Zandvlei, Demogarchy and Bitcoin

in draft.

I used to be on the Zandvlei Protected Areas Advisory Committee (ZPAAC) for a few years. We were a group of people, both volunteers, residents in the area, and City employees tasked with managing the estuary, or ‘vlei’ in Afrikaans, hence the name. It was heavily impacted by poor design and construction choices in the 60s, in the form of the Marina da Gama estate, primarily, but also inappropriate urban density upstream, both formal and informal (backyard dwellers upstream with insufficient service delivery, and not enough toilets). So it needed constant management – rewilding was simply not an option.

The main challenge was silting up of the vlei, which needed periodic dredging and manual closing and opening of the mouth, which was an expensive and ongoing cost. Additionally and made worse by the poor design surrounding the vlei, was my big issue – sewage overflows.

The problem with sewage, sanitation more broadly and wastes at large is that it is a complex, dilute, end-of-pipe problem that defies simple responsiblity and blame. It can really only be tackled at source, and one can’t really just fine people because then they just go dump stuff, illegally, somewhere else.

Even if people cared enough, it is hard to pinpoint the origin of sewer spills, and assign appropriate blame and the responsibility for corrective measures, especially when it comes to such a stigmatised thing as human shit.

The city employees were doing their best in an under-resourced, under-staffed, under-funded, politicised system. The policies, laws, by-laws, legal precedent all worked in our favour, but stone-walling, petty political ping-pong and bureaucracy has stalled any progress for decades. Any little action that we could take would always be too little and always too late.

I don’t want to change democracy, or the laws, I just want it to work faster and better. I am happy for the proper prcedures to take a year or two or even five. But not decades, and not stalled because it is an effective strategy to pass the buck to the next political apppointment. I came across Denis Beckett’s book on Democracy 2.0 and was hooked. Multiple small voted on things you care about, and don’t get involved in things you don’t.

We could get the PHA (Phillippi Horticultural Area) involved, for example, as we share a common concern for urban mismanagement, lots of people with political agency. We could cajole the people in the sewer catchment, whose shit goes into the vlei every time there is a storm or a pipe burst, to care or pay off their guilt. Less people, but lots more money and influence. Yes, this happens in life now already, but slowly, poorly documented, a lot of duplication, requiring a lot of effort and still a low chance of success. We could team up with a much wider and politicised effort complaining about the sewer outflows in GreenPoint. We could team up with the Peninsula Paddle. We could team up with the <Lesley’s group of the Diepriver Khayelitsha thing> But without an effective means to make this work – and I do not consider protests and law suits as effective – this is still for naught. I need action. I need dredging of the vlei, and I need a complete overhaul of Cape Town’s sewer infrastructure. We need the money to come in, we need it managed, and we need a way to say to the City, we’re doing this with or without you, get out of our way. We’re done with waiting for you.

But how on earth to make it happen? I believe Bitcoin, on a blockchain, is the missing piece of the puzzle.

I’ve been doing paid research on the role of Bitcoin in e-commerce in the last 6 months. At first it was an income-generating way to satisfy my passing curiosity in what is, in many ways, a techno-bro hype. But I also learnt that it is a lifeline to many people, and the underlaying technology – blockchain, and distributed ledger technology (DLT) – is going to change most things as we know it. Probably in good and bad ways, like any technology.

I left Zandvlei behind. I got so pissed off with the City of Cape Town that I packed up and got off the grid, bought a piece of land out of the municipality altogether. But I still think about it often, it hurts to see a place so beautiful be so messed up. So how could this be different? In this post I want to sketch out a scenario.

meetings on DLT. A record of the will of the represented people, of the due process followed. Document the participation of a critical mass of people. – This is not easy! It still takes months, years. But not decades.
Investment – Bitcoin, from all over the world, independent of government. Some gets put into fiat, or CBDC, is completely audited, permissioned, known to authorities. Some isn’t.

“There is currently no system of governance to deal with the entire planet.” –

Paul Erlich, author

extinction rebellion. Civil disobedience. Importantly, because we work with complex social and environmental ecosystems, I am not going fully anarchism or whatever. It is a delicate balance with a lot of tricky trade-offs. I am still working very closely with City employees of various departments. Where we do work that aligns with their mandates, it is fully above board, documented in the City’s bereaucracy etc. But where we and these employees agree, in private, that a certain action is for the best, but the City is not on board, we do it anyway, in Bitcoin, anonymous, to protect the employees.

We still do legal arbitrage as we improve laws in general. But the required actions happen faster because we do not have time to wait.

More constructively we, as a citizen collective, can document resource flows, funding to wastewater treatment works, waste collection depots, recycling initiatives… force the whole chain, including paperwork and physical day to day operations to be publically visible, forcing transparency and accountability. We can work with the City but if they don’t cooperate, we just hack the system. (But what if we break the whole thing?? Trust me, we can’t really do much worse than the current reality. Yes, we are that fucked. We are proper fucked.) Then we make it online, on the blockchain, prove it to work better, give it back to them. If they want to, we can train people to make it better together. If they object, we just hack it again, make them irrelevant, send our taxes on the blockchain to a ‘dark city online’ – a duplicated organisation where everything is recorded and deefenisble in court. Sortof like a coup, I guess. (On the metaverse? 😉 I haven’t figured this out yet)

We start with a few people willing to put money in, the rich people living next to the Vlei, perhaps. We pay City employees with that money and get them trained on the blockchain system, to help us from the inside. Their incentive, apart from the desire to find value in their job again, is a side-income in Bitcoin. If it works, this draws more people giving money and more people on the inside. Just like Bitcoin is challenging the global financial system, whether it works or not, it forces the incumbents to become more effective, efficient, caring for their customers.

While we are busy with the tiny local Zandvlei thing, we do this on a template that helps people use the same thing to improve things in, say, Durban, or Nairobi, or wherever. Until it is a cohesive hub across Africa, or the world.

An interesting angle is the metaverse, drawing on entertainment to raise awareness and investment from all over the world.

For the first time in many years I am actually excited.

5 Replies to “Zandvlei, Demogarchy and Bitcoin”

  1. The part I’m struggling to understand though is how are you in the Western Cape bundus and thinking around the same lines as I am, in the comfort of the KZN capital city.

    Ok, serious note; I’ve been trying to find the real reason behind such run down systems. Why things don’t work and hoping in so doing – we can then turn the whole system on its head. It would seem at the heart of our problems is the human unwillingness, lack of care and maybe greed too. To me, any system we put in place needs to find a way to deal with these, which then becomes tricky as it needs human intervention for it to work. My biggest fear (which shouldn’t be) is to set this whole system up, only for it to get hijacked by the same people who are making things not work or people who think like them. There is some power play there too, which would make some people to be fixated on making sure this system doesn’t work. Yes, people who are incapable of delivering, hate being outshined by those who are. There is some ego on being a big manager and scare people away with over-complicating the problem and chase away any solutions that could work should they not come from you. So almost every technical issue has turned social in this way.

    Anyway, in solutions now, I was even looking at Water governance in the Netherlands and how they set up that non-governmental water governing group that ran as a government duplicate – with full control of water issues. You bring blockchain for “oversee” this governance body – bring in graduates (we have a lot of unemployed and really smart people who haven’t been corrupted by the system yet). You run all these together – you can get something out. So, exactly what you are proposing – but we run it at a small fee by bringing graduates on board and combining good governance structures from all over the world. We make it simple, with basic check points and easy to monitor and run.. Start small, one city – run it, publicize the wins and the people who like to see things working will join in

    1. There is no miracle solution, unfortunately. It is a constant tug-of-war. I think systems fail when they get too complex, too old, whatever. It’s the cycle of things. And then hopefully new ones grow from the old. We’re just trying to contribute to that process. I’m just trying to find ways to get resources to where it is needed – see again Alex’s article (https://bitcoinmagazine.com/culture/bitcoin-is-humanitarian-and-environmental) and force accountability on people in power. It will never be this tech utopia where we can sit back and let tech solve the issues. I just want it to go from impossible to only difficult. We start small with things that directly matter to us. Also, a coup doesn’t ask permission.

    2. Also, I think a city is too big already. Start with say, one sewage works. Or one tiny component of a city wide thing, say, procurement for all the sewage works. Pick one thing that really annoys you, and go with that. I agree with you we need to run things together, it’s a multi-pronged thing.

    1. Agreed. Bitcoin, or any other technology, won’t save anyone. If you’re going to sit back and hope tech, or the global North, or whoever, to save you, good luck. But Bitcoin, and blockchain, do provide a tool in a way and a scale that we may not have had access to before. I didn’t listen to the link, I only read the abstract, and it sounds to me that it’s arguing against new ways of doing the same old thing, that gives the same old power structures the same old power, but in a new way. Sure. Top down humanitarian responses will still have the same flaws. But look at how people on the ground are using this. Look at how remittances went against predictions, people still sent money home during the pandemic. People find ways – good and bad – and I feel like Bitcoin helps people on the ground find more ways to survive. This article was interesting to me in that regard – https://bitcoinmagazine.com/culture/check-your-financial-privilege

      As an aside, I find the narrative of ‘this cool thing will save Africa / global South’ more than a little patronising, actually.

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