Conflicting opinions overcome by practical agreements
16 Sep 2018
How do we go about engaging conflicting opinions? The Fence issue has morphed into something bigger. Things aren’t as clear cut as the supporters of the Fence think they are.
But critics of the Fence need to ask ourselves how committed we are to organising to show a different way. The Fence supporters need to ask themselves how flexible are they to change in the face of evidence? Both groups have got to be able to agree on something. This is important for meetings and decision-making.
On Tuesday 04 September the Ward Councillor hosted a public meeting in Onderpapegaaiberg. I estimate there were about 50 to 60 people there. It was a lively meeting. There were two groups with opposing viewpoints about the Fence. And we each had a chance to express our views. This is positive for local democracy. It demonstrates civic action. Both by the Neighbourhood Watch people. As well as those critical of – or against – the Fence. But there are risks in this process. One is that we seem to disagree on many ‘facts’. Another is that we lack clear rules of engagement. I will return to this later.
These are thoughts about how residents with conflicting opinions could engage productively. Whether this will happen is an open question.
Conflicting opinions about ‘security’
Lets’ clarify our important conflicting opinions. At root we have conflicting opinions about what is good for security. On the one side there is a hegemonic, majority view. Which sees security through enclosure, i.e. shutting off physical space. And on the other side there is a vociferous minority view. Which sees security through allowing access, i.e. open to developmental remedies. There was also a group of people who remained silent throughout the meeting. So I don’t know their views. They might represent a third group. Those that have neither a pro or anti view of the Fence.
I would like to promote an inclusive process. This will require compromise from the majority. Of course they might not want that. They might prefer to override our views. They already say that we excluded ourselves by not attending IDP public decision-making meetings. However, I would like to promote greater public participation. We must not make a holy grail out of the IDP process. The neighbourhood activists should allow us to get more involved in putting our priorities on the agenda. And not try to suppress conflicting opinions. To progress towards this objective, the groupings with conflicting opinions need to reach agreement. The question is where do we agree? And how do we find each other? Mr Hennie Kotze is a member of the Neighbourhood Watch. He explained that he wants to contribute to this process. By developing and implementing an objective survey of a range of opinions.
Accepted facts: tickbox answers
These are opinions of households in favour of the Fence. There are those opinions of households critical of the Fence. And those who hold neither a for or against view. It is also important to gauge conflicting opinions of a representative sample of households. He intends to survey opinions of domestic employees walking paths from Kayamandi / Enkanini. And also employees in the industrial area bordering our suburb. The survey will also collect information of frequency of usage of these walks. It will count numbers of people using these paths. There is potential to survey the opinion of employers in the industrial area.
Mr Kotze would like to involve as many of us as possible. In the design of the questionnaires. And in implementing the survey. I support this as a way of building incremental agreements about objective truths. I am available to assist.
People in the security-through-enclosure group have spoken to me about crime. I think they perceive me as being in denial of the reality of crime. But actually I and they agree about most categories of crime incidents. We can build on that too. Instead of getting lost in the myth of conflicting opinions.
Clarifying about crime stats
I analysed crime in a previous post. A Neighbourhood Watch executive member reacted saying I was attacking Stellenbosch Watch Crime Statistics. I didn’t understand that that was what I was doing. My issue is with the meaning of apprehending suspicious persons. Also known as stop-and-frisk. New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani made stop-and-frisk famous in the 1980s. My assumption of fairness leads me to say he was notorious for doing so. Because stop-and-frisk targeted Afro-Americans and Latinos. But the police couldn’t justify this. Today Giuliani supports Donald Trump and his anti-Latino immigrant strategies. My sense of justice leads me to oppose stop-and-frisk happening here. Because it can morph into a war on those who don’t fit ‘our’ profile. (We already see this in the Stellenbosch Watch response to homeless people sheltering in public places overnight. The Stellenbosch Ratepayers Association has a similar attitude. I will address that in another post.)
So why was my intended message about crime statistics misinterpreted? In any communication process you have the Sender, the Message and the Receiver. The Sender and the Receiver have filters through which they make meaning of a message. They base these filters on ideological assumptions. These assumptions reflect what for them are socio-economic, political, cultural and philosophical truths. These truths are not just individual tastes. Deep group identities often project onto and shape these truths. Did I miscommunicate my messages on crime? Were my assumptions creating words that distorted what I was intending to communicate? Did the ward committee receivers misinterpret my messages to them? Were their assumptions changing the meaning of what I was communicating? Did we set ourselves up for conflicting opinions?
So let’s be clear. I agree that Stellenbosch Watch’s are the most accurate data we have. I have done my own analysis. Based on partial data from Stellenbosch Watch. I have compared this with Stellenbosch Watch’s annualised figures. These show Onderpapegaaiberg crime incidence is higher than for Stellenbosch as a whole. The data shows the Neighbourhood and Stellenbosch Watches having a significant impact. It is bringing crime incidents down by between 10 and 21 per cent.
Conflicting opinions about stop-and-frisk
I differ from the Watches on one crucial data set. I question the meaning of ‘suspicious persons’ category. They argue that apprehending a suspicious person qualifies as a crime incident. I say that to qualify as a crime incident, there must be evidence of crime committed, or of criminal intent. With this in mind, I requested from Stellenbosch Watch data that show the following. How many of these persons had suspicious-looking objects (weapons, goods, etc)? How many of these persons did they hand over to police? Number of these persons the police charged? How many of these persons did a court convict? The questions are a scientific interrogation of the meaning of the data. Nothing more. And nothing less. They are not trick questions to prove my anti-Fence viewpoint.
I addressed these questions to Mr Van Zyl of Stellenbosch Watch. He said he would answer them but many weeks later I have heard nothing. Another member of the ward committee, Mr Snyman, has engaged with me. And spent much time communicating with me about the state of our suburb. He seems to imply that you can’t prove my point through empirical data. There is, he says, international consensus that visible policing reduces total crime incidents. And he implies that stop-and-frisk is synonymous with visible policing.
Yet, evidence from elsewhere challenges the view that stop-and-frisk reduces crime incidents. The fact is that stop-and-frisk is controversial, in the US. First, data analysis questions its crime-reduction effect in New York. Second, a US court has ruled it as unconstitutional. By contrast, Mr Kotze gave examples of suspicious behaviour before the fact of a crime. Like, unknown people cruising the neighbourhood at 17: 00 (or thereabouts). That time has seen several hijackings. Like a vagrant wheeling a trolley with a flat screen TV in it. Like a car with unknown occupants parked in the suburb in the middle of the night.
These examples are compelling. We do not have conflicting opinions about them. Through research of actual incidents we could expand these. We could add in answers to my earlier questions. We could compile a working definition of suspicious behaviour. This would narrow down Watch officials’ discretion through providing a guideline. Apprehending people under these conditions could meet the standards of probable cause. Depending on what happened after apprehension, we could count apprehensions as criminal events.
Concretely defining suspicious behaviour
Tightened definition of suspicious behaviour cuts crime incident numbers. For example, I saw two apprehensions in daylight. The apprehenders were police and Watch officials. The apprehendees were black workers. I could not detect probable cause. After finding nothing, the apprehenders let the apprehendees go. These incidents are examples of racial profiling. This is not crime prevention. A third instance of profiling, was when police apprehended my son and his friends. They were walking through the neighbourhood after dark. They were wearing hoodies. But they all lived in the neighbourhood.
There are civil rights issues involved in summary apprehension. I will address these in a later post. I want to get to a definition of suspicious behaviour that has some objective basis. And is not left to the wide discretion of a Watch official. I want to contribute to consensus about an empirical description of suspicious behaviour. On this basis we can then develop further agreement about the incidence of crime. And the impact of visible policing on crime.
For ourselves, for others….conflicting opinions
The security-through-enclosue group perceives their work as selfless. They see us as having conflicting opinions about them and what they do. They look upon us as hypocritical and unconcerned about the others in our community. Some of the ward committee members are part of the Neighbourhood Watch. Earlier in the meeting the councillor explained that the Neighbourhood Watch has two components. There is a Communications Room. And there are people on patrol in the neighbourhood. The people in the Communications Room support those on patrol. By providing information and coordination. The members on patrol get called to assist burgled households. This often happens after dark.
Hypocrisy of critics
One member of the Watch objected to us (critics) labelling him as a Rambo figure. (I am unsure that ‘we’ did. I certainly didn’t). Conflicting opinions arise between Self and OtherHe explained that those on patrol are not armed. When they approach a burgled house they are at risk. They do not know whether armed robbers might be waiting for them. They were putting themselves at risk as a community service, yet we criticised them. Another conflicting opinion. We say we are concerned about other communities. He challenged us to show a similar concern for our own community. Another Watch member accused critics of the Fence of hypocrisy.
He noted that we claimed that the Fence inconveniences our employees. And that they would incur unaffordable transport costs to take taxis to work. These critics should pay the transport costs and assist their employees. Instead they expect them to walk through the winter mud to get to work.
I mention these perceptions. (I am not going to try and answer these charges with a conflicting opinion). Both groups think of the interests of a broader community than their own households. The one focuses on its suburban community. The other on other communities in the larger municipal area. These two viewpoints appear as conflicting opinions. Yet they share the idea of not being “only for myself”. ‘We’ are also trying to look after a community that includes a larger group of people. ‘Us’ and ‘ them’ share more than the third group who remained silent. We should explore this commonality to ease creative communication between ourselves. A starting point could be to define the facts that we agree on. Hence the importance of Mr Kotze’s proposed survey. And of my call that we empirically describe the meaning of ‘suspicious’ behaviour and probable cause.
Conflicting opinions about questions
Another objective truth is the answer to a set of questions that I addressed to the ward committee on June 19. The ward councillor promised to get these answers by 03 July. More than 60 days later I am still waiting for answers. The secretary to the Mayoral Committee did send me some answers. But these were only in respect of a few of the questions. Many remained unanswered. The councillor thinks of me as a trouble maker. In her mind that is why I ask these questions. However, she should see my starting point. Namely, that we need accurate information to make informed decisions. Democracy also means accountability. Of local representatives to the electorate. The ward councillor has treated my reasonable questions in cavalier fashion. She has evaded getting the answers despite repeated requests. This suggests that she has a very limited understanding of democratic accountability.
Questions about other irregularities
Stellenbosch Transparency has uncovered other irregularities under the previous Stellenbosch DA administration. This fuels my persistence in asking these questions.
These irregularities include eviction of informal traders from the town centre (2013). Here the Council/Municipality violated people’s constitutional rights to trade. As a sop to the xenophobia of the leaders of the Rhenish Church. The considerable evidence for this is analysed in this 40 minute video (see specifically the 22nd to the 24th and the 32nd to 37th minutes).
The Council violated the rights of the Kreefgat informal settlement’s inhabitants during 2016. They violated their rights under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA). And the Prevention of Illegal Eviction and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (PIE). They also violated the National Housing Code. This was through selling RDP houses to Blaauwklippen Estates. You can see the analysis of the evidence in the 10 minute video below. Stellenbosch Transparency investigated the Kreefgat and Trader processes. Officials treated our research questions in similar cavalier fashion.
In the meantime ward committee member Mr Snyman provided some of the answers to me. I have captured these in the original table, with my comments. I am grateful for this. Still, these are not official answers from the ward councillor. .
So I remain unsure about the accuracy of the ‘answers’ to my questions. Without the facts at their disposal how can the citizenry hold government accountable? We will persist in our attempts at seeking the answers. The non-response of MAYCO to the questions causes me deep concern. Lack of transparency of information undermines trust. But this reaction is unsurprising. Because the councillor sees me as a ‘trouble maker’.
Meeting protocol and democratic process
Above I described the public meeting as lively. There was a diversity of antagonistic views. I noted that this is good for democracy. The meeting was quite well attended . This shows an engagement by quite a few residents in our suburb,. Which is also a positive indicator of democratic involvement. However, these superficial indicators do not mean that we have authentic democracy. I view local democracy as a space to hear all citizens’ voices. Particularly, those of a weaker minority. And not allow the majority view to crowd out the minority view. My experience of participation is from the private sector, NGOs and activist organisations. How you structure and record meetings is a precondition for a democratic participation.
Structuring and recording
The above principle applies to public meetings between our elected representatives and ourselves. What this means in practice is the following.
First the councillor must consult us about the written agenda. There was a written agenda but it did not have some of our key inputs. Like a proposal for a pedestrian gate in the Fence. And key questions around financial accounting and governance, about the Fence.
Second, there needs to be a written record (minutes) of meetings. Approving a meeting record is a powerful democratic control process. New attendees can understand the historical record of decisions. Are we getting a written record of the meeting and it’s decisions? Will we have a chance to approve it at the next meeting?
Third, we must vote on written resolutions. Below I will explain why this is absolutely critical for democratic decision-making.
Recording Ayes and Nayes
Mr and Mrs Brand proposed a pedestrian gate be open for access by domestic employees. There was resistance to this. The councillor asked people to vote for or against. There was no proposed, written resolution. I am unsure what we voted on. There were no numbers put to the meeting for ratification. I estimated 24 people voting against the opening of any gate. I estimated 18 voted for a pedestrian gate that would be open for a limited time. But Mr Snyman tells me that the vote was 45 to 26 to permanently close the gate. I wonder how many other subjective counts there were of the vote?
I heard the councillor say that a gate would be open between 07h 00 and 09h 00. And also between 16h 00 and 18h 00. I am not sure what the majority who voted NAY, think of this. Still less whether they accepted it. It is unclear whether this ‘gate’ refers to the current gate, or a new pedestrian gate. There was no agreement about options to cover the cost of a new pedestrian gate. Mr and Mrs Brand and others indicated they could raise money for this. But the meeting came to no conclusion. Mrs Serdyn said we need to test the effects of controlled opening. She said we would do this between now and 16 October. Presumably we will test for its impact on crime incidents. But do we have agreement on what makes up crime incidents?
There are many practical preconditions before this decision can happen. I am unaware that the meeting delegated anyone to put these in place. (Presumably this should involve both those supporting security through enclosure. And those supporting security through allowing access.) We are now less than one month away from that deadline. Is the gate open during those times? Who is monitoring traffic through it?
My point is that we follow tried and tested protocols. Otherwise we are going to end up in later conflicts about who said what and when. Addressing the third problem highlights the need for thorough preparation. Not only of the agenda. But also clarifying what action each agenda item requires. And writing up proposed resolutions before the meeting. Furthermore, consulting interested parties about the resolutions. So that the meeting does not descend into competing interests fighting over words.
Mr Snyman also commented that “People tend to criticise easily, but when key decisions are taken at IDP meetings no-one comes”. Of course, none of the above protocols will have the desired impact if we do not sustain our engagement on this issue. But the Fence has galvanised us into action. It is an opportunity to continue our engagement. I make these proposals as a way to facilitate our inclusion in community meetings. Stellenbosch Transparency is available to assist with these protocols for the next meeting. I am available to play a role in helping this process. Stellenbosch Transparency appeals to other critics of the Fence to make time to engage in processes that build agreements with the other side.
We, the critics of the fence, need to persist in our efforts to present our viewpont. The critics should get together and organise to have an influence over the way our suburb is secured. And the way the Papegaaiberg nature reserve is conserved. We also need to campaign for the regulation of policing in our suburb, specifically around the apprehension of people deemed to be suspicious. If we do not persevere, then we will only have ourselves to blame. Mr Snyman is right.
But the ward commitee needs to demonstrate that it is committed to our involvement. Despite our criticism of their approach. They can do this by supporting Mr Kotze’s proposed survey. And getting involved in it. I challenge them to engage with me in defining the meaning of suspicious behaviour. The goal of which should be a guideline manual for law enforcement.
This will help us as a community to clarify the following. What facts do we agree about. And, the facts we disagree about.
We also need to clarify what processes and procedures do we follow as our rules of engagement in public meetings.
To get to this level of agreement requires that we engage with each other. This engagement needs to happen outside of and before public meetings. As well as in public meetings. This can enhance the quality of those meetings. Stellenbosch Transparency can play a creative role in this process. And still maintain its critical independence around the facts of the news.