Poor Energy Policy Undermines Energy Diversity in South Africa – 2011

By Glenn Ashton · 15 Jun 2011

In 2010 Anton Bredell, Western Cape Environment Minister, reported that his department had received applications for installation of over 11 000 Megawatts (MW) of wind energy generation capacity. This is more than double the capacity of the controversial Medupi coal fired power station. This could make the Western Cape a net exporter of clean energy.

However a number of bureaucratic stumbling blocks have delayed and may halt these mainly privately funded, market-driven initiatives. Instead of being a simple matter of getting planning permission and connecting the grid, government structures remain more of a hindrance than help.

Our national energy policy remains contested ground. Despite years of discussion about opening up and diversifying our energy market, the reality has been unnecessary delays simply through a failure to put concrete policies and supportive energy regimes in place. This vacillation was directly responsible for the scheduled rolling blackouts, euphemistically referred to as load shedding, in late 2007.

Despite these massive economic costs, the political jockeying and intransigence continues. Instead of opening up the market Eskom did some navel gazing, belatedly focused on energy efficiency and more than doubled its prices.

Instead of promoting generating diversity and a competitive environment Eskom retreated to the energy laager, fast-tracking one of the word’s biggest coal fired power plants. Eskom continues to ignore concerns around the impacts of human triggered climate change. Its massive CO2 footprint and political influence combine to directly undermine sustainable development in South Africa.

Persistent delays in finalising Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs) lie at the heart of our problems. If we had harnessed all of the hot air generated by debating various iterations of IRPs since 2002 we wouldn’t need new generating capacity! The most recent version, IRP 2010, was promulgated nearly a year behind schedule and has generated huge controversy around its focus on coal and nuclear generation.

Along with IRP delays, the finalisation and clarification of the Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff programme (REFIT) continues to compromise investment in renewables. The first iteration, published in 2009, is under revision and is tangled in red tape. It is remarkable how government fast tracks political priorities like secrecy bills, media tribunals and disbanding the Scorpions yet cannot finalise economically critical matters like energy policy.

The continued delays and non-consultative nature of IRP 2010 are directly related to this political intransigence and interference. The now infamous exposé of the ANC’s Chancellor House investment arm and its deals with the Japanese Hitachi consortium, contracted to supply boilers to the Medupi and Kusile power stations, hints at the extent of the problem.

The revolving door between political players and empowerment schemes is well established. For instance the Public Protector, Lawrence Mushwana found ex-politician Valli Moosa to have acted improperly. As Chair of Eskom he should not have been involved in awarding the Medupi boiler tender to Hitachi because of his ties to the ANC and hence Chancellor House.

According to a report by Shawn Hattingh of the International Labour Research and Information Group, Moosa also purchased shares in the services company Drake and Scull (which purchased Tsebo Outsourcing, previously Fedics) shortly before granting them a contract at Eskom. This sort of manoevering and influence peddling raises red flags about the structuring of IRP 2010 and related energy programmes.

During the late 1990s, the government’s market driven policies encouraged independent power producers (IPPs) to take up any slack in generation capacity. These Pubic Private Partnerships (PPPs) were stymied by Eskom’s excess capacity, lack of buy-in by Eskom and artificially low energy prices.

>â€A few small IPPs showed interest but their fingers have been seriously burned by the lack of clear policy. IPSA’s Cogen plant was contracted by Eskom to supply power over the World Cup period but remains marginalised. This uncertainty deters IPPs from entering the market. New policies are promised but not yet promulgated.

The IPPs dealing in renewable energy remain deeply affected by this uncertainty. They are further deterred by the proposed state tender system where the state will be the final arbiter of who delivers how much power to the grid. This is just one reason we have little chance of meeting promises for Carbon Emissions Targets set by the Department of Environment, by 2013.

The IPP regulatory system also introduces significant opportunities for economic and political interference. This is because well-connected individuals can align themselves with various energy start ups, either to improve BEE scoring or through providing access to tender committees, prime examples of rent-seeking and political patronage.

Given our power generation squeeze it is short sighted to impede the entry of new sustainable energy generation companies. If they are able to get planning permission, to install windmills, solar plants and provide power to the grid they should be encouraged, not kept waiting, dependent on arcane systems. Instead of facilitating entry, artificial barriers to entry are erected.

We also should ask why there has been such serious focus on large generation sources such as coal, nuclear and solar thermal, rather than decentralised, medium and micro supplies that encourage a diversified energy supply. Perhaps this is not only about stable energy supplies, but goes far deeper.

Given what happened with the Hitachi/Chancellor House deal, it is clear that mega-projects are far more prone to skimming and abuse by elites. Instead of fast-tracking an unambiguous energy policy, the vultures continue to circle.

Cosatu opposes any privatisation of our power generation capacity because of the profit motives involved. It has indicated preference for a centralised, state run energy utility. This would be sensible if Eskom was capable of pursuing its founding mandate to supply energy at lowest possible cost. The reality is that this mandate has been rapidly eroded and compromised poor planning and political interference.

Conversely, organisations like the Free Market Foundation insist that private capital would not enter the energy market if Eskom was competitive. The reality is that recent mismanagement has seen Eskom becoming an uncompetitive monolith.

Wind generation is already becoming directly competitive with Eskom’s escalating tariffs, without subsidisation. Wind energy companies will be able to generate power at less than half of the estimated R2.40 per kW rate Eskom is projected to be charging in 2014, underlining their eagerness to enter the market. Solar power and even innovative renewables like current generation must be enabled to enter the mix, through adoption of progressive energy policies.

It is notable that coal will be more costly than wind and even solar generation, especially if all the externalities are considered. Nuclear will be by far the most expensive option and it would never be considered by IPPs. Nuclear is not competitive; no unsubsidised, independent nuclear power generation facilities exist anywhere in the world. Fukushima will make nuclear even more expensive as further safeguards are installed. The latest third generation nuclear plants in Finland, France and USA are all going to be prohibitively expensive and our government is naïve in its wish to pursue nuclear options, on cost considerations alone.

It is also important to note the implications of the “Protection of Information Bill” for energy policy and transparency. Because energy is a key strategic resource, this “secrecy bill” would permit the state to declare any related information confidential. This would make it impossible to expose Chancellor House/Hitachi type deals. It would enhance the ability for graft, crony capitalism and politically connected cadres to rob us blind. Instead of being supported, whistle-blowers would be punished.

Diversifying our energy supplies means shifting away from coal and nuclear. They are each deeply problematic energy sources for complex reasons. Efficient diversification means shifting away from centralised energy generation. The recent publication of the draft Independent System and Market Operator (ISMO) bill should encourage open competition in the energy market.

If private power generators are able to reliably produce renewable energy at competitive rates, surely this benefits us all? Eskom has only itself to blame for its lack of competitiveness. By transparently opening the market, diversity of supply will naturally follow. Anyone, even trades unions, could invest.

Arguments that micro and medium power producers are unreliable are archaic. Modern communications, coupled to meteorological reports can inform a centralised electricity control system by sharing predictive inputs (weather reports, service downtime) and real-time generation patterns.

Our chaotic energy policy and planning, exacerbated by political short-termism, crony capitalism and secrecy, underlies most of our energy problems. It is not an option to throw energy generation to the wolves. However we would collectively benefit by creating an enabling climate where all players, from micro-generators, to medium sized renewable providers are able to contribute to a sustainable and energy secure future.

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Eskom is the Problem, Not the Solution – 2010/2.0

By Glenn Ashton · 26 Jan 2010

The ongoing public debate about electricity price hikes raise questions about how our national energy policies are decided. Public interaction with the National Electricity Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) cannot yield expected results, as NERSA is little more than a messenger and not the framer of policy. The real problems revolve around the relationship between Eskom, the state and the ruling party and the degree of influence that our electrical generation behemoth wields.

The relationship between Eskom and the state runs deep. It was initiated when the Smuts Government created the Electricity Supply Commission (Escom) in 1923. Escom was directed to provide cheap, abundant and reliable power to government departments, railways, harbours, local authorities and industry. Escom operated efficiently for decades, but its policies and practice are now stultified and outdated.

Renamed Eskom in 1987, it remains a parastatal public utility. As such, it is indivisible from the state. As we shall see, this is a fundamental weakness. As a monopolistic industry it dictates the rules regarding competition, while also holding the whip hand in controlling and shaping national energy policy, such as the dismally failed PBMR that has cost it – and us all – dearly. Through its management and maintenance of the transmission infrastructure it is able to actively prevent open participation in the power market.

Given our recent history with power supply shortages, Eskom appears to be the natural place to seek solutions. Instead Eskom has perpetuated our problems. It has shown itself unable to devise creative solutions or to clearly analyse shortcomings in state energy generation policies. It has become a poorly run utility, lacking vision.

In crisis it has instead turned to solutions such as reducing demand through ‘demand side management’, long touted by civil society and public commentators as providing cost effective alternatives to building more expensive capacity. Eskom’s panicked subsidisation of compact fluorescent light bulbs, gas stoves, solar water heaters, blankets and timers for geysers is palpably too little, too late.

The primary reason that Eskom never embarked on demand side management is because it is a utility whose primary objective is selling as much of its product as possible and which had, until recently, excess capacity it wished to utilise. It had no interest in reducing demand and consequently lacked strategic vision.

The cut-price contracts given to overseas aluminium corporations soaked up our excess capacity that clearly exposes Eskoms short-term planning and lack of vision. The reality that aluminium refineries now consume nearly 10% of Eskom’s total generating capacity, while providing only a few thousand jobs and limited revenue to the national fiscus, illustrates how this one-sided deal primarily benefits aluminium producers at our expense.

Hocking our power generation capacity to corporate entities at utterly unrealistic prices, estimated (Eskom obdurately refuses to disclose contract prices) at a quarter of the price that domestic consumers now pay for electricity, underlines the extent to which this decision runs counter to the national interest. It is akin to enticement.

Eskom’s pervasive influence on national energy policy, its monopoly over transmission and nearly all generation, emphasises how the quasi-corporatisation of Eskom has changed it from its initial role of a utility to that of a profit-driven monster operating against the national interest.

This is perfectly illustrated by Eskom’s interference in the solar water heating industry. Through its demand side management policies it has, with state blessing, instituted a putative subsidy system to supposedly encourage the uptake of domestic solar water heating. While this appears good on the surface, examination of the real effects illustrate a more sinister reality.

The first year of this subsidy programme resulted in the installation of just over 1000 solar water heating systems, by all accounts a dismal failure. This number would probably have been exceeded had the ‘subsidy’ not been in place.

An examination of the numbers shows how the subsidy system has had a sharply inflationary effect on solar water heating systems in South Africa. Under the Eskom agreement, each complete system must be SABS tested, costing approximately R35,000. Given that at least 135 different systems have been tested, the direct cost of this testing alone has added at least R4.7 million to the cost borne by the solar water heating industry.

To this amount, add substantial administration costs, both by installers and Eskom, an insistence on expensive compliance with ISO checklist practices and many other additional costs. This programme therefore increased the price of each system installed in the first year by an average of at least R5,000 each. This conservative estimate could be easily double, and ongoing costs continue. It excludes Eskom’s doubtless substantial administration costs, auditing programme, and advertising, not to mention the loss of electrical revenue.

Clearly this supposed solar subsidy system has cost all parties dearly. We have failed to examine how Australia, New Zealand, China, the US and the EU have all succeeded in solar heating rollout, while we have spectacularly failed. But this is not the end of it.

Many of the SABS tested solar systems use identical hot water cylinders made by local manufacturers, several of which have now been tested tens of times. The profit oriented focused SABS is smiling but the solar industry is not. The same applies to many of the solar heating collectors. Instead of establishing the efficiency of each cylinder and each solar collector individually, giving a rating to each and then providing a flat rate subsidy on that basis, as is best practice elsewhere, Eskom and the SABS have undermined the solar water heating industry at every step. ‘Unsubsidised’ (read ‘not artificially inflated’) solar water heating remains significantly cheaper than subsidised systems.

The government is about to release its national solar water heating strategy and implementation plan, which will build on the Eskom solar water heating rollout. This strategy has been rushed through without adequate consultation. Its draft contains appalling misconceptions about our local solar water industry.

For instance, it repeats the baseless assertion that we have inadequate capacity to roll out solar water heating in South Africa. The fact is that we have plenty of capacity to supply local cylinders and collectors, if the government supported instead of undermined renewable power supplies through accepting Eskom’s negative assertions about renewable energy.

Eskom habitually rejects ‘renewables’ through the deceptive practice of externalising the true costs of conventional energy and failing to account for its inflationary fuel costs. The real costs of waste management, air and land pollution and health impacts from fossil and nuclear energy sources are always excluded when calculating power generation costs. The impacts of mercury on people, land and fish from coal power are externalised. The pollution of water sources by coal mining is ignored. Were all these costs included, renewable energy would be seen to be more than competitive yet the reality is hidden behind falsified statistics and incomplete accounting practices.

At the heart of the problem with our energy supply lies the relationship between Eskom and the state. The latter is indivisible from the government of the day, run by the ANC. It is, sadly, all profoundly reminiscent of the corrupt National Party, which also benefited from its incestuous affair with Eskom.

Party cadres are instrumental in deciding the energy procurement process, which has undermined transparent tendering. The relationship between the ANC, Chancellor House and Hitachi, the supplier of generation systems for the new coal fuelled stations, is unacceptably murky. And just why are these new power stations costed at three times the amount of similar plants elsewhere in the world? Who pays? Us, the people.

Behind this mess, lies the King Kong of party political funding and crony capitalism. Until such time as spotlights are focussed on this beast, and proper public scrutiny applied, we the public, rich and poor alike, will be endlessly shafted by the evil axis of power producers allied to those who hold the reins of political power.

The nightmare of our frayed energy policy must end. Eskom must be held to account, not through the lame duck of NERSA, but directly through the legal system and active application of the Public Access to Information and the Public Access to Justice Acts. Urgent public oversight is required through these legal mechanisms.

The ruling party must be interrogated as to exactly what is going on in Chancellor House, and how political cronyism threatens national energy policy and practice. The pathetic sideshow and internal squabbling around immature reactions to personal critique diverts attention from matters of governance.

The funding of all political parties must be opened to scrutiny. The cancer of party political funding, both within the ruling party and the official opposition must be excised. The arms scandal is small change compared to the potential costs of the looming energy scandal.

We have seen our electrical power go from the cheapest to in the world to where it will soon be the most expensive in less than a decade. Is this leadership? Is this visionary? Is this being interrogated by the opposition? No to all of the above.

At the heart of this lies Eskom. It is the problem and not the solution.

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Eskom: Plunging Us into Darkness – 2010

Eskom: Plunging Us into Darkness

By Glenn Ashton · 18 Mar 2010

Those responsible for formulating the policies required to solve our national energy crisis are clearly floundering, all at sea, while the great white sharks of international capital circle for the kill.

Our national energy policies are a mess. We have signally failed to formulate a comprehensive long-term energy policy since democracy in 1994, instead relying on ad hoc responses by both Eskom and politicians.

The incestuous Tweedledum and Tweedledee relationship between Eskom and the state undermines public participation in formulating energy policy. The excessive provision of energy capacity by the technocratic central planners of the Apartheid state enabled the new South Africa to ride on the shirttails of its predecessors. However this capacity was rapidly absorbed, primarily through controversial deals with major energy consuming industries.

The sweetheart deal between Eskom and Billiton to exploit our cheap and dirty power to transform Australian bauxite into aluminium and then export the profits is both an outrageous abuse of a national resource and a cautionary tale. It is a relationship that costs us all dearly. We lose electricity capacity to corporate predators. The public effectively subsidises this cut-rate power effectively sold to Billiton below cost. This is effectively redistribution from the poor to the rich.

Aluminium, with its massive power requirements, has been called solidified electricity. Eskom is instrumental in maintaining Billiton as one of the worlds six biggest aluminium companies. Billiton is also one of 138 Eskom customers, which receive electricity at between nine and 35 cents a Kilowatt hour (kWh) — at a rate that averages 17 cents per kWh, for almost 40% of Eskom’s total output.

This is more than three times less than the 59 cents per kWh paid by most South African consumers, which is set to rise to around R1 per kWh when the full National Electricity Regulator (Nersa) approved increase has been implemented over the next three years. The poor and middle classes, together with smaller businesses are effectively subsidising Billiton and 137 other favoured and already wealthy entities.

Earthlife Africa recently showed how poor consumers who rely on prepaid meters already pay around 72 cents per kW/h; four times more than the average discounted Eskom rate.

Billiton is apparently one of two companies with a special long-term discount power contract with Eskom and gains its profit at our collective expense. Do we, as a nation, owe privately held corporations a profit, especially if this is at cross-purposes to both our individual and national interests? Surely Billiton and other wealthy, privileged entities should simply pay the same as everyone else?

The preferential tariff rate granted by Eskom to these companies is by its very nature anti-competitive, across the board. This unfair discount, which arose through the government wishing to project an atmosphere of business friendliness, severely disadvantages smaller companies.

Any energy reliant start up enterprise is automatically compromised by the massive advantages these Eskom subsidies provide. There is clearly a role for the competition tribunal to play in this sordid saga.

The names and the exact rate that each of these privileged companies pays must be legally interrogated and revealed. Eskom is a public entity. South Africans have a vested interest in the fairness and transparency of how this public utility is run and its discriminatory behaviour is patently unfair.

Public utilities should not be permitted to hide behind the cloak of corporate confidentiality. The fact is that the state, as Eskom’s sole shareholder, has failed to adhere to the corporate governance principles that the private sector is required to. Eskom does not fulfil its requirements of stakeholder participation and transparency as set out in the King 3 report (Chapter 8), which states that the critical role of stakeholders – which in this case includes all South Africans – cannot be ignored.

The Eskom board has proven itself incapable of projecting or formulating a meaningful energy policy and has failed in its charter role of serving the people of South Africa. The manner in which Eskom, through its inordinate influence on Nersa, has forced through inflationary energy policies while capping alternative energy supply, can only lead to the conclusion that those at the helm of Eskom have lost the plot and are operating beyond their mandate.

We should recall however that Eskom did approach the government in the late ’90s to highlight that it was rapidly approaching operational capacity, and was rebuffed. Instead pseudo-solutions like the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor were promised. The state has utterly failed to pursue, let alone achieve, proclaimed energy targets, particularly in renewable energy.

In 2003 we set a 10,000 gWh renewable energy target, to be achieved by 2013; to date we have installed less than one percent of that goal. Yet Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan blindly insists we will meet this target! What hope have we against such bombastic hubris?

While a renewable energy feed-in tariff was recently cemented after years of dithering by Nersa, it is too little too late. Had we met proclaimed renewable targets we would need to build neither Kusile nor Medupi power stations. Nersa’s dithering has been compounded by Eskom’s consistent anti-competitive bias.

Now the government has insisted that renewable energy supply must be capped at unrealistic levels and put out to tender. Surely any agency that can competitively supply power should be permitted to enter the market? This starkly illustrates the contradiction of the state being Eskom’s sole shareholder, and then in turn using the authority of the state to stifle competition.

Our energy policy lacks considered planning. Career politicians like Alec Erwin utterly failed to develop meaningful policies, instead engaging in counter-productive pro-nuclear daydreaming. Yesterday’s sweetheart, Barbara Hogan’s shift from Health to the Department of Public Enterprises has repeatedly demonstrated that she too has succumbed to a nuclear-induced dwaal.

Hogan’s recent proclamations that we must embrace the nuclear option are both premature and untested. She ignores that nuclear power will cost nearly twice the amount Eskom wishes to charge us in three years time. The nuclear power plant being built in Finland by Areva, identical to the units it wishes to build here, is twice over budget and schedule and will be lucky to produce power at less than R2 per kWh. The alternative, US sourced systems, are equally problematic.

Last year we rejected the nuclear option as being too expensive. Now Hogan expounds on its viability. What has changed in six months? This indicates staggering incompetence and a lack of consistent policy. Lance Greyling of the Independent Democrats, who is one of the few politicians with a decent grasp of energy policy, has pointed out that it is not Hogan’s place to make such proclamations before any consultative process has occurred.

Furthermore, Hogan insists Eskom no longer is a power monopoly. She makes this absurd claim because companies like Sasol (which also benefit from Eskom’s special rating dispensation) are now permitted to sell minuscule amounts of excess energy onto the grid! Barbara is clearly in wonderland.

Hogan is also panicking about the acute pressure being brought to bear by a broadly representative civil society coalition against a World Bank loan, sought to fund Eskom’s Medupi coal fuelled power station. This loan is in direct contravention to proposed World Bank lending criteria. This loan will also subsidise “tenderpreneurs” associated with the ANC linked Chancellor House, which in turn has accrued interests in the Hitachi Corporation that is contracted to provide generation equipment for the coal power plants.

Hogan’s counter that this World Bank loan provides 7% (R1.95 bn.) for renewables simply illustrates the green-wash behind this entire policy fiasco. Her claim blithely ignores the fact that this is 8% less than the established government policy of the 15% renewable mix required in any new energy generation capacity.

This all glosses over the fact that the government has thrown away at least R15 billion on the hare-brained Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, which actually cost far more in lost opportunities as it diverted power policy attention from alternative supply options. The kickbacks from the coal and nuclear expansion will eclipse the arms scandal by degrees of magnitude, while simultaneously exacerbating our power woes.

We require an urgent national debate about what is required to extricate ourselves from our policy chaos. Our solar water heating policy is unworkable. Our waste to energy policy is rubbish. Our renewable energy policy is ignored. Our proposed spending on supercritical coal fired power stations is excessive. Our proposals to engage in ‘carbon capture and storage’ are not grounded in reality. Eskom and national governments’ interference in allowing the open market to establish renewable energy generation plants is unacceptable. The lack of transparency underlying Eskom’s price structures is disgraceful.

There no single area of our national energy policy that is not problematic. The cabinet and relevant ministries have shown themselves incapable of solving this problem.

Unless there is an urgent review of this whole sorry saga we are positioning South Africa to financially compromise its good standing, simply because we cannot adequately or competitively power our economy. We are being set up for a failure that opens our doors to the sharks and vultures of the developed world – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the rest of the Washington consensus – which will put us collectively in hock for generations to come, to be paid off with our abundant resources and by the sweat of our brows.

The heat being generated by the hands gleefully rubbing together in Washington is almost palpable, as they look south…

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Synthetic biology: Artificial life threatens nature and society.

Synthetic food has long been the subject of speculative fiction, from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” where poor quality artificial food spawned dissent, to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” where food was manufactured from coal and petroleum because fossil fuels had trashed global ecosystems.

Today fiction manifests as reality. If genetic modification (GM) of our food were not enough, biologists continue to push the boundaries of their ability to alter life on earth in novel and unpredictable ways. The latest version is known as synthetic biology, or “synbio.”

We are all familiar with chemical based artificial ingredients, especially flavourants and preservatives, in our food. However our evolving ability to manipulate genes enables us to synthesise entirely new living organisms in previously unimaginable ways.

Synbio has become the commercial flavour of the month, with a new supposedly “nature identical” vanilla essence ready to go on sale. But just how nature identical are these synbio products?

From the outset synbio promoters have attempted to avoid both the controversy and the required oversight associated with GM products, claiming that the synbio process produces compounds identical to natural products. Therefore they require no evaluation, monitoring or labelling.

Published studies reveal increasing environmental and health risks associated with GM crops and products, repudiating years of industry denial. Similar denial of the risks associated with synbio products raises an obligation for us to independently monitor and oversee these products.

But what exactly is involved in synthetic biology? Briefly, it is human designed life, using computerised gene sequencing strands of artificial DNA and associated proteins. It can involve “gene shuffling” or “whole genome construction,” using complex algorithm’s involving millions of variants.

These processes are neither risk free nor benign; they essentially involve the creation of novel life forms that could or would not exist naturally. Although experts have written extensively on the subject there is no dedicated international or national regulation of the associated processes, nor have the complex ethical, social, environmental or legal implications been dealt with. Oversight remains unaddressed and absent.

What products are in the pipeline? Besides synbio vanilla flavouring produced via synbio yeast, other products such as synbio rubber and vetiver oil are almost ready for market. Extensive research is being conducted on replacement energy sources. The corporate control and production of these products through patented processes raises other serious concerns beside regulatory oversight.

For instance vanilla is grown by over 200 000 small scale farmers around the world, many in poor nations like Madagascar where vanilla is a leading cash and export crop. An estimated 20 million smallholder farmers rely on the production of natural rubber. Vetiver provides a livelihood for some 60 000 Haitians, the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere. Synbio directly threatens these agricultural industries, along with the downstream supply chains.

The past 20 years has seen extensive international regulation of benefit-sharing of natural products, primarily through the recognition of traditional knowledge and expertise. Synbio facilitates de facto bio-piracy, robbing these marginalised people of these precious resources, just as the piracy of music, books and movies subverts the intellectual property rights of their creators.

While there are ways to protect these rights, we should note that the developers of synbio include the world’s seven largest pharmaceutical companies, leading food commodity traders, along with most of the big chemical and energy companies. This skewed power dynamic essentially pits unsophisticated, poor farmers against the power of the corporate-political nexus.

It is imperative that synbio is not only regulated but that adequate provision is made to ensure that access and benefit sharing contractually protects this vulnerable sector. Synbio threatens to accelerate the already precipitous shift away from traditional, natural production methods toward capital intensive, patented and legislatively protected industrial manufacture, along with presently undisclosed risks. The danger is that synbio reinforces already growing global inequality, further eroding already precarious social cohesion and stability.

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What Is Economic Degrowth?

What Is Economic Degrowth?

Our economic system is premised on the notion of endless growth. Its unintentional manifestations include global warming, dwindling resources, proliferating pollution, the accelerating extinction of species, water and food shortages, all set against the backdrop of a burgeoning global population.

We live in an era that has generated more wealth than any previous known civilisation, yet remain surrounded by inequality. The market has failed to deliver on the promises of its supporters. In fact, we face an unresolved and deepening economic crisis. Ideologically driven geopolitical resource wars have further eroded the fragile reserves of the West.

The developed world’s accumulation of “stuff,” inherent to our consumer culture, has shifted wealth away from the historically dominant nations to the new emerging economies, led by China and India.

While pundits may dispute the scale and causes of our economic crisis, the politicians and economists fiddle at the fringes. Wealth continues to be generated for the select few, while the global system creaks under the strain of debt piled upon speculative instruments. This is propped up by an apparently healthy stock market driven by dollar printing presses running amok.

In light of all of the above, it would seem wise to propose, examine, explore and analyse other economic models, which are capable of sustaining both humanity and life on earth.

Perhaps the most revolutionary solution – revolutionary only because it challenges the foundations of our existing system, as any good revolutionary concept should – is that known in French as ‘décroissance,’ translated as degrowth.

Degrowth examines the flipside of an economy founded on growth. It emphasises putting a human face in how we transact and perhaps more importantly, interact. After its initial conceptualisation by Romanian economist, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, it has been elegantly expounded upon by many other articulate thinkers like Serge Latouche. Its roots lie in the Club of Rome report “The Limits of Growth” and can be traced back to other philosophers like Thoureau and Ghandi, who emphasised concepts like simplicity, justice and equality.

It is difficult to pin down exactly what degrowth is. It is not a model for an alternative economic system. It is more a tool for opening up a discussion on the failures of and alternatives to the status quo.

For instance we need to consider whether our primary reason to interact with strangers is to exploit and extract money from them. Surely happiness is more important than exploitation? Presently both rich and poor, exploited and exploiter alike are unhappy, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Degrowth supports ways to achieve a far more functional society than our present model, which externalises damage to both psyches and planet.

Degrowth is not so much a concept as a call to arms, the initiation of a cultural counter current. It is not a concept but a keyword to provide space for discourse. There is no textbook on degrowth. It is not the antithesis of “growth,” as communism is simplistically portrayed as the opposite of capitalism. Proponents reject polarised perspectives.

Instead, degrowth enables us to examine different ways of doing things, placing different emphases on what is important to us as humans and as society. It does not attempt to be a one size fits all prescription like capitalism, socialism or any other -ism. It is rather the promotion of a non-destructive, humanistic economy and society.

Surely a steady state economy and society, where we have enough but not too much, is far more satisfying than one in which competitive driven insecurity dominates?

The most rabid (and uniformed) critiques of degrowth inevitably dismiss proponents of degrowth as communists (or liberals in the USA!), who wish to take away from the rich to compensate the poor, consequently de-motivating everyone.

This is not at all what is proposed. Rather, degrowth is visualised as the birth of steering our technologically sophisticated world toward a balanced contraction or steady state system that recognises and values everyone’s worth, not one that devours everyone who fails, just as it devours resources in order to sustain itself.

We cannot continue to externalise the impacts of our present model. We cannot endlessly shift production to exploit poor workers in South Africa, Myanmar, China or anywhere else, in a competitive race to the bottom. Degrowth suggests that self-sufficient, participatory local economies are more effective and human than competitive, profit driven and globalised concepts of growth.

What prevents us from placing a true – not exploitative – value on the products and components of the world and the individuals that contribute the value? Proponents of degrowth are keenly observing the present economic crisis, where obscure financial instruments, controlled by young graduates driven by nothing more than greed and technical knowledge, inevitably shift the system towards an end-time entropy.

The reality is we are faced by two converging end-times. One is economic meltdown, the other a just as inevitable ecological meltdown. These two events are incontrovertibly linked if we continue down our existing path.

So what is the problem with creating a green economy based on reparation, whose core values are founded on restoration, not exploitation? Surely it makes far more sense to create a wetland than to destroy one? Even in capitalist terms, wetlands are worth anything between US$2000 and US$80,000 per hectare per year, through the value of natural services they provide.

Is it sufficient to place an economic value on natural services? Why not rather provide for and reward healthy ecosystems, such as wetlands that attenuate floods, provide clean water, fish, food, and fibre? By examining what really is valuable, constructive shifts in perspective can occur. Thus opportunities open to reclaim the humanity in how we transact, while including and redesigning the systems that sustain us.

Degrowth also forces us to re-examine how we use language. Words are all too often usurped and abused to the point of meaninglessness. Just what is sustainable about development? Is sustainable development even possible using the present model? What is green about subsidising fossil fuels, industrial fishing fleets and strip mining that destroy our planet, water and air? Greenwash has made greed interchangeable with green, turning the purity, logic and beauty of language on its head.

In a purportedly democratic world, embracing the alternative of degrowth enables us to question why and how democracy has been usurped by corporations with all of the rights of people but few of the responsibilities? Why are human rights allowed to be trumped by those of predatory corporates? Degrowth impels us to reclaim power from agents implicit in the corruption of democracy by profit driven anti-democratic principles and forces.

Many insist such lofty notions are but empty dreams. But what about the empty dreams built upon the empty promises of a failing economic system which devastates communities and environments?

Surely degrowth offers sweeter options than the bitter taste of poisoned water and the reek of acrid air. What of the abstraction of land exploited beyond its carrying capacity, where it has simply become a medium in which patented seeds are planted and chemicals applied to grow what we unthinkingly refer to as “food,” supplying a fast food culture which has more to do with kill than fill. The flipside is the slow food movement, epitomising the disparate attractions of degrowth.

Degrowth is more than simply the opposite of growth. It is an idea, a seed that allows us to reshape not only perceptions but also our world. Degrowth opens us up to possibilities far too complex to describe and analyse in such a brief exposition as this.

Through stimulating a more comprehensive discourse around the possibilities raised by considering degrowth – which will never be a one size fits all for both North and South, developed and undeveloped in the same way as the existing model claims to be – we can at least open ourselves to examine novel solutions to the daunting challenges we face.

Originally published 16 November 2010.

This article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service – http://www.sacsis.org.za
Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.
The article is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence:

SOS – Save Our Seed: The battle for African seed independence, food security and sovereignty.

In the bid to address Africa’s poor agricultural productivity, international players are set to forbid and even criminalise traditional seed saving practices across the continent. This misguided thrust is driven primarily by corporate interests actively assisted by first world governments and front organisations such as Africa-Bio, which parade as non-governmental organisations.

Africa is situated on the most recent frontier of international agricultural intervention for several reasons. First is the reality that the continent lags significantly behind the rest of the world as far as agricultural productivity is concerned. This is largely the result of poor investment and support for agriculture across the continent, exacerbated by the inability to compete with subsidised first world food commodities.

Secondly, Africa has more arable land available for cultivation than any other continent. This is unsurprising given that China, India, the USA, Western and most of Eastern Europe, along with other little islands like Japan and the United Kingdom are collectively smaller than Africa by area. Africa’s vast landmass, coupled to inadequate historical investment and support into agricultural development makes the continent an attractive investment destination for both speculative and developmental reasons.

Third is the pressing reality to feed Africa’s growing population, set to more than double from its present 1.1 billion, to an estimated 2.4 billion by 2050. Given the high proportion of food insecure Africans, the development of the continent’s agricultural production is a moral and economic obligation for both the African and the international community.

These overlapping realities have created a veritable rush to assist Africa to help itself. However this assistance has been motivated by widely differing and often conflicting aims and consequences. On the one hand are speculators seeking to cash in on the financial opportunities. On the other are supposed philanthropists and development agencies which are not always what they appear to be.

Speculation is a bad tool for development. Speculators have long been a bane of developing nations and particularly of Africa. The continent has a history of exploitation and continues to haemorrhage money, losing tens of millions of dollars daily in illicit flows. Africa loses far more in the value of illicit transfer of material goods and financial flows than it gains in investment, aid and assistance.

The recent thrust to impose a strict and unsuitable intellectual property regime on the sale and trade of seed threatens to worsen this problem by increasing control of the entire agricultural supply chain in corporate hands, removing it from smallholder farmers.

Subsistence agriculture has long been portrayed as inefficient by western development experts, not only in terms of productivity but more specifically because of its insignificant contribution to capital flows. Even successful subsistence and smallholder farmers move very little money through the agricultural supply chain and are therefore not seen as contributing toward economic growth.

Smallholders are nevertheless still profoundly vulnerable. The immediate risks they face are the consequence of crop loss through climatic events like floods, drought, or pest infestations. This has traditionally been dealt with by cultivating a wide variety of crops, trees and livestock by way of insurance.

Because such a system is inherently complex and fragile to interference, it is easily destabilised by ill-informed external interference. Quick fix, technological interventions are an almost open invitation to the law of unintended consequences.

Besides the increasing threats of land grabs and the consequent loss of arable farmland from traditional control to large foreign owners, proposals to modernise traditional seed saving and sharing customs have sinister implications.

The general motivation to improve traditional seed quality is not entirely unfounded. However the technocratic approach to managing this transition, linked with the introduction of strict, restrictive intellectual property law is poorly suited to African farming methods and communal systems.

A short word here on the notion of smallholder farming and the tendency to reject it outright as unsuitable to this day and age. The reality is that smallholder farming has been shown to be far more conducive to community and regional food security than large-scale industrialised agricultural production methods.

The publication of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology and Development (IAASTD) report in 2008, sponsored by the World Bank and various UN agencies, clearly stated that food security relies on what it calls the multifunctionality of agricultural production. This means that farming is not only about producing food, although that is the primary aim. It is also about culture, medicinal plants, the maintenance of ecological integrity, self-sufficiency and other outcomes which are not directly financially aligned.

Several institutions have emerged out of the drive to improve African agriculture. First is the African Union agricultural programme, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Second is the externally funded African Green Revolution for Agriculture (AGRA), founded by the Gates foundation, now also supported by both the US and UK governments, along with private and corporate interests.

While both the CAADP and AGRA are ostensibly well-intended and have developed many useful initiatives, their drive to improve the seed supply chain is arguably the most risky intervention of all. The most obvious threat is the direct intervention of the world’s largest seed companies. While these powerful entities purportedly wish to provide assistance, they have continually applied pressure to impose a restrictive, intellectual property regime with continental implications.

South Africa has been used as a springboard for this interventionist expansion into sub-Saharan Africa. Its own seed market is now controlled by the world’s two largest seed companies, Monsanto and DuPont’s Pioneer. Because these companies are deeply invested into seed research, buying up seed companies and genetic data – for instance Monsanto purchased Malawi’s national seed company some time ago while Pioneer recently acquired South Africa’s last large seed company Pannar in 2011 – they maintain tight control of their investments through intellectual property regimes.

These companies also sell genetically modified (GM) seed and agricultural chemicals. While both AGRA and the Gates Foundation have supported GM technology as a real solution to food security, the IAASTD report downplayed any significant potential. Experts feel that GM is a technical response to broader, more systemic problems such as poor infrastructure, markets and concentrated supply chains.

Across the developed world these modern GM and hybrid seeds are protected by strict intellectual property regimes, notably by an intellectual property regime known as UPOV 1991. The seed companies, along with South Africa’s seed organisation SANSOR, the US State Department and the UK Department of International Development have all applied significant pressure on African governments to adopt UPOV 91.

As a result the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) has unilaterally drafted a protocol in order to push for the adoption of UPOV 91 through government regulatory processes. If CAADP and AGRA truly wish to assist improvement of seed quality and if the promise that new seed varieties being introduced to this end will actually have no patent or intellectual property protection as claimed by the supposed benefactors, then it is clear that UPOV 91 is not just a clumsy tool to manage this matter, but is in fact entirely the wrong instrument.

Strong grassroots opposition has arisen against the protocol to introduce UPOV 91 as it will effectively outlaw traditional seed saving and sharing. A statement drafted by more than 75 national and regional agricultural NGOs and civil society organisations has strongly objected to the ARIPO protocol and called for its withdrawal.

However the reality appears to be that powerful vested interests are fixated on securing control of African agricultural production through force, artifice and stealth. This flies in the face of the International Declaration on Human rights and that the principle that equality of fair opportunity be afforded to both innovators and those who develop and rely on traditional seed rights.

It would be counter-productive to deny Africans the right to fairly and equitably feed themselves without undue interference. Africa certainly needs innovation but it cannot be so that one form of innovation is permitted to outweigh or dominate another. In order to be just and ethically acceptable, the development of African agriculture needs to occur consultatively, not by stealth or by seeking to dominate through abuse of first world mechanisms devised to perpetuate an extension of the colonial model from which the continent has yet to fully emerge.

Controlling seed means controlling food production. It is the right of Africans to choose how they farm and not to fall victim to indebtedness through being forced to purchase seed from a predatory agricultural-industrial complex.

SACSIS Attribution
A shortened version of this article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service – http://www.sacsis.org.za
Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.
The article is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence:

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) – lighting our way to a cleaner, greener future.

The electronics revolution has opened up massive opportunities through the internet and communication technology. It has also made our lives far more energy efficient, particularly through improvements to interior lighting. The latest kid on the block of lighting are light emitting diodes (LEDs) which are quietly revolutionising how we light our lives, in just about every way.

In a few decades we will recall our use of old fashioned, inefficient incandescent light bulbs as strangely as we now view our grandparents using coal-fired stoves to cook on.

There are presently three main varieties of light bulbs available for home use. The old-fashioned incandescent light bulb works by passing power through a coil of tungsten wire enclosed in a vacuum, making it glow white hot. Most of the energy is wasted as heat. The bulbs last only a short time, around 1200 hours on average. Energy efficiency is generally less than 5%.

Incandescent bulbs include the familiar normal round light bulbs, as well as reflective spotlights and the slightly more sophisticated halogen light bulbs normally used as recessed down-lighters. The sheer electrical inefficiency of incandescent light bulbs is rapidly making them obsolescent.

Most people are now aware of the new energy efficient compact fluorescent lights (CFL) which are essentially a miniaturised version of the long, old fashioned fluorescent tubes one still finds in schools, factories and other large open spaces. Miniaturised electronics have enabled manufacturers to reduce the size of CFLs to approach those of incandescent light bulbs.

CFLs are far more efficient and long lasting than the incandescent lights they replace, operating at around 15 to 20% efficiency, about four times that of incandescent lights. They last between 6000 and 10 000 hours, around 5 to 8 times longer than incandescent lights. They emit far less heat, yet do become warm.

Finally there are light emitting diodes or LED lights. LEDs are semi-conductors, just as transistors or computer chips are. It has only recently become technically feasible to manufacture LEDs that emit sufficient amounts of light in similar parts of the colour spectrum to incandescent and CFL bulbs.

Some LEDs still tend to be a bit colder, meaning whiter or bluer, than we are accustomed to. This problem is rapidly being solved with the latest generation of LEDs emitting a more yellow, warmer light spectrum, almost identical to incandescent lights.

However the most important advantage of LED lights is their sheer efficiency. Most LEDs operate at around 35% efficiency and continue to improve in efficiency. Consequently they use far less power and remain cool to the touch.

Then there is the important matter of life span and durability. An LED light bulb lasts between 20 000 and 50 000 hours, 2 to 8 times that of a CFL light and up to 50 times longer than a comparable halogen or incandescent bulb. This is an important consideration as LED lights remain quite expensive, primarily due to the fact that the technology is still developing.

LED efficiency is improving at a similar rate to computing power, doubling every year or so. As the technology improves, the cost will continue to fall.

Fluorescent and incandescent lights emit light differently to LEDs. Both of the former types of lights emit light equally in all directions. LEDs provide a far more focussed beam, most easily compared to a spotlight.

Because of these characteristics it is best to use each of these lights for specific purposes. For instance I have five LED down-lighters in my ceiling that draw only 2 watts each, collectively consuming less power than a single CFL bulb! Because LED light is focussed, they are ideally suited to down-lighters, replacing halogen lights.

They are also far safer because they run cooler. Halogen down-lighters are one of the primary causes of house fires because of the immense heat they emit, combined with the often dusty conditions in which they are installed.

LEDs are also superior for reading due to the fact that they have far less flicker than fluorescent bulbs. The generally whiter light of LEDs is also easier on the eye when reading text on paper. They are also increasingly used in torches, car lights and headlights, with vastly improved battery life and of course bulb life.

There are some individuals who have become sensitive to electromagnetic radiation (EMR), typically emitted by cell phones, wi-fi, cellphone and wi-max masts, who are also often sensitive to the radiation emitted by the circuitry of CFLs. The reality is that CFLs can be a trigger for EMR sensitivity because we are so close to the source of emssions. This, combined with the flicker of fluorescents, remain major reasons for their unpopularity. LEDs do not have this problem, nor do they have a lag after being switched on, common to many CFLs.

However CFLs can be an efficient source of space lighting in situations where conventional incandescent bulbs have traditionally been used. Given their low cost compared to LED lights they presently remain a competitive option when used for this sort of application. I do predict that LED lighting will overcome this shortcoming through design innovations.

It is also important to know that CFL lights contain mercury, in the bulb, to make it work. Therefore broken CFL lights – in fact all fluorescent lights – should not be vacuumed up but should be carefully swept up and safely disposed of. Although the amount of mercury in each lamp is low, the toxicity of this element must be considered when disposing them at the end of their life.

CFLs should never be disposed of in general waste streams or thrown in the bin. Instead they should be returned to the shops where they were purchased, who are obliged, by law, to provide recycling options in South Africa. Many other countries have recycling programmes in place. The CFL light industry is presently finalising a comprehensive recycling scheme which will make the disposal of these bulbs easier.

LEDs on the other hand are completely inert with any toxic material – which may be present in tiny amounts – completely integrated into the solid state lamp. Because of this solid state nature, LED lights are also more shockproof and can usually be dropped without any significant damage, an advantage for clumsy do-it-yourselfers!

So while LEDs presently remain an expensive option they will repay their cost in two ways. Firstly through their efficiency and low wattage saving significant power costs, and then secondly through their longevity.

I have a LED red nightlight for my youngest child that is 11 years old. It is sometimes inadvertently left on but I worry far less about this than if it were an incandescent bulb as it draws less than 1 watt! I remember replacing the old night light bulbs for the younger children almost monthly.

The reality is that LED lights are already far cheaper in the long run, even if they remain expensive to purchase. This is clearly shown in the table below, where LEDs cost about one third of a CFL and more than 12 times cheaper than old fashioned incandescent bulbs.

Even if left on for 24 hours a day a LED light should remain bright enough for around 3 to 5 years; I am not saying that you should leave it on though! They do not blow like other lights but simply fade away when they get older. The cost of the bulbs is constantly coming down and has dropped by almost 50% over the past three years (2011-2014).

LEDs are safer, more environmentally friendly, less polluting in manufacture, use and disposal. They are rapidly becoming more efficient while costs fall. The future is here and it is LED!


light comparison table

Table: Cost/Efficiency comparison of incandescent, CFL and LED light bulbs. Ashton 2011.

This article was originally published in the magazine “Natural Medicine” in South Africa in 2011. It has been rewritten and the table was updated to 2014 prices.

South African Journal of Natural Medicine

Some recent unpublished letters to the newspaper….

I must be losing my touch. It used to be that the newspapers would publish every letter I wrote to the editor. Sometimes this would amount to one or two a month.

For some reason – which I will get to shortly – our local morning daily, the Cape Times, has not published a single letter for quite some time. I am starting to wonder whether I have lost my touch. I do know that there is a new editor and owner and probably a new letters editor, which may have something to do with it.

Perhaps this is not so. Perhaps my letters cut more and more to the real issues and the printed media does not want to deal with the real issues? Maybe it prefers to dabble on the surface and not really immerse itself into the swamp of greed into which the world has sunk.

This may not be so and perhaps the years have transformed me into a verbose, curmudgeonly old fart with nothing worthwhile to say.

In case I am wrong I share the last few letters, with some background context, for those who care to read. After all each of them follow the theme of this blog: trying to make the world a better place. And maybe that is not what newspapers are really about anymore. But that is far too cynical and a dark place to go and visit, no?

Questioning big pharma:

This letter was in response to correspondence which questioned Complimentary Alternative Medicines (CAM), with all of the usual biases shown in that debate around how CAM is unscientific and untested. Which is crap…

I am happy that Sidney Kaye (letters 5 June) wishes to fine-tune his mechanistic body with assistance from the medical industrial complex rather than the world of complementary medicine, or apparently, of common sense.
He may be interested to learn that poor medical practices and medical side effects, also known as iatrogenics, conservatively caused 210 000 deaths per year 2008-2011 in the USA, according to a study published by the Journal of Patient Safety. This was a sharp increase from the 98 000 “lost” in 1999.

A single pharmaceutical, Merck’s “Vioxx,” has been deemed responsible for some 50 000 fatalities. Its forced withdrawal from the market has been credited with saving nearly half a million lives. Over the last three years the US government has fined the pharmaceutical industry alone over $11 billion for illegal sales, marketing, drug contamination and manipulating research.

Conversely, remarkably little research is directed by toward solving our most pressing global health challenges. Malaria research is funded primarily through philanthropic, non-medical sources because industry deems it insufficiently profitable.

Yet a new front line malaria drug, artemisinin, is sourced from a plant, Artemisia annua, as was the first, Quinine. Nearly half of existing pharmaceutical drugs are sourced from plants. Extensive research has been conducted on plant based bio-compounds, thousands indicating proof of efficacy.

I would personally prefer to choose natural and complimentary medicines. They are rarely conclusively linked to contra-indications. When these occur they are usually between plant compounds and chemical pharmaceuticals. These cases are routinely hyped up by the medical-industrial complex, blaming natural medicines, not pharmaceuticals.

South Africa struggles to regulate even conventional pharmaceuticals. The Medicines Control Council (MCC) is essentially dysfunctional. To overburden the MCC by forcing it to regulate harmless, yet often useful complimentary medicines is a reactionary response, actively encouraged misinformed and avaricious interests allied to conventional medicine.

While Kaye may wish to tune his “mechanical” organism through conventional medicine, others clearly prefer to first employ individual approaches. Our increasing knowledge of natural and alternative medicines has provided profound revelations how these substances help maintain the delicate balances within our complex, individual metabolic processes. We are not uniform, Cartesian machines.

Yes, there certainly is a place for conventional, allopathic medicine. But to claim the unalloyed superiority of reductionist Cartesian perspectives appears misplaced. Doctors are not gods, neither is the medical industry infallible.

Most importantly, complimentary, alternative and traditional medicines still have a very real role to play in our lives. It is democratically abhorrent to limit our free choice in this matter.


Next was a long letter which examines the increasingly pro-development bent of our City Council, under the control of the liberal (even neo-liberal) Democratic Alliance, who have rolled out a “red carpet for red tape” for developers:

The excellent reports in your newspaper by (reporters) Melanie Gosling and Zara Nicholson, along with related consequent correspondence in the letters column regarding the alienation of important agricultural land in the Phillipi area for housing and industrial use refers.

The decision by the City of Cape Town Mayoral Committee (Mayco) to allow development in an important component of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) flies in the face of several established city policies. These include the recently promulgated and widely consultative Spatial Development Framework and its associated city zoning scheme, the groundbreaking Urban Agriculture policy (the first such policy in sub-Saharan Africa), the Integrated Metropolitan Environmental Policy, the Urban Edge as well as several other regional and international policies. It is counterproductive to broadly consult, at great expense, develop policies and then disregard them.

The misleading justifications of this bizarre about face proffered by Cllr. Bloor illustrate three things: Firstly his poor grasp of integrated planning principles, exacerbated by a poor comprehension of what constitutes a sustainable city; secondly, his unsuitability as a committee member for Economic, Environmental and Spatial Planning (EESP) and finally and most seriously, the inherent conflict between political party funding, combined with the toxic relationship between the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF) and the DA, city and provincial authorities with their “red carpet for red tape” policy. I will deal with each of these serious issues in turn.

Urbanisation is a major global trend, although it is predicted to slow in South Africa. Cities, long perceived as unsustainable entities, have been re-imagined to provide emerging models for sustainable development. For this to occur cities need to fulfil several criteria, including due care of environmental resources, in this case those related to urban food security. Cities are unsustainable if they simply import food from distant areas.

Philippi is therefore a critical environmental resource. It produces more than 90 000 tonnes of food per year, on around 1500 hectares of land, through up to 5 crops per annum. This land is amongst the most productive in the country, yielding on average over 50 tonnes per hectare. To even consider building on land of this quality, especially when there are numerous other alternatives already identified in the area, not only epitomises unsustainable practice, it borders on the criminally insane. Mayco ought to relocate, en masse, to a familiar urban landmark with a green roof (the local asylum) for even considering this development proposal.

Second, Councillor Bloor appears unable to differentiate his categorically conflicted roles on the EESP. His pursuit of economic development through house and industrial development illustrates a constrained world view. He is clearly ill-equipped and untrained to represent environmental interests, which fundamentally conflict with the objectives of economic development, especially when viewed through his lens of economics training. Like most conventional neo-liberal economists, especially adherents of the discredited Chicago and Austrian schools which he aligns himself with as a member of the Mount Pelerin Society, he believes that the environment both stands in the way of economic growth, while simultaneously providing huge economic benefits through exploitation. This thinking highlights the disjuncture in his official position.

If Cape Town is to become a sustainable city – and we are most certainly a long way from one at present – we have to pursue and encourage sustainable practices. The PHA, which supplies half of our fresh vegetables, is an essential part of our city’s foodbowl. Bloor’s colleague Cllr. Smit likewise shows an inability to recognise the contradictions in his thinking, which appears to be that if there is uncontrolled squatting, let’s not control it but simply use it as justification for further development outside the designated urban edge. This is akin to allowing developers let large tracts of land go to ruin under alien vegetation and then claim it has no intrinsic botanical value hence should be developed. Instead of going down that particular rabbit hole, we should rather police the urban edge, not permit uncontrolled squatting or loss of agricultural land.

Finally and possibly most importantly we need to follow the money. The reality is that party political funding is the Achilles heel of our democratic system, across the board. This has been demonstrated by the ANC with its Chancellor house relationships and also by the DA with its chequebook influenced decision making structures.

Elected DA representatives are not simply expected to attract funding, they are impelled to do so. Failure brings censure and possible loss of lucrative positions. The relationship between the DA, councillors, officials and the WCPDF is inherently conflictual. The WCPDF even goes so far as to declare that it aims to become a statutory body. Imagine that; development policy dictated by developers.

The cosy relationship between councillors, officials, decision makers and the WCPDF is unacceptable. It actively undermines the intents and purposes of the agreed upon Spatial Development Framework, notably the aspects that deal with agriculture and the concept of sustainability.

That the WCPDF has been granted direct access to power is at odds with open democracy. This relationship undermines transparent public participation, especially given that there is no countervailing information flow with civil society organisations and representatives.

In reality we do not have a city that works for us. Instead our city works for developers, who lobby and undermine public processes in return for short term capital gain and profits.

A strong argument can be made that there should be public hearings, if not a commission of enquiry into the relationship between the WCPDF and the DA, our elected representatives, city officials and other decision makers. This is an unhealthy relationship which must be curtailed.


The next was along similar lines, questioning why the city has even considered an unsolicited bid to build a massive exurb to the north of Cape Town, driven by the same development interests:

A number of events lead me to a firm conclusion that environmental planning and developmental analysis in this city is under unprecedented attack through collusion between political and commercial interests.

The first event is the out- of-the-blue initiative by a consortium of developers to initiate a massive exurb on the northern periphery of Cape Town. This initiative has been roundly condemned by all well informed independent planning academics and experts. It is doubly ironic that the consortium made this proposal on the virtual eve of Cape Town becoming the design capital of the world in 2014 – nothing could be as far removed from good design as this pretentious pustule of poor planning.

The second is the increasing cosiness between the DA led City and Province and the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF). The proposed “red carpet” to smooth planning proposals, while ostensibly sensible, is simultaneously a massive threat to proper integrated planning, as evinced above. The stated goal of the WCPDF is to become “A body that represents development that is recognized by authorities and which will ultimately become a statutory recognised body.” Its tentacles already appear to control too many administrative levers of power.

To even consider having a forum, guided, run and controlled by property developers as a statutory, recognised body should send chills down our collective backs. This is centralised planning epitomised. The reality behind party political funding should ring additional alarm bells in our collective conscience.

The third event is the unilateral concentration of planning administration in the City in one central office, removing planning decision making from the various sub-councils. This and the gutting of SPELUM, the Spatial Planning, Environment and Land Use Management Committee by the mayoral executive committee are even more sinister from a democratic perspective.

The fourth and final warning bell is the tabling of a Proposed Amendments to Systems
of Delegations for Economic, Environmental and Spatial Planning before the City Council in order to further facilitate planning centralisation in the city. In this proposal, one individual, the Executive Director: Economic, Environmental and Spatial Planning will effectively hold centralised control over all metropolitan planning authority.

What appears to be underway is an unprecedented takeover of the planning and development of our city by developers and building companies which hold massive power through their non-transparent funding of political parties and power. The Competition Commission has already investigated the building industry for collusion and found it wanting. What is emerging is the potential for collusion and corruption on an almost unimaginable scale.

All of the above is profoundly undemocratic and is counter to our fundamental constitutional rights. Section 152 of the Constitution states that “The objects of local
government are to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities.” What is occurring, let alone what is proposed, is the very antithesis of this. It is also antithetical to the proper administration of the Municipal Systems act which must provide democratic and accountable local government that encourages community involvement.

The DA led City and Province effectively indicate a desire to enable developers and construction firms to undermine our collective democratic rights. This is in line with that parties liberal principles which prioritise unfettered business and commercial rights, in this case from an urban planning and development perspective. This is not speculation – the evidence is clear.

The DA is simply showing its true colours as a profoundly anti-democratic party which supports the interests of free and unfettered enterprise above and beyond those of individual or of collective constitutional rights. A collective Princess Vlei awaits us all, a chilling situation indeed.


This next letter was a broadside at our monopoly power producer Eskom, the fifth largest power producer in the world and the third largest emitter of CO2, along with our coal to oil converter, Sasol, which runs the worlds biggest single point emitter of CO2 in Secunda. These two entities are both attempting to avoid clean air regulation.

Your editorial of Friday October 4, “Air waves”, refers.

It is beyond the pale that long-term polluters like Eskom and Sasol, who have each enjoyed years of externalising the costs and impacts of their activities on humans and the environment, have the temerity to apply for exemptions to the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act (NEMAQA).

Both Sasol and Eskom rely on coal as feedstock. Coal is the dirtiest fuel on the planet, bar none. Considering the cost of the impacts of mercury emissions from coal alone, South Africa is the second largest emitter of mercury in the world after China. Mercury is a persistent, cumulative toxin, with serious health impacts. Neither is mercury coal’s only serious pollutant.

Industry has delayed the implementation of NEMAQA for years through legal appeals against the law and its regulations, which effectively remain ongoing. Representatives from the energy, chemicals, petroleum, cement and forestry sectors have thrown huge resources at weakening and delaying the implementation of meaningful regulation of dangerous airborne pollution, placing profit above public interest and benefit.

A similar situation occurred in 1980’s in the USA when the government sought to limit sulphur emissions that caused acid rain in Canada. The power utilities fought tooth and nail against any regulation. Yet when emissions were eventually controlled, the costs over the first decade came to between $8 and $9 billion. The benefits were valued at between $101 and $119 billion – a ten-fold benefit.

We have good environmental laws. We can no longer be held to ransom by obstructionist industries which profit by externalising the impacts of their activities. Besides the inherent immorality of the matter is that these large corporations are squandering our own, limited public resources by shamelessly spending vast sums to endlessly delay the due and proper implementation of an act signed into law almost a decade ago.

Aristide: Wrong hemisphere, wrong time

Aristide; wrong hemisphere, wrong time.

Glenn Ashton

May 2004

(Note: I repost this older article in light of the comment made by Bill Clinton that they had screwed up in Haiti and that he regretted his role in US intervention in this nation).

Jean Bertrand Aristide was, in 1990, the hope of Haiti, a shining light emerging from the clergy to usher that benighted nation from its US supported Duvalier nightmare into a new democratic future. There was however one problem; he was a socialist, a man of the people, an egalitarian leader.

Haiti is separated from Cuba by only a narrow channel. Like Cuba until the 1950s, it has long been reliant on its economic ties to the USA, both from funds repatriated by Haitians living in the US and as a source of cheap labour for sweatshops and plantations. In 1990 it appeared to the US to be headed in the same direction as Cuba.

US Navy vessels entered Haitian waters 24 times between 1849 and 1913, to “protect American lives and property”, according to Noam Chomsky. Thus was Haitian sovereignty ignored under the Munroe doctrine. This doctrine was adopted by US President Munroe in 1823, when the that regional giant began to flex its regional muscle, declaring the ‘Western Hemisphere’ out of bounds to European intervention. This early phase of US unilateralism in the region led to the famous ‘Banana Republics’ of Central America, ruled by appointees of the US-owned that supported their interests, primarily the Standard Fruit and United Fruit Companies. The Monroe doctrine was the start of the US marking the greater Caribbean basin as ‘American turf’.

Aristide’s emphasis on social rights immediately put him on the wrong side of Washington. Just as popular movements were crushed in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – the old Banana republics – in the 1980s (mainly by paramilitary hit squads trained at the infamous US run “School of the Americas” in Panama which has relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia and remains active today), so too was Aristide a marked man from day one.

Aristide got 67% of the vote; his US backed, ex-World Bank official Mark Bazin received only 14% of the vote. Aristide came to power in February 1991 and was deposed seven months later, in a US backed coup.

Aristide’s brief rule began to move toward participative, bottom up democratic government, according to Noam Chomsky. However his populism so threatened US interests that he was deposed. After his ouster, an all-out campaign was engaged by both the Haitian army and hired thugs to stamp out the nascent civil society activity. Deeply involved were two individuals who were directly connected to the CIA, Raul Cedras and Emmanuel Constant, of whom more later.

Thousands were killed and the Organisation of American States (OAS) declared sanctions against the illegal rule in Haiti. The US promptly declared its 800 companies involved in Haiti exempt from such sanctions. The next few years saw a period of repression as bad as than that of the Duvalier thugocracy, when their dreaded Tonton Macoutes were allowed free rein in a reign of terror. From 1991 until 1994 it was US inspired, if not supported, proxy forces that engaged in crushing this new social movement. An estimated four to five thousand people were killed in this oppression led by Cedras, Constant and others with direct links to US agencies.

Aristide remained in exile during this time. He was returned to power after extensive international pressure forced US intervention to allow the duly elected head of a democratic state to fulfil his mandate. Additionally, the ongoing international and domestic outcry about the Haitian boat people, literally dying to escape the horror of Haiti, helped tip the scale.

With irony piled upon irony, Aristide was returned to his leadership of Haiti by the same US forces that similtaneously gave amnesty to Constant and many of his thugs. The US also removed extensive documentation from the Haitian armed forces and security services to the US mainland. Both the Bush I and Clinton presidencies refused to part with these documents until names of US citizens were removed. Nobody has even bothered to ask Bush II.

Aristide was forced to accept a wealthy scion as Prime Minister in 1994 and was instructed to institute neo-liberal structural reforms as set out by the US and international financial institutions. This was also, true to pattern, supported by the wealthy classes in Haiti, the traders, plantation owners and assembly line operators, in order to promote a more ‘investor friendly’ climate, supported amongst others by US Aid.

Aristide was thus politically compromised. His constituency wanted fair reward for their labour while his US aligned opponents reverted to their old tactics of political disruption by thugs. Aristide’s supporters countered this and the chaotic stalemate hampered any significant progress along the lines that Aristide and his supporters sought.

Aristide nevertheless tried to continue to put his vision of democracy in place and managed to hold elections in 2000 that were largely fair and free and in which he was again elected by a comfortable majority. The opposition largely boycotted this election over a dispute about the positions of some of their senatorial candidates, in what was essentially a distraction that enabled his opponents to call foul about the elections.

Against this background of instability and external interference, the ante was upped by the return of Emannuel Constant’s men to the border regions of the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s poverty-stricken eastern neighbour. The insurrection picked up momentum. The entire nation slid towards chaos, that was clearly not of Aristide’s making but was driven by external forces aligned to US interests.

In amongst all of this chaos came the celebration of Haiti’s 200 years of independence at the beginning of 2004. This event puts it amongst the oldest independent – nominally, at least – democratic nations. President Mbeki, in an act of solidarity, supported this important event on behalf of the African Diaspora. We must not forget that Haitians overthrew the European plantation owners in a struggle for freedom that began at the end of the 18th century and which continues to this day. The implications of the Haitian example for Africa are profound. It can be strongly argued that our President was correct to both support the Haitian bicentennial celebrations and to invite Aristide to South Africa in his time of need.

After (and apparently during) the South African visit, public order deteriorated rapidly and the US-inspired ‘intervention’, widely regarded as a coup, led to Aristide finding himself on an aircraft to Africa, in an ironic reverse of the slave route that brought his ancestors to the West Indies.

Aristide was not the awful leader that he has been made out to be. He was hardly in any position to run a model democracy but given the blighted history of Haiti his rule was benign. He built more schools in his country during the few years of his rule than had been built in the previous history of Haiti. He allowed unionisation and worker rights. He put a cost-effective public administration in place but vested local and external interests actively undermined his grassroots version of democracy.

The saga of the little priest, Bertrand Artistide is one that has strong resonance with our own liberation movement. It echoes our hopelessness in the time of Apartheid. But Aristide’s real problem is that Haiti is simply situated in the wrong hemisphere to install a people-centred government. The proximity of Haiti in relation to Cuba, the US and Venezuela emphasises its geopolitical strategic value. When Bush II was installed, right wing Haitian expatriates and businessmen gained the ear of the administration and effectively sealed Aristide’s fate.

Had Aristide been the leader of an African nation he would have been hailed as a visionary leader, as someone committed to the rights of the people, a considered man who would have been supported by the First World. He was after all a community priest, someone who lived amongst his people and knew them and what they wanted. He was the reluctant leader of a popular experiment in participative democracy, something that we should all celebrate. Instead he was portrayed as a revolutionary working against the interests of the regional superpower and was mercilessly crushed, crushing the democracy he sought with him. He was the right man, doing the right thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The present dynamic in Haiti points to a hopeful outcome. Brazil and other regional nations are involved in restoring stability under UN mandate. South Africa too has a role to play by assisting this elected head of state to return to his nation when peace and order have been restored.

It is just and correct that a nation with the moral reputation of South Africa welcome President Bertrand Aristide of Haiti with dignity and hospitality. It is also high time that those who question our largesse properly examine the real history of the corruption of Haiti.

Glenn Ashton lived in the Caribbean Basin for three years during the 80s and 90s, observing the influences and results of post-colonialism and neo-colonialism in the region.

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What it means to be human

what it means to be human

glenn ashton

am not only
because we are

i you we all are
solidified in bones
cosmic echoes circulate through blood
genetically coded from protozoan
echoing across millennia
manifest as human
star powered people

held by gaia
protected from malevolent radiation and rocks
by a fragile magnetosphere atmosphere stratosphere
forcing me to ponder
why am I here
surrounded by beauty
seen but exploited

magic disguised as deities
tamed by superstition then logic
deconstructed to atomic scale
and beyond
minutiae measured and formulated
but inadequately contextualised
purified by love
but impure

watchmaker clockmaker matchmaker
singing songs of spheres
in baffling diversity
intrinsically linked
to protoplasm plankton
fungible fungi
breathing life
into soil plants fish
transmogrified from dinosaurs into apes

apes clever enough
to wittingly destroy
not only the earth songs magic
beyond measure
but unwittingly poison the symphony of systems that sing
songs whispering unheard secrets
down through the ages of time

we come and go and come and go
susuruss silently slipping
which dims
into the pinging pinpoint
of consciousness beyond comprehension

i me you we all
shall pass and return

in time the sun will burst
red giant washing away earth gaia terra
as easily as we blow dandelion fluff
back to the love of ages
breathing out again into the cosmos
our ancient home
stellar travellers
dust to dust
never alone