely more lasting than the depoliticised culture, in part because the people producing depoliticised culture were essentially running away from a reality which they could not truly avoid. They tended to be the inferior producers who felt that their material would succeed because officialdom liked it.)
Nowadays those inferior producers are at the top of the pile because officialdom likes them, puts up the money and sponsors them, and encourages critics and intellectuals to praise them (or to blame them for stupid reasons). Or, to be precise, because nobody else gets a look-in. There is still interesting music and art out there, but it is on the fringes. More to the point, in the past, the fringes were the centre; the place where you looked for the avant-garde.
Again, the Creator was reading William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and meditating on precisely what a lost, hopeless person Gibson had become. Gibson’s central character in that text is a rather pathetically ineffectual female geek with serious psychiatric issues who is also, implausibly, a “coolhunter”, a person working for marketing and advertising companies fulfilling the task of identifying new elements of popular culture which might possibly be profitable. Ironically, Gibson presents this person as desirable and attractive, rather than loathesome and contemptible, perhaps because Gibson is himself a geek without a cause and therefore seeks to see some outlet for geekishness which is both intrinsically positive and applauded by the establishment. The contradiction is obvious. (The book was written two years after Naomi Klein’s No Logo blew the whistle on such practices as the ones Gibson favours.)
Now, perhaps this points the way. Not a good way. The way is to see the world as one where everything original is immediately commodified where possible, and where the process of commodification is so privileged that originality, or any intrinsic merit, falls away entirely. Where the value of an activity derives entirely from its commercial potential. It is a very familiar world, isn’t it?
But then, in this world, the one where we live, it becomes actually almost impossible to distinguish cultural activity managed for profit, from cultural activity undertaken out of an expression of individual or collective psychic desire. It also becomes, therefore, almost impossible to introduce anything into the system which does not correlate with profit management. The point being that Gibson’s iconoclastic “coolhunter”, who has a psychological allergy to brandnames, is a contradiction in terms; in the real world she would simply appropriate whatever she thought might be commercially viable and turn it into a brandname, and she would do so as quickly and easily as possible. In other words, genuine art on the edge would be immediately discarded as unnecessarily difficult to brand; what would be more easily appropriated would be what would be most familiar.
Therefore, the reason why our culture does not actually reflect the social conditions of our existence is that the people who stump up the money to promote cultural activities are not interested in those social conditions. Now, this is not altogether the case, but only because sometimes social conditions can be marketable. Pornography, for example, is quite sensitive to social conditions. So is some elements of political branding — an example being the Tea Party in the United States, which is an attempt to appropriate social discontent and, thanks to the ignorance and prejudice of those who feel discontented, make use of it for the political gain of a portion of the people who are responsible for the conditions which led to that discontent. But clearly that is not a reflection of those social conditions; instead, both are appropriations of reflections of those social conditions. Popular culture is by definition controlled and marketable culture.
Now, you might also say, so what else is new? Well, one new thing is the degree of penetration. Another new thing is the extent of appropriation. When Elvis started out he was quite alarming; then he was appropriated. When the Beatles started out, however, they were an already-appropriated commodification of rock’n’roll which suddenly became subversive — even though it did not stop being commodified. In other words, it was possible for those who had been appropriated to undermine the system in spite of that. (Ditto Johnny Cash. Ditto Edith Piaf.) On the other hand, can the same really be said about Brenda Fassie? Certainly it can’t be said about Aryan Kaganof. These are people who are either deliberately constructing themselves for appropriation, or who are extremely open to appropriation in spite of themselves because the cultural system is much more capable of taking your image and making use of it for themselves.
Ouch — that’s painful. It means that rebellion could be easily turned into money, as the Clash complained about while taking money, of course. But there’s another side to it — which is the discrediting of the act of rebellion. You look at Lady Gaga and, oddly enough, nobody sees her as a rebel. They see her as a calculated marketing tool; whether the tool is making use of the system or whether the system is making use of the tool is not interesting. And, therefore, when you wish to rise up in rebellion, you will most certainly not use cultural methods, because culture is part of the system. Everything is part of the system. Therefore it is impossible to revolt. Therefore, stay home in bed.
People have not read Baudrillard, thanks be to Zarathustra, but they are acting as passively if they have. The silence of the cultural lambs as they wait for the knife? Or do they hope the knife will never come? If so, they hope in vain.