Sunday, May 13, 2012

Prestigious Transkei School Vandalised

“The fight for freedom must go on until it is won; until our country is free and happy and peaceful as part of the community of man, we cannot rest.” O.R. Tambo.

My father called me very distressed on Tuesday morning saying that his school in which he has been a teacher for the last 18 years has been vandalised and destroyed by the students. His school in Lusikisiki, Palmerton High School, is one of the most prestigious and among a set of few functioning schools in the former homeland Transkei, now part of Eastern Cape. This school has produced a wide range of dignitaries including political stalwarts like the late O.R.Tambo. I also schooled in the Transkei not very far from the Palmerton High School and found this story to be very depressing. Most of the content below is taken from the mail he wrote me.

It is a relatively large school with an enrolment of more than 1200 learners. If one seriously looks into the events that have unfolded this year in this school, one will easily understand how messy the affairs of the Department Of Education in Eastern Cape are.

The school has now been vandalised, destroyed completely and a portion gutted down by a group of hooligans who call themselves learners. It will take weeks if not months to repair the damages. That means teaching and learning has come to a grinding halt in this institution for a large number of learners who can easily be identified as the poorest of the poorest.

If we analyse the reasons that have led to this heinous act of destroying a nearly well-functioning and reputed institution, we will come to the conclusion that the main culprits are the Department of Education, Eastern Cape and to a certain extent the teacher unions who blame each other for their acts of commissions and omissions.

At the beginning of this academic year, as per the latest post provisioning for the school, the school was in need of a further 29 teachers to fill the vacancies. The school management approached every official including the office of the S.G for the Department of education informing them of the grave situation prevailing at the school, but to no avail. Many of the classes were left unattended though most of the teachers were willing to go extra miles to help the learners. No appointments or transfers were allowed because of the policy of the department. The school even requested for getting some teachers deployed for the time being to our school from some of the neighbouring schools, who are in excess in their schools. That request was also not heeded, citing objection to this by teacher unions. To make matters worse, 11 temporary teachers' contracts were not renewed, leaving the school in a very precarious situation. Virtually without these 11 teachers, the running of the school was near impossible.

As a last resort when all avenues were exhausted, the principal convened a meeting of the parents and put the matter before them. They unanimously suggested that the school must retain the service of these temporary teachers at any cost. They had resolved to pay each one of them a sum of R2000 per month, which we all know a meagre amount, until they are re-appointed by the department. They suggested that this amount can be raised by a once-off payment of R120 per learner. Most of the parents contributed and the teachers were retained. Up to now, not a single teacher has been re-appointed.

Few days back, few learners wanted this R120 back for some reasons. They were claiming that the temporary teachers have been re-appointed already with their back pay, though the truth is just the opposite. They must have been incited by some criminal elements. All our efforts to reason them have failed. Without any provocation, yesterday at around 10 in the morning few learners assembled at a spot in the school campus and started moving towards school attacking everything they saw in front of them either by pelting stones or throwing chairs. They didn't even spare teachers' cars. The police did come, but only after the destruction has been completed. It is vandalism at the very best destroying the entire school and school properties including very expensive riso-graphs, photocopiers, computers, furniture to name just a few. The entire premise looks like a war zone. The destruction of a once prestigious institution is almost complete.  All for a paltry sum of R120 for a learner!

Who is to be blamed or what is to be blamed for this situation? Is it the mindset, where vandalism and destruction have been deeply embedded in the psyche or the sheer inability of responsible people to tackle issues head on? Where does one get an answer from?

We all know very well that O.R. Tambo’s vision of true freedom and empowerment cannot happen without a massive transformation in the education of rural South Africans. Our government is not doing nearly enough. The billions invested in to SANRAL toll collection, actually just a portion of it, would have been better off spent on paying the temporary teachers who have been filling vacancies without pay for months. Till our leaders put forward "education" as the number one priority for our country, we are in for a tough ride.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Illusion of Group (Social) Buying - There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

After much delirious activity in the South African Group (Social) Buying landscape, a more sober reality has set in.

After the arduous early years of my Engineering degree at University of Natal (now UKZN) time had arrived for our final 4th year lecture. Mr Gary Catlin, our Electronics lecturer, had the privilege of delivering it. He decided to cut the lecture short and spent half an hour taking questions. After several usual Q&A’s, a very interesting answer was provided to rather innocuous question. A student had asked “What is your advice for us young engineers when we enter the corporate world?”  His answer was a play on the age-old saying “Remember that in life, there is no such thing as a free lunch and if you are offered one, think twice before indulging”.

That statement had since become a precious motto for me. When I first heard of the GroupOn phenomenon in the US last year, this was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind. Who is really paying for this scrumptious “lunch”? Recently, with the news of the Zappon and Dealify curtailing its operations in South Africa, this became an even more intriguing question. Here is my attempt to dig a bit deeper in to the under-belly of group buying.

Who is paying for this “lunch”?

It clearly is shared among the 3 key entities; this being either the advertiser who subsidises his products significantly with the hope of getting increased exposure and long-term clients, the consumer who frantically purchases the products or services that portray unbelievable value or the group-selling merchant (like GroupOn) who facilitates this transaction. The chance of it being the merchant was very unlikely, so I settled on the thought that majority of the lunch was paid for between the advertiser and the consumer.

I decided to conduct some research and interviews with merchants and consumers to get better insight and compare against my intuitive views. Here is the summary of my findings.

What is in it for the relevant parties and what are the catches?

What is in it for the entity?
What are the catches?
Sell products online at discounted prices as a marketing exercise

Get instant exposure to several thousands of social-buying users of their products or services.
- No upfront investment required for the advertisement and exposure. 

- >50% discount to be provided on the regular price of the product
Up to 50% of the sales price is commission that goes to the group-selling merchant.
- In effect this means that most advertisers are only getting about 25% of the regular price; which, unless you were previously ripping off your customers, means you will be making a loss on each of the product sales.
Once a customer buys a specific product/service for a reduced price, it is highly unlikely for the same customer to pay a higher price afterwards for the same item. Thus the promise of repeat visitors is a bit of an over-promise and requires significant effort to convert them.
The short surge in regular order volumes will stress the after-sales support structures in terms of quality of service.
Lack of guidance in terms of how to convert the coupon customers in to regular customers.
Poor support structures from the group-selling merchant to take on queries and complaints.
Follow the regular deals portals and buy suitable coupons.

Good savings on regular day-to-day products and services.
Ease-of-use, immediacy and good user experience in terms of buying. 

Inflated savings and value often promised in the offer.
At times dealt with as an inferior client by the merchant due to being a coupon buyer.
Poor support from the advertiser/seller due to unplanned volumes of transactions and other poor infrastructural issues.
Poor support from the group-sales merchant with regards to queries, concerns, refunds and quality of service.
Lots of clauses with regards to the validity of the coupon (eg: deal is only available on weekdays, when it is difficult for you to use it)
Tendency to buy more that you require and the issue of un-used coupons is a common occurrence. 
Group-Selling Merchant (eg: GroupOn)
Facilitate and support the transaction lifecycle between the advertiser and the consumer.

Simple technology infrastructure and rather small upfront capital required to setup the operation
Lots of market hype to drive customer usage of these services
If there are good volumes per deal, this is a high margin business.
This entity has to deal with disconnect and complaints between the buyer and the seller. Especially in terms Quality of Service.
Extreme competition between different operators. 

The under-belly?
If you go through these various facets, the deal is not nearly as sweet or clear as the exterior portrays. Even the term “group-buying” is a charade as the minimum order criteria is often as small as 5 or 10 for a low-medium cost item, which makes a mockery of the group purchasing power concept. As a whole, there are various things that make the whole scene a bit murky. As a casing point, on the website of a leading group-selling merchant, a contact number for support is almost impossible to find, refund policies and procedures are unclear for un-used/expired tickets, support by email is shoddy, deal descriptions are often inflated and without full consent of the seller, commission structures and fees for advertising merchants are not transparent. All of this smells of something rather foul to me.

For the merchants, more often than not, the exposure through the group-buying portals has not turned around a struggling business or increased revenues and volumes in a sustainable manner. Blame cannot all be laid on to the group-selling merchant, as I have observed many of the selling merchants not doing anything significant to convert the once-off bargain-hunter in to a loyal customer. Most merchants that I conversed with had mixed feelings about the concept, some were glad they did it, many wish it were done differently from both their own proposition as well as the support from the group-selling merchant and some regret having done it. From a customer point of view, there are large volumes of un-used/expired coupons, where the refund processes need be made a lot clearer. There are policies around refund for expired tickets, but getting fast response from the merchant is almost impossible. This under-belly cannot be kept under the hood for much longer and the industry will need to clean itself out before it is too late.

What is the future of group/social-buying?

Social (Group) buying is just another flavour of eCommerce. eCommerce will continue to gather pace as customers look for increased control, comfort, immediacy and an improved overall user experience; however Group Buying in its current shape cannot survive for much longer in my opinion. A more sustainable and transparent business model will need to evolve out of this and more likely than not the concept of social buying and referrals, without the presence of massive daily-deals websites could be the order of the day.

For the interim, the existing providers and selling merchants need to jack-up the game very quickly, while figuring out the longer term strategy. The advertising merchants need to focus a lot more on providing a differentiated customer experience to the coupon buyers and should have a well thought-out strategy on converting them in to regular customers.

On the flip-side of the coin, the group-selling merchants need to focus on getting a better connection between the buyer and the seller, thus being able to provide an end-to-end user experience. There needs to be better focus from the group-selling merchant to work towards the sustainable success of the advertiser, thus creating demand for the services, which is currently under severe threat. Better transparency, guidance and training for the merchants would be a start.

NB: This article represents my personal views and is not that of any institution or other entities that I might be related to. All comments and suggestions are welcome by email Follow me on twitter

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What is wrong with a bit more skin in Kerala?

Kerala is fast becoming a land of paradoxes and hypocrisies. A land where I was born, where I spent my formative years and where I proudly return to yearly to spend my well earned holidays. 

I came across the YouTube videoclip of an interview with Renjini Haridas, in which she was targeted by the audience for inappropriate dress-code, while she was dressed in a long, elegant, below the knee skirt. 

It pained to see Kerala stuck with these medieval beliefs and values. I wanted to unpack this a little more. wanted to understand the value system from which I have become so far divorced. Is it me who has lost the values and heritage after spending more than half my life in South Africa or do I have a point in saying this moral code is a lot of hog wash?

Let us start with the dress code. So why does women wearing a dress or a t-shirt and jeans infuriate some people in Kerala? Where did this cultural right to judge women's attire arrive from? Do we have historical evidence to back our judgment of what is appropriate dress-code in terms of Malayalee women or is it built in to our heads that any action that deviate from the norm is a symbol of rebelliousness, especially if the source is a female breed, and thus deemed inappropriate.

Why is a Sari any less sexy or inviting than a dress? Sari reveals a lot more than a dress and hugs the curves just like the alternative in question. When worn by an attractive woman, neither form of attire is going to slow down the blood flow of any normal man.  

Lets go back 15-20 years back, when I was a little kid running around the paddy fields supervising the koythu (rice harvest) with my grandfather, where it was pretty common to find women wearing a lungi and blouse as the daily attire. These were a lot more revealing than a western dress like the one Renjini wore. So far, history is not helping the argument of the narrow minded. Lets try go back even further.

I do not claim to understand the depth of history with regards to traditional Kerala dress-codes, but from my knowledge of traditional wears like Mundu Blouse, Mundum Neriyathum and Mulakkacha, none of them hint at a sense of extreme conservatism seen in Kerala today. If anything, sexuality was proudly displayed through most of our historical artworks and literature. 

For now, I would like reserve the right to call  these guys,"male chauvinists", and instead ask them to celebrate female sexuality. Men in Kerala cannot take a moral high-ground on this issue, without stopping the harassment of young women (eve-teasing as it is called) while walking on the streets, without closing down the slew of sleazy movie houses and without ending the publications of hundreds of raunchy Malayalam magazines on the newstands, of which the latter two, I do not wish to happen as it is their freedom to chose.

Time has come for more women in Kerala to stand up and take a brave stance for themselves to enable this change. Your skin is no-one else's business.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Still in shock from my hijacking incident

Time is currently past midnight. I am still not able to sleep, though some welcome yawns are finally approaching. I havent written on my blogs for a very long time and this is probably the worst way to enter back in to my glasshouse.

I have just fallen victim to the real virus that’s affecting this gorgeous country, violent crimes. I have always maintained (and still do), that no person is ever completely safe in this country regardless of where you are and therefore should not live their life in unnecessary fear but instead enjoy the beauty of this country and everything else it offers.

I finished work a bit late as usual, thereafter I went to visit a friend, had a few slices of pizza and I was off home relatively early (around 9.15PM) because my parents are staying with us this week. As I reached the gate of our flats, I realized that I had left the gate remote with my parents and therefore I decided to park outside briefly so that I can use the intercom to retrieve the remote from my parents.

I had never heard of any serious criminal incidents in our area, thus I got out of my car in the usual self-assured manner and walked towards the gate. Suddenly, out of nowhere 2 men approached me and everything from then on seemed to be in ultra slow motion. I saw a gun slowly coming out of one of the guy’s jacket; he pointed the gun at me, cocked it and shouted at me for the car keys. The security guy at the complex finally understood what was going on and started running towards us, but it was a few seconds too late. In that time the other guy had also robbed me off my cellphone, laptop, wallet and a zippo which I was quite attached to.

Within seconds the guys drove off with the car, and I stood gazed, outside the gates for a couple of minutes without much movement or emotions before walking indoors and breaking the news to Suraj and my mom. I was rather calm considering the circumstances and my mom reacted in a surprisingly similar way, which helped me get myself under control.

Now it’s 1AM and finally the much wanted sleepiness has found me and I am off to fall in to her arms.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


I am half way through my packing for my trip and I cannot see myself getting any sleep tonight. Don't really mind, not really looking forward to staying up in a 24 hour flight, books in the dim-lit cabin can only take up so much time.

Back to the topic, I got home and after a few glasses of Chardonnay, we (I ,Suraj and Renju) got ourselves in to our recent habit of unwanted english literature discussions. For a change it was a variation from our recent topic of 'Irony'. I think we have covered every permutation of 'Irony' in the last few weeks.

Today's topic was Malapropism and being in our alcohol induced creative state we came up with some unconventional examples for it.. But sticking to facts, Malapropism is better defined below.


Definition: A malapropism is an incorrect usage of a word by substituting a similar-sounding word with different meaning, usually with comic effect. The term comes from the name of a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy The Rivals (1775).

Some Examples:
1. "He's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." (i.e., alligator)
2. "He is the very pineapple of politeness." (i.e., pinnacle)
3: "If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" (i.e., apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets)
4: "Why killing's the matter! Why murder's the matter! But he can give you the perpendiculars." (i.e., particulars, from a scene in Horrible Histories)