Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “bureaucracy”

Church and State and religious freedom

A couple of news items that appeared recently have important implications for religious freedom.

Man hauls 6 schools to court over religious teachings in state school | News24:

A Stellenbosch man is taking six schools to court over how far the institutions can go with teaching religion at state schools.

”It has been nine years that I have been on this case,” said small business owner Hans Pietersen on Friday, of a battle rooted in a ”Jesus Week” activity at his triplets’ school when they were still little.

”They wanted everybody to wear armbands for Jesus which immediately exposes everybody who is not part of those efforts,” explained Pietersen.

In contrast with that, I recall that when our daughter was at a church school Grades 1 and 2 were to put on a nativity play. There’s nothing unusual or controversial about that in a church school, but one of the teachers was careful to ask a Muslim pupil if her parents would mind if she took part. “I’ll tell them that they can be thankful I’m not the pig,” she said, and when the play was eventually performed, she played the part of a cow. But she was asked, and was not pressured into participating, unlike the children in the state school who were expected to wear armbands.

A more serious news item, however, is this one New laws to tackle commericalisation of religion in SA: report:

Government plans to introduce legislation to regulate faith-based organisations in South Africa, in an effort to cut down on religious leaders who are making millions of rands through legal loopholes.

According to a report by the Cape Argus, the new legislation will be heard in parliament in June 2017 following an analysis of the public complaints and interviews by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission).

“We are not disputing that there are still some good religious leaders out there, but as a country we are also faced with a challenge of people who run churches like family businesses and no one questions them on how the church’s money is spent,” said Commission chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi- Xaluva.

“We also have those who abuse their power and make congregants do all sort of things like drinking petrol and eating snakes. We can’t have things like that happening but they will continue if the industry remains unregulated.”

The word “industry” used in this connection is interesting. How does the government propose to deal with this?

One way to do it might be to follow the example of Botswana, where religious organisations are registered by the government, and the government has sometimes forced them to change their names. The Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church, for example, was forced to drop “Apostolic” from its name, because, the government said, there were already too many churches with “Apostolic” in their names, and so it was forced to become the “Spiritual Healing Church”, even though it was known as the Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church in Namibia and South Africa.

For many denominations, however, there is nothing they would like more than to register with the government, because this gives them a recognition they otherwise feel they lack.

This is marvellous for church historians trying to disentangle the skeins of South African denominational history. No sooner have two or three gathered in the name of Jesus than one (or more) of them are writing off to Pretoria to be recognised and registered. And for decades civil servants in Pretoria would write back saying that the religions of citizens were no concern of the government and there was no need to register. And the recipients of these letters would promptly put the file number of this correspondence on their letterheads, to show that they were recognised.

The civil servants were being rather disingenuous, of course, because black ministers needed special permits to buy wine for communion before 1962, and they also needed recognition for concession fares on trains. So there was a complex game being played.

In the 1960s, however, the government realised that it could up the stakes in the game by conning the churches into supporting apartheid.

They changed their policy and started officially registering black churches (or saying that they were), provided that the churches concerned had a clause in their constitutions to say that their churches were only for “Bantu” and only “Bantu” could be member or leaders of the church. That conned a lot of church leaders into signing a statement that explicitly stated that their churches supported apartheid.

So the history of government regulation of churches shows that it is not an unmixed blessing, and can have serious implications for religious freedom.

If some churches are doing weird stuff like encouraging people to drink petrol or rat poison, or collecting money in dubious circumstances, then perhaps it might be best to see whether they can be prosecuted under existing laws. After all, the Nationalist government did not have to pass a special law to prosecute John Rees, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, for fraud.

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The Native Commissioner (book review)

The Native CommissionerThe Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson

One of the things about growing up in South Africa is that one reads a lot of books published elsewhere in the world, and so the settings are unfamiliar, but this book comes far closer to home, in time, in place, and even in people.

A man opens a box left by his father, George Jameson, who had died when he was 8 years old, and tries to reconstruct his father’s life and his own family history. In this the book reminds me of A recessional for Grace by Margurite Poland. One of the similarities is that the protagonist in that book was researching the life of a Xhosa linguist, making a study of the terms for different kinds of cattle, and in The Native Commissioner the protagonist is fluent in Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans as well as English, his native language, so it is difficult to avoid comparisons.

The father was a civil servant, and, like many civil servants, was subject to numerous transfers in the course of his career, and most of those places I was familiar with, having passed through them many times. George Jameson was born to a white farming family in Babanango, and when I lived in Melmoth 35 years ago I regularly visited a farming family there. Jameson was stationed at Tsumeb in Namibia, and at Libode in Transkei, which I passed through on the way to visit my mother when she worked at St Barnabas Hospital, Ntlaza. So it was easy to picture the places and the settings.

Also, I could not help picturing the protagonist as being like Buller Fenwick, a retired Native Commissioner I knew in Melmoth. When I knew him he was doing odd jobs for various people, and would come to us for photocopies, because back in 1979 we had the only photocopier in Melmoth. He was an interesting bloke, and confirmed in real life one of the things that is central to the story. Before the Nats came to power in 1948, his job as a Magistrate and Native Commissioner was to administer justice — white man’s justice to people of a different culture, to be sure, but justice nonetheless. After the Nats came to power the nature of the job changed; it was no longer to administer justice, but to administer government policy. And that is the central dilemma faced by the protagonist in this book, which eventually drives him to a nervous breakdown.

The book is therefore, at one level, true to life. It can give an authentic picture of what life was like for some people in South Africa in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But was only like that for a relativly small proportion of people — white civil servants who had doubts about the morality of the National Party policy juggernaut, where the alternatives, if you did not jump on the bandwagon, were to get out of the way or get crushed. Jameson tried, but failed, to get out of the way, and got crushed.

The method of telling the story, reconstucting a life from documents, has its disadvantages, however. I know from my own interest in family history how difficult it is with real people — it is all so fragmentary, and there are so many loose ends. Using such a technique in a work of fiction is unnecessarily limiting, though I think Magurite Poland handled it better than Shaun Johnson does. In this case it leaves too much of the story untold.

For example, the narrative tells us that “On the 5th of September he sends a reply to the Johannesburg head office regarding its instruction to repatriate one Buthi Mngomeni to his homeland. Unfortunately, writes my father curtly, your order cannot be acted on as neither we nor he know where his homeland is.”

In real life biography, coming across such correspondence in the archives is pure gold. It speaks volumes to the researcher. It portrays exactly the impersonal bureacratic cruelty of the apartheid system, treating human beings who have names, like Buthi Mngomeni, as non-persons, as mere “human resources” (why is that obscene term still in such common use?) And it tells you of a civil servant who is gatvol of the whole system, who has had it up to here.

But the average reader of a novel is not a historical researcher, easily able to tease out the significance of such documents. Many people, especially white people, lived through that period with very little clue about what was going on there, and so its significance would escape them. Those who were born after 1980, or those who have never been in South Africa, unless exceptionally well-read, would miss it altogether.

The fiction writer has the opportunity to tell the story fully, to show Buthi Mngomeni as a real person with a life, with a family. It could be expanded to a paragraph, a page, a whole chapter even. But the “documentary research” format does not allow it.

So while one can say that the story is true to life, it is what apartheid was really like for some people, it gives only a tiny fragment of the picture. There is also much more to the story than this.

View all my reviews

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration

It has long been known that bureaucratic language is diseased language, and this is just one of the latest instances of it

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration – Telegraph

Brussels bureaucrats were ridiculed yesterday after banning drink manufacturers from claiming that water can prevent dehydration.

NHS health guidelines state clearly that drinking water helps avoid dehydration, and that Britons should drink at least 1.2 litres per day

EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.

Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.

Last night, critics claimed the EU was at odds with both science and common sense. Conservative MEP Roger Helmer said: “This is stupidity writ large.”

The actual text, from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which has been discussed in the alt.usage.english newsgroup is a true masterpiece of bureaucratic obfuscation, a classic example of bureaucratese.

For reduction of disease risk claims, the beneficial physiological effect (which the Regulation requires to be shown for the claim to be permitted) is the reduction (or beneficial alteration) of a risk factor for the development of a human disease (not reduction of the risk of disease). However, undersupply with water would not be considered as a risk factor for dehydration (the disease) in this context as the beneficial alteration of the factor (increased consumption of water) is not a beneficial physiological effect as required by the Regulation.

Can you make sense of that?

I can’t.

But the bigger danger, it seems to me, is that while we are straining at the gnat of bureaucratic jargon, we can overlook the camel of the privatisation of water implied in the term “drink manufacturers”.

The claim that I refuse to accept is not the one complained of by the bureaucrats. It is the claim that there are “drink manufacturers” who are in a position to make such claims in the first place.

The only “drinks manufacturer” I recognise in that sense is God, who makes rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.

Atheists who reject that as naive “creationism” are, of course, free to disagree. Perhaps for them “drinks manufacturers” are a product random evolution. Viva Coca Cola! Viva! Viva capitalism! Viva!

Things get done in Vietnam :: anja merret

A few years ago there were some news reports about a couple of jobsworths in Britain who stood on the edge of a pond and watched a child drown. When asked why they didn’t go to the child’s aid, the reply was something to the effect that health and safety regulations didn’t allow them to do so unless that had had certain training and certification. They were some kind of auxiliary police and therefore subject to such regulations.

What a refreshing change this is – Things get done in Vietnam :: anja merret:

Vietnam has not been legislated out of sight. Or at least if there are laws determining the lives of Vietnamese it seems in the area of transportation nobody follows them. And of course, it works fairly well.

Now one might think that legislation and local laws are totally necessary to protect the individual in society. You would think and in all likelihood agree. But to a certain extent this protection can get so overwhelming that it stifles life.

Fighting for the right to dry clothes

I was amazed to discover that many people in the USA do not have the right to dry clothes.

Debate Follows Bills to Remove Clotheslines Bans – NYTimes.com:

Like the majority of the 60 million people who now live in the country’s roughly 300,000 private communities, Ms. Saylor was forbidden to dry her laundry outside because many people viewed it as an eyesore, not unlike storing junk cars in driveways, and a marker of poverty that lowers property values.

In the last year, however, state lawmakers in Colorado, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont have overridden these local rules with legislation protecting the right to hang laundry outdoors, citing environmental concerns since clothes dryers use at least 6 percent of all household electricity consumption.

Laws that stop people from drying clothes in their own backyards is surely big government gone mad, and must be one thing that liberals and conservatives (however defined) could agree to fight. For liberals it is an issue of human rights, the freedom to dry clothes. And for conservatives it can be seen as an issue of conserving a tradition thousands of years old.

I wonder who were the petty fascists who sought to introduce it in the first place?

Hat-tip to Notes from a Common-place Book: Fight For Your Right to Dry!, who also has some pretty good things to say about this particular piece of bureaucratic idiocy.

Zemblanity and education

A few years ago I was a member of an SGB of SAQA, that is a Standards Generating Body for the South African Qualifications Authority. It was the standards generating body for Christian Theology and Ministry, and had to generate standards, that is learning outcomes, for various theological qualifications from Grade 10 to Doctorate in Theology.

The SGB completed its work a couple of years ago, and a bunch of standards were registered. But now, it appears, they have to be revised, and so the SGB is being reconstituted, and will have to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops again.

I don’t mind too much. I quite enjoyed the meetings, because I met a group of stimulating and creative people from a variety of Christian traditions. I was able to meet some old friends and make some new ones. But the work we were required to do was frustrating. One could see that it had some good intentions and good goals — to raise the general standard of education, to weed out incompetent and fraudulent educational institutions and so on. But at the same time it seemed likely to stifle initiative, frustrate learning, and make education prohibitively expensive.

I was thus interested to read this, which seems to sum up the drawbacks and dangers of the current system: Changing the World (and other excuses for not getting a proper job…): Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

The core of it deserves to be quoted:

…serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) ‘Zemblanity’ is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina – which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design” is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when “learning outcomes” are specified in advance.

And I’ve been rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the bureaucratic mentality of educationists (or pedagogicians, as some of them like to call themselves) is satirised in the person of Dolores Umbridge.

Outcomes-based education was introduced into South Africa after our first democratic elections in 1994. It was an attempt to remedy the damage caused to the South African education system by four decades of the National Party policy of “Christian National Education” (which, as Christian educators often pointed out, was neither Christian, nor national, nor education). The damage was worst in Bantu Education, which was hived off into a separate government department that made the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter look positively sane. The whole evil system was underpinned by the pseudoscience of “Fundamental Pedagogics”, which was used to cripple thousands of student teachers at the start of their careers, and consisted mainly in the rote learning of obscurantist definitions of terms that were dressed up in pompous and bombastic language — a smoke and mirrors trick to make them appear more “scientific”. For example, one had to learn such terms as “Temporal Andragogics” (the History of Adult Education, I kid you not).

One of the “learning outcomes” of this system was that students learnt that you did not have to understand this outlandish terminology, you just had to learn the definition by rote and repeat it in the exams. The most important learning outcome was slavish political correctness. You said what your teachers, lecturers and bosses wanted to hear.

At the University of South Africa (which trained more teachers than any other institution in the country) a Fundamental Pedagogician said (of an incomprehensible passage in a first-year study guide), “they don’t have to understand it, they just have to learn it.” Or, as another one said to a person who was trying to translate a study guide from Afrikaans to English, and could not understand the Afrikaans text, “you don’t have to understand it, you just have to translate it.” This was said without tongue in cheek, dead seriously. Dolores Umbridge had a great deal to learn from the Department of Fundamental Pedagogics at Unisa; she was a mere amateur by comparison.

After all that, I can sympathise with “outcomes-based education” (OBE), at least in theory. It moved the emphasis from curriculum (input) to what is actually learned. It takes away the excuse of teachers who say “we taught them that but they didn’t learn it.”

But as it has been applied in South Africa, I doubt that it can remedy the disease of “Christian National Education”. Many teachers who were trained in Fundamental Pedagogics will, and have, treat it simply as a slightly different variety of political correctness — new terms to be learned by rote and used, especially when within earshot of your boss.

So Outcomes-Based Education comes with its own vocabulary. The emphasis is not on what teachers teach, but rather on what learners learn, so it is important to think of learners as people who are learning, regardless of age, and so when speaking of the actual education process one speaks of “learners” rather than “students” or “pupils”. Students study, and pupils are supervised by tutors, but learners learn. But when a teacher is quoted in a newspaper as saying that “One of the pu… learners was run over by a car outside the school yesterday,” you know that political correctness is rearing its ugly head again. It doesn’t matter what the word “learner” means, it is the one my boss’s boss wants us to say. Rote learning of educational jargon does not make a good teacher.

Again, real life trumps satire like Harry Potter every time. At the University of South Africa a few years ago a task group was set up by the university administration, and the task group announced that its task was to “facilitate conflict”.

The theory behind the South African Qualifications Authority is good in some ways. If you had standard learning outcomes at various levels, then it is easier to say that one qualification is equivalent to another. A person transferring to a different university or a different faculty can be given credit for previous learning because they have achieved known outcomes to a known standard. Scammers who rip people off by offering bogus qualifications at fly-by-night institutions with high fees and low standards can be closed down.

But sometimes education, especially in a specialised field like theological education, can be, and sometimes is, done on a shoe string. I visited the St Sergius Institute in Paris in 1968. The students lived in poverty, in a basement under the church, with an open drain running down the middle of the floor, and cloth partitions between the beds. Most of them were Russian exiles, but some came from other countries. Their teachers were part time, their library facilities were minimal. They would never pass inspection by the educational bureaucracy. Yet they were motivated to learn, and learnt what they needed to learn. Registering such an institution in the new South Africa would be virtually impossible, and the fee for a single inspection would be more than the institution’s budget for three years. Far better that they should use the money for improving their teaching and facilities than on bureaucracy.

In South Africa today there are hundreds of refugee teachers from Zimbabwe who are better qualified than many South African teachers, and whatever the problems of Zimbabwe in the past or present, were not crippled by “Christian National Education”. Some of them teach in unregistered private schools, which would be closed down if the education authorities knew what was going on. But they are probably doing as much to remedy the deficiencies of South African education as many of the bureaucrats.

And back in the “old” South Africa a friend of mine, John Aitchison, organised a night school for the staff of the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg — cooks, cleaners, gardeners and so on, who had had little chance of education as children. Another volunteer effort, run on a shoestring, the teachers all being students and a few lecturers. By such means some people were able to bypass Bantu Education and have education for liberation. But it would be difficult to run such things under present regulations.

To return to Zemblanity. Another friend of mine, Larry Gilley, once returned from a meeting of people trying to develop an interdenominational Sunday School curriculum at which they had debated the relative merits of a Bible-centred curriculum or a child-centred curriculum. He remarked that it didn’t matter much, because whichever one they opted for, they would still end up with a curriculum-centred curriculum.

You may change the government, you may change the system, but zemblanity in education will cling like a limpet.

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