Making a group decision

By Femke@bentec.co.za

Recently, I asked two similar groups of university students to make a group decision. The decision was about nominating one person in the group that made the biggest impression in presenting their final assignment. I asked them how they would like to decide who would be nominated. Should we have an open conversation or shall we vote? It so happened that the two groups chose a different procedure to come to a nomination. 

The groups consisted of more or less 10 students. Group 1 chose to make a decision through having an open conversation. We sat in a circle and started talking about the impressions of everyone. It soon became clear that there were two candidates for the nomination. Interestingly, for very different reasons. The one candidate was perceived as having performed very well in the assignment, the other candidate got nominated because students were rewarding the progress  this person made during the course. Now the group started discussing which nomination would make the most sense, what were actually the best reasons for a nomination? And so the conversation continued and ultimately the whole group agreed on who to nominate. 

Group 2 chose to have a secret vote. One student mentioned that if we would share our choices out loud, it might affect the decisions of others. Then we would be biased. We created little pieces of paper where every student wrote down the name of the student they wished to nominate. They insisted I voted too. I could sense excitement and anticipation in the classroom as I collected the papers. Who would get the most votes? The students were quiet as I counted them. It was a clear decision as almost everyone voted for the same student. We congratulated the nominee and commented on the outstanding performance.  

It struck me that both processes of making a group decision felt so different. In the first group, I witnessed how students were engaged and listened to as we all learned about everyone’s views in the process of making a decision. Biases were out in the open and discussed. And indeed, some changed their mind about who should be nominated because they understood new perspectives they could consider. Is that unfair? I think not. Changing your mind based on new information and insight makes sense. In group 2 we only learned that the majority of students agreed on the nomination, but we didn’t have a clear understanding for what reasons. The minority votes and perspectives were simply outvoted. 

The two groups had a different experience of participation in decision making. Group 1 engaged in a kind of consensus-based decision making that included everyone equally and valued the process itself as a form of direct democratic practice. Group 2 experienced another form of democratic decision making. In this process, the group missed out on learning about the considerations of all the voters. In other contexts, especially when the stakes are higher, this kind of voting could lead to a tyranny of the majority where minorities are oppressed. In group 1 there was no minority and although there were different views, students agreed on their group’s decision.

We have choices in how to make group decisions. When ordering pizza and when shaping the direction of our organisations and societies. How will you go about making a group decision next time?

Crashing doorsteps

[A comment on the book “The economy on your doorstep” (TEOYD) by Ayabonga Cawe.]

By Ronald@bentec.co.za

Acts of violent sabotage and a wave of mass looting engulfed South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces as I was reading this book. These events were triggered by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma on a charge of contempt of court, but commentators quickly agreed that the structure and state of the economy were central to what was happening. TEOYD is an excellent book by one of the foremost economists in the country who, as a host on South Africa’s most popular English language radio station, has demonstrated a knack for talking economics with Reserve Bank governors as well as casual workers. What insights does it offer that can help us understand the unrest of July 2021?

Without attempting to exhaust its rich offerings, there are some points that struck me.

Cawe raises the issue of local government’s role in the economy and specifically the needed synergy between the economic interventions of local governments and that of their national and provincial counterparts. Readers feel the author’s frustration (exasperation?) with the lack of a clear plan that brings expenditure and especially investment by different levels of government in line with job creation and industrial development. A large and fascinating part of the book lays out the details of what such a plan could look like in Cawe’s origin province of the Eastern Cape. What does this have to do with the unrest? Everything; which becomes clear as we follow Cawe’s argument. 

TEOYD locates this absence of a jobs/manufacturing plan within the interlocking of South Africa’s socio-economic structure and policy orientation. At the top of the economic pyramid in the most unequal country in the world sit the owners of the financial, mining, agriculture, retail and diminished manufacturing sectors. They make the money to pay for their palatial doorsteps in Sandton, Stellenbosch and London either from overseas markets or from domestic consumption financed by credit. In other words, this group does not need increased manufacturing output to drive their profits, nor do they need more wage earners to increase spending and profits. Their domination of the economy and policy making is the ultimate block on the growth of manufacturing, which alone can create sustainable jobs and also form the basis for the development of a black capitalist class of significant size and, importantly, with some independence from government service tenders and share subsidies from big capital. 

In my view, the unrest of July 2021 is an almost perfect illustration of the forces unleashed as a result of the situation Cawe describes and analyses with the precision of an economist and the popular touch of a radio host. The Zuma group politically represents that section of the Black middle and aspirant capitalist class that is frustrated with being locked out of the ownership of the wealthiest parts of the economy and being reduced to self-enrichment through tenderpreneurship and corruption. As comes through in the book, they are not the bearers of a political-economic programme in support of manufacturing and industrial development. (One of TEOYD’s gripes is the lack of political champions for such an obviously necessary and doable programme.) Instead, they represent a driver of the disconnection between expenditure and industrial development, because they prioritise their own enrichment out of government spending over maximising the development impact of such spending. Nevertheless, TEOYD helps us understand this group by illuminating the dominance of  white owned financial capital from where the frustrations of this group stem. 

This dominance is politically represented by the Ramaphosa group. The confidence of finance capital in this group was demonstrated by, among other things, the stability of the rand and the ‘nothing to worry about’ message by the Fitch ratings agency. The Ramaphosa group’s ‘restore order’ and more of the same agenda would surprise no one that read TEOYD’s explanation of the faithful embrace between economic policy and finance capital.

Then, the looters. After the initial actions by the Zuma group, masses of people broke into food stores and helped themselves. TEOYD paints the picture of poverty, inequality, unemployment and stagnant development that made such occurrences inevitable. This, the most heartrending aspect of the book, is perhaps its most uncontroversial. The country has been waiting for a megaton explosion for years. This was not it. But no one can say that hungry, jobless people looting shops is a surprise. 

Finally, there was another group among the looters about whom TEOYD is at its most helpful and thought provoking. As much as the looting was a classical food riot driven by hunger, that was not the only thing that was happening. There were groups among the looters who arrived with expensive vehicles and targeted flat screen TVs and luxury household goods. One of them included a CEO of a financial company! TEOYD provides insight into this group. 

It explains how finance capital drives a culture of consumerism that pushes people to go into debt in order to acquire the latest consumer goods that are tied to hunger not for food but for recognition and status. This group clearly seized the opportunity presented by the unrest and went for the double door fridges and leather couches that they would otherwise have to buy on credit. In Cawe’s telling, financialisation is not something that only happens at the top of the economy. It permeates society and becomes a culture. The CEO looter loading the double fridge into his German sedan is much more a feature of the socio-political landscape than we might have assumed.                   

Popular or participatory education?

Ronald@bentec.co.za

In my work as a popular educator I often struggle with the tension between the different ways popular education is understood. The many views can be located between two poles.

People on the first pole would see popular education as a method to support self-mobilisation of oppressed communities for emancipation. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is associated with this view. Those on the second pole tend to see popular education as education through participatory and participant-controlled methodologies. 

These views can work well together, and most people who come into contact with popular education combine them in some way. Mobilisers certainly value participatory methodologies, and people who prioritise these methodologies are often supporters of emancipation movements.

There are times though, when the poles come into conflict. Emancipatory movements sometimes need knowledge that is outside the experience of their members. In such cases, it is still sound educational practice to start with what people know, and move from there to what they do not know. Educators must avoid being boring and condescending at all times, so new information must be presented in as accessible and exciting ways as possible. There is no denying the fact though, that when you do so, you are doing what Freire disparagingly called the banking method. The educational material is communicated in a way that is “fundamentally narrative in character” as Freire described it. Students should be encouraged to actively respond and participate in making meaning of the information, but this can only take place after the “deposit” of the information has been made. 

Is this still popular education? 

Another way this conflict plays out is when oppressive institutions and groups use participatory methodologies. One of my favourite popular education methodologies is The World Café. It was developed by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in their work as business consultants. Since then many companies, including oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell, have used this methodology to come up with ways to improve their profits. 

Is this still popular education?

I think the answer is yes for when liberation movements use the banking method to convey information and skills their members do not have, and no when exploiters of people and nature use participatory methodologies.    

COVID realities: shifting boundaries

By femke@bentec

There is a lot of boundary shifting happening in geographical, professional and in social terms. How does this affect human behaviour and habits? 

Due to lockdown measures such as curfews, social distancing and working from home, most connecting is taking place within the confines of the home. Homes are now functioning as office, school class, gym, and as leisure space. Activities and relationships that used to be associated with physical spaces outside the home have collapsed into one hub of identity and activity. Dress codes changed to day and night pyjamas. Social roles are less separated by spatial contexts. All phone calls have become scheduled meetings and most meals home-cooked with nostalgic flavours such as grandmother’s stews and regional specialties. 

Geographical distance seems obliterated. Interacting with someone on another continent takes similar effort to working with a colleague who is in the same city. Without hardly any face-to-face meetings, a lot of human communication happens on some online platform. No commuting or travelling or traffic, only on the internet highway with megabyte speed limits. It seems more acceptable to meet outside the 9-5 working hours, especially when different time zones are involved. Why not another zoom call at 6pm when kids are done with homework? Was that acceptable before the pandemic? 

I think these processes are not new and they happen in the context of mass dismissals, anti-racism uprisings and livelihood destructions. In a rapidly changing context due to COVID19, different realities and conditions are more visible and have become more extreme versions of what they already were. Working from home is not new, it is currently just a reality for more people. Losing a precarious job is not new, neither is not having access to healthcare or domestic violence. However, we now look at these realities with a COVID19 lens. The way the state imposes rules and discriminates between affected groups, the way families function and the ways in which the economy produces inequalities and violence. 

We already knew how farmers exploited black migrant labour, but now we see the fear and resistance of local communities when migrant labourers arrive and are perceived as carrying the virus with them. We knew the impact of load shedding in poor communities, now people are supposed to home school and feed kids under lockdown, without electricity.   

What is important to think about: how do we negotiate shifting boundaries and check if they work, and for who they work? Which shifts are temporary and which are permanent? And finally, how do we intervene to create the realities we want? 

Zoom teaching: background reflections

By femke@bentec

Imagine a university classroom with 15 students sitting in a circle. The students are surrounded by blank walls, tables, a whiteboard and perhaps a projector. Some will be watching their phones screens, some sit with their legs crossed, some talk about an upcoming assignment deadline and others might be fidgeting with a piece of clothing or their hair. What they all have in common is the room they are in and the social position they have in that place. They are temporarily in the same context with shared understandings of behavioral codes and dress for example. In the classroom they are exposed to the same sounds, temperature, and notion of time.  Here, teaching happens outside of the wider context of students’ lives.  

Now imagine a Zoom tutorial with these same students. Fifteen small squares with faces and upper bodies. Voices when students are ‘unmuted’. And students appear with a background. Some are in spacious rooms with yellow walls, others are hardly visible in what seems a dark corner of an apartment, some sit on a couch, some sit outside in a yard or even on a boat, and it is possible to ‘zoom in’ while at work. Through the different backgrounds arrive different sounds. Birds chirping, wind blowing, room mates chatting, music playing, kitchen noises. Teaching happens in the wider context of students’ lives. 

In the university, individual backgrounds are not as visible. The zoom squares expose personal circumstances and difference. It requires more effort to know what everyone has in common. What kind of connections are made here? What is the effect on teaching and learning? 

Herd immunity

By ronald@bentec 

A recent news report about the Covid-19 pandemic states that “Herd immunity means letting a large number of people catch a disease, and hence develop immunity to it, to stop the virus spreading.”

This concept of herd immunity has become popular and even dominant, judging from my social media feeds. If this is so, it represents a real loss. Apart from its striking internal contradiction, this understanding of herd immunity distorts and, I dare say, besmirches a perfectly good idea from the health sciences.

Let us talk about the internal contradiction first. ‘Letting a large number of people catch a disease’ means the same thing as ‘letting the virus spread’. The virus spreads from a sick person to a healthy person by making the healthy person ‘catch the disease’. You cannot, therefore, ‘stop the virus spreading’ by ‘letting a large number of people catch [the] disease’. It would be like dunking someone in water to stop them from getting wet. 

Secondly, in the health sciences herd immunity simply refers to a situation where enough individuals in a group have immunity against a disease to prevent an epidemic of that disease in the group. This certainly implies that health practitioners would strive to establish herd immunity, but it does not mean at all that they would ‘let a large number of people catch the disease’. The concept itself does not say anything about the methods the health practitioners would use. 

There is nothing in the scientific understanding of herd immunity that implies the sinister heartlesness with which the concept has become associated. If we want to avoid Covid-19 releated deaths, we would definitely want herd immunity.

Covid-19 – research, knowledge and belief

By ronald@bentec

The novel coronavirus frames this time. It is challenging us to rethink or restate what we know and how we know it. I am, for one, a true believer in the value of research as a source of knowledge, but the debates have shown me the importance of the reminder that some of the most important questions we face cannot be answered by research. 

As countries implement lockdowns, what happens to stray dogs who depend for their food on the movement of people and the functioning of restaurants and institutional kitchens? Research can answer this question if we put the necessary resources into it. 

What should happen to these dogs? Research can help, but the answer is beyond its reach.