Friday, 13 February 2015

A National Blackout Part 2

Something my wife and I have always done, when confronted with apparently impossible situations, is to consider, "What's the worst that can happen?" We find that we are left with two main benefits when we do this. Firstly, we confront fear that is based in ignorance. Once we educate ourselves about the potential risks of situations then the blind fear is toppled. In the majority of situations we find that actually there is nothing to fear. Secondly, we find ourselves in a position to more easily accept, or make peace with, the worst that the situation could potentially deliver. It is an empowering process. So what is some of that risk with regards to a potential national blackout?

We are primarily faced with having no electricity. In terms of a population of healthy individuals, nobody will instantly fall on the ground dead. Not having light bulbs illuminated will have no adverse affect. In fact this specific point could have an immensely positive affect in that people would have the opportunity to go to sleep earlier. There have been countless studies into the positive affects that sleep has on human emotions, physical health and psychological well being.

Of course food preparation would be the next item raised as a point of concern. With a small mindset shift, families will quickly find that there are alternative forms of heat creation that can be used for cooking. Gas would be the first option that most people would consider. Being a braai nation, I'm sure wood and coal cooking would be high on the list of options. Now it's not the focus of this article to espouse the pros or cons of each option because there are some definite cons in regards to these two options. However there is solar cooking as well and just recently I've stumbled across an alcohol gel that can be used for cooking as well.

In our modern, technological society people will naturally say, "What about my cellphone? And what about my iPod? And what about my TV?" Now I do recall an anecdote about a blond who falls dead when someone removes her earphones (listening to the earphones that person found an audio recording which reminded the blonde to breathe in and out). It's pretty certain that that was simply an anecdote and nobody has actually died from not having technology available. You might find that all sorts of creativity will be restored without the distraction of technology. However this does bring us to the next consideration.

What about emergency services like hospitals and life support systems? Indeed this becomes a sad consideration because without alternative energy sources patients could certainly die. Automatic electricity backup systems only last for a limited period and very often these are diesel generators, which need replenishing of fuel. Forethought and some planning now could avoid this potential heartache.

Preservation of fresh food from farms is directly dependent on electricity as well. So our fresh produce supply chain would be immediately challenged. This is where fear starts gnawing at people's mind. People can start acting violently just to secure some food. I sincerely believe that every person who owns even 2m of land must learn to plant their own vegetables. If you know how to sow and reap then you will eat.

After approximately 2 weeks, the water resevoirs will run dry. This is because the population will use the water that is in the pipes. However the pump stations that maintain the resevoir levels will not be operational without electricity. Now I certainly hope that the local government would have some contingency plans because humans can only live for 48 hours without water to drink and if people become violent over food it would take a lot less to become violent over water. This problem would need specific and considerable thought in South Africa as, believe it or not, we are a water scarce country. People with land could try dig boreholes. If you have hard roof areas you would consider rainwater tanks as water storage. Perhaps the biggest challenge in that regard would be protecting it from potential theft. Other people should try storing water in containers while they have access to water.

Of course an economically driven mind would mention the damage that a blackout could have on the economy. This is true. However when one considers the potential long term threat of the need to fight for survival, then the fact that your computers stop working will become less relevant. However business only has a value in a capitalistic society. In an event like this that is perhaps not adequately and rapidly resolved, society will have to adapt.

However we are now working on the assumption that the electricity has not been restored in months. Based on Eskoms press, they says it would take 2 weeks to jump start the electicity grid from scratch. One must also bare in mind that the grid collapsing would not be due to a shortage of fuel. It's due to excessive demand overloading the system. So in the event that the our worst fear is realised (that there is no electricity) the authorities would immediately start working on restoring the grid. Therefore it would be a limited time-frame that the population would need to survive before the electricity was restored.

When I consider all this, I think that some short term planning would see my family through the worst part of such a situation, which must be stressed as being highly unlikely to occur in the first place. It is possible for everyone to make it through and therefore there is very little to fear.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A South African National Blackout Scenario Part 1

There have been some social media reports, recently, which state that South Africans must prepare for an imminent national blackout. Not only is this untrue but it has a dangerously negative impact on the population by instilling panic, driven by fear.

Is South Africa under a constrained electricity environment? Yes. Did Tshediso Matona (Eskom CEO) brief parliament late last year regarding the risks involved of a national blackout? Yes. However neither of these facts should be construed as "Doomsday is upon us". As we look at the current situation and factor in various points, it is soon easily recognised that the naysayers are either trying to profit from the situation or are lacking in information.

It is interesting that we focus so intensely on the potential failure of our South African power grid and yet nobody mentions that the UK is in an equally constrained state. In every nation, managing electrical power (or other utilities) requires an extremely keen management ability. One cannot simply spend billions of rands of tax payers money (or access international loans), to build power stations in excess of the demand. Electricity is not the same as having a savings account in a bank (more is not better), as there are large expenses involved in running and maintaining these power stations.

I also find it unnecessary to panic about the fact that the Eskom CEO briefed parliament about the risks of a National blackout. This was not done as a prelude to a foreseen blackout. Instead Tshediso Matona was responding to ignorant finger pointing by parliamentarians, complaining about load shedding. In reality, the likelihood of a full-scale blackout, in the short term, is slim. Due to the fact that a national blackout will never be in the country's best interest,  the extension of load shedding will continue to remain the preferred mechanism for managing the situation in the short term. We will sooner see longer periods of load-shedding than having the entire grid going offline.

There are already plans in motion that will ease the strain on the power grid. Two new coal plants (Medupi and Kusile) are nearing the end of their construction term. In combination they will add over 4000MW to the national grid which will not only ease the strain but also allow Eskom to undertake much needed (and delayed) maintenance at other power stations.  Furthermore recent legislation has enforced the requirement of energy efficient construction - construction being a major consumer of electricity and producer of CO2 emissions. Other plans in motion include allowing the public to tie in to the grid as suppliers of electricity. This becomes a part of the medium to long term solution for electricity provision.

In short, "Don't panic", and don't accept the word of those who may instill panic. If managed correctly, we truly have no threat of a national blackout.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

eThekwini D'Moss

I have, for years now, contended that the Ethekwini Municipalities implementation of D'MOSS has elements that are foundationally unethical and immoral. Finally having some time to further research my hypothesis, I came upon a court ruling that expounds on this issue.

D'MOSS (Durban Metropolitan Open Space System) is a system adopted by Ethekwini Municipality that attempts to protect environmentally sensitive ecology, topography, geology, fauna, flora etc. Ethekwini has applied their minds in deciding which portions of the municipality would be included into the D'MOSS. Rivers, coastlines, nature reserves, which I believe most residents of the municipality (and even tourist to the area) would agree require protection, are some environments that a have been included. However where, in my opinion, I find Ethekwini's imposition of ordinances to start becoming questionable is where they have decided that certain private property also be included in the D'MOSS. In some cases entire properties have been included in the D'MOSS, thereby ruling out the landowners development thereof. Furthermore, as municipalities are responsible for planning issues within their boundaries, they have the final say on what private property owners may or may not do with their property.

A case in point, which comes to mind, is a smallholding property that a client asked me to assess the viability of. The property was landlocked in so far as having no access to road infrastructure, except a portion that was covered by D'MOSS. As part of our initial assessment we approached the Ethekwini Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department, to get their input of the unique situation. The response we received was that in no way was the land owner entitled to use that portion of their property as an access point. This essentially meant that the entirety of the property was invalidated simply because there was no access permitted. Putting aside the loss of property value, I felt that this was unconstitutional as everyone has a right to access and use their property. It was only after making this point to Ethekwini that they conceded, even though they imposed a list of requirements.

There are several questions that have bothered me in regards to D'MOSS. Were the correct processes taken? Were the public informed? Is it constitutional? That is why I was so pleased to discover the judgment laid down by the High Court Judge, J Gyanda. The case he presided over was Le Sueur and Another v Ethekwini Municipality and Others (Case no: 9714/11)*. The application brought before the High Court in Pietermariztburg requested that the entire implementation of the D'MOSS be ruled as being unconstitutional; the semantics thereof revolving around whether the correct procedures were followed.

In his ruling the honourable Judge Gyanda reaffirmed various issues. In no particular order he confirmed that; the protection of the environment is covered in the Bill of Rights, Municipalities have a constitutional right to introduce amendments to local government ordinances as long as they're not in conflict with national laws, the correct procedures were followed by Ethekwini in implementing the policy.

However what I find particularly interesting in his ruling was his reference to claims for expropriation of land. This was not part of the application so no ruling was made in this regard but the door has been left wide open for future cases against local government in this regard. In as much as the environment is entrenched in the Bill of Rights, so is a persons right to their property. The implementation of the D'MOSS might impose on a persons right to the use of their property, which is unconstitutional, as exemplified in the scenario mentioned earlier in this article. The statement further clarifies that the implementation of D'MOSS on an individual's property might amount to illegal expropriation of land and that claims made would have to comply with three conditions. Expropriation would have to be undertaken lawfully, would have to be for a public purpose or in public interest and thirdly would be subject to compensation as per Section 25(2) of the Bill of Rights.

On their website, Ethekwini Municipality have a list of "Frequently Asked Questions"**. One of these addresses the question of expropriation. Their view is that ownership of an affected property still lies with the property owner and therefore no compensation is payable. This is further clarified by pointing out that D'MOSS is part of their planning policy like height restrictions for example. The average residential property is restricted to a maximum height of 2 storeys*** according to Ethekwini planning policies. Therefore one may not build a structure higher than 2 storeys. However the key point, is that one is still permitted to develope their property. However, for argument sake, if the height restriction in the planning policy stated that the maximum height was 0 storeys, then we would have a similar situation where ones rights have been violated. This is where D'MOSS becomes problematic, in that certain private properties have been wholly included or as in the example above detrimentally affected. It would be like a road being built across your land and government saying that you're still the owner therefore they won't compensate you. Neither are you allowed to block the road, alter or demolish the road. Is your blood boiling yet? If so, then you're starting to understand the frustration of many residents within Ethekwini boundaries.

Based on the method by which Ethekwini has implemented the D'MOSS and the ruling handed down by the High Court, it would appear that (for the moment)  individual land owners will need to make their case on a property-by-property basis.


* The judgement in question can be viewed at http://www.saflii.org.za/za/cases/ZAKZPHC/2013/6.html
**http://www.durban.gov.za/City_Services/development_planning_management/environmental_planning_climate_protection/Durban_Open_Space/Pages/MOSS_FAQ.aspx
*** This should be confirmed by landowners with Ethekwini directly for each individual property

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Property Owners Beware

Most people will be unaware of the Supreme Court ruling that occurred this past week. The decision that has been taken sends an unambiguous, crystal clear message to all property owners.

It has been a legal requirement for a few years now, that properties being sold must have up to date building plans; the same having been approved by the local authority where the property is situated. However there has never been any consequences associated with non-compliance of this requirement.

Oddly though this has been a national, legal requirement for decades (Act 103 of 1977 - The National Building Regulations). The N.B.R. makes it very clear that any building erected without approved plans is illegal. This practice has been occurring for decades as well without consequence. Well this Supreme Court ruling has stamped the authority if the law down so forcably that the rigter scale will be registering shock-waves for decades to come.

The case in question has been through several courts over a period of ten years. It involves a luxury residence that was constructed in the Eastern Cape. The panel of five judges ruled that the appeal raised by the appellant against the ruling of a previous court decision was unfounded. Furthermore they made it clear that building without approved plans is an illegal act, which will result in the illegal work having to be demolished at the cost of the property owner.

If your appointed agent recommends that you start building without approved plans be warned, "You are taking a serious risk".

Friday, 12 April 2013

Ethekwini's New Billing Policy

As an owner of property within the Ethekwini municipal boundaries, I've come across some crucial information regarding changes to the lights, water and rates billing system. This research and our subsequent action was precipitated by a tenant who closed their account. Upon attempting to open another account we learned that tenants are not permitted, any longer, to have accounts with Ethekwini Municipality. Accounts must be in the name of the property owner. However that is just the beginning of the story.

Being property owners we set about trying to ascertain the risks of having other peoples accounts in our name. As those accounts are now added to our monthly bill, we have the responsibility of apportioning the costs to each property. We are also responsible for paying their bill and then recuperating the cost from the tenant. This all seems non-threatening except for the additional workload. However what happens when a tenant doesn't pay?

We placed this question to the Municipality. The response is as one would expect, the municipality will cut the services. Again seems harmless enough. If someone doesn't pay then they should he disconnected. We thought that this might actually be a blessing in disguise because as property owners one is not allowed to cut someones basic services. So the appearance of things is that the municipality would now do this. Yet again we queried a little more by wondering how will they know which property needed to be disconnected, if all the accounts are now under one name coming to one address. Herein lies the rub, as Shakespeare wrote.

Should a tenant not pay their portion, the municipality will disconnect the address of the rates account I.e the property owners residence. So if my tenant doesn't pay, then my lights are cut. Some things in life have a clear sense of injustice and this is one of those in my opinion. Property owners, in EThekwini at least, are now held accountable for their tenants. I could ramble on about the injustice of this maneuver however I would like to move on to solutions that property owners might consider.

Firstly if one decides to remain in the postpaid credit system of payment, I believe it would be remiss of a property owner to not request an additional deposit to cover at least 2 months of basic services. This extra deposit should not be released until the final account is settled after a tenant leaves. However this still doesn't stop the risk of the property owners services being cut.

The second option is to install prepaid electricity meters. These have to be ordered from the municipality at a cost of R1550 which are installed between 2 - 6 months. Therefore if the tenant doesn't pay for electricity then they alone will be without. Some people have raised concerns that prepaid electricity is more expensive. This is partially true, should one purchase from other sources besides Ethekwini directly. This is because other vendors charge administrative fees. However the cost of the electricity itself is exactly the same as a postpaid system. So purchase from the municipality directly.

The other basic service is water. This is a little more difficult to manage because every South African is entitled to a minimum amount of water. Therefore water connections cannot be terminated. This would be contrary to a persons constitutional right. Furthermore, I am led to believe that the municipality does not have a prepaid water meter system. However there are options available in the private sector that can be installed after the municipal meter. These can restrict the flow of water (not shut off completely) when a limit is reached. Hopefully this would force the tenant into paying outstanding amounts before having the restriction to the flow removed.

Perhaps you may interpret a different standpoint on these recent changes in Ethekwini. For me however I ask, "Are you keeping abreast of information that affects you daily?" Are you continually managing your affairs?" Or will you be reactive only when a specific situation arises? Food for thought at the least.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Education in Architecture

I consider myself to be fortunate in having been able to attend the "New Paradigms" architectural conference this past weekend. It was hosted by the KwaZulu Natal Institute of Architects (KZNIA) at the Docklands Hotel. One must also make mention that the high quality of the event could not have been achieved without the generous sponsorship of large corporations such as; SAFAL Steel, Ethekwini City Architects, Union Tiles, Global Roofing, Investec just to name a few.

However I find myself in an awkward position. I can surely compliment the staff of the KZNIA for the truly amazing job they did of planning & co-ordinating the event. The Docklands Hotel is a most interesting venue with a professional service. They deserve their own space wherein the building design, the furnishings, the professionalism may all be adequately lauded. However the reason for my dilemma in preparing this blog, is that the major theme of this conference was regarding architectural education and unfortunately I did not depart with a great sense of ease. How does one comment in a positive manner that which essentially has a negative sentiment? Herein lies the crux of my dilemma.

Now it must be stated that there were several speakers who presented unique and meaningful theories. More importantly is the fact that they are based at South African institutions. However there was a strong, clear undercurrent of dismay at the level of education that scholars had when exitting the secondary schooling system. In fact, at times, it seemed as if some lecturers had simply adopted an attitude of acceptance; as if there was no point in resisting the new norm. Here's my case in point.

During one of the sessions, the attendees were party to a demonstration of a new online based architectural course. It is marketed at those practitioners who have a qualification but due to circumstances are now employed and cannot afford to abandon their employment in order to further their studies. A lecturer based in England came online and presented the brief to a new assignment that registered students were required to complete. The high standard of this presentation, the vocabulary used and the requirement of the assignment were all extremely daunting. In conversation with another highly respected architect, I mentioned this. His view was that this type of communication is actually ineffective and counter-productive communication. What point is there of someone using big words when nobody else understands them? Indeed this is a valid point worth consideration. However I then pointed out that it is equally true that scholars will not be forced to improve their own standard if they are not challenged to do so. If one does not encounter a higher standard then how will one know that ones current level needs to improve?

This same point is evident when I analyze the various tertiary institutions that presented papers at the conference. It was clear that some are making great advancements regarding architectural theory. Others, however, are flailing in shallow waters. The ones striding ahead are using social media as a means of fostering discussions and communicating with students - communication using the students medium but challenging the standards. It was found that students actually wanted to attend classes more because of this.

Other institutions, however, have succumbed to lower standards. This has had various effects on the architectural community. On the flip side, there was a clear indication given that the tide has turned. A little re-positioning in the market and a requirement for educators to improve their own qualifications are good vehicles to guide tertiary institutions to more cutting edge boundaries.

We do face severe challenges regarding education in South Africa. However let us not bow to the pressure of lowering the standards. Let us instead find creative solutions to overcome the challenges we face.