Jul 31, 2011

President Obama, defuse this Republican pipe bomb

Josh Marshall:
But for future reference let's remember that the entire concept of a debt limit ceiling is ridiculous. If the Congress votes to spend more than it will take in in tax revenues, that is a vote to borrow money. Period. For Congress to vote once to borrow the money and then have to vote again to borrow the same money is silly.

That's not to say this has any constitutional relevance; Congress has broad latitude to do stupid things. But this was always a silly way of doing business -- which is the reason why no other major country has a similar procedure -- a time bomb waiting for one of the two parties to decide to play Russian Roulette with the nation.
Right now, the House is moving to reject Harry Reid's stupendous giveaway to conservatives before it is even passed (assuming they can get past a Republican filibuster).  There seem to be two easy fixes to this: the President invokes the 14th amendment, or mints a couple trillion-dollar platinum coins.  To my completely untrained eye the platinum solution looks less dubious, but quite frankly I don't particularly care which unilateral solution we use.  Is this a dangerous usurpation of presidential power?  I agree with this guy:
Some say this would set a dangerous precedent. Maybe so. But one must view every decision within the context of available options. The alternative is to confirm that the debt ceiling can be taken hostage in a way never experienced before. That admits a tremendous power in Congress, giving that branch a degree of leverage over the economy never before so fully exploited. Is that not a dangerous precedent too? Do we wish to face political debt ceiling threats again, and again, and again?

Keep in mind, if Congress finds the President’s actions so egregious, it has some recourse: impeachment. If the debt ceiling can be taken hostage, any President with an interest in protecting the economy (which we can safely assume is every President there has ever been or will ever be) has no recourse.

I do not understand any argument that implies it is OK for Congress (or one chamber of it) to so easily threaten to blow up the economy. Such a thing strikes me as self-evidently unpatriotic. And, if it is unpatriotic to threaten severe economic damage, isn’t it also unpatriotic to resist the demands that would prevent it?
The last decade has seen some of the most outrageous expansions of executive power in American history. Bush, of course, started a war on false pretenses, instituted a torture regime, violated secrecy and wiretapping statutes, and pardoned the only person to be convicted of anything.  President Obama himself has already started one illegal war, and continues most of Bush's terrorism policies.  You want some real tyranny?  How about federal agencies raiding medical marijuana dispensaries that are plainly legal under state law?

Yet when it comes to protecting the full faith and credit of the United States, suddenly the President's hands are tied.  I believe the platinum solution is legal, but seriously, what kind of executive usurpation is this?  The tyranny of...borrowing the money Congress has already voted to spend?  Please.  Call the White House now, and tell them to embrace the platinum option!

UPDATE: Yglesias is undoubtedly correct that this situation is symptomatic of broader political decay and doesn't bode well for the future.  Nevertheless, I can't help but conclude that exploiting the platinum loophole is the right thing to do in this moment.  If it's that or worldwide recession (or even savage spending cuts plus the same thing again in six months), put me down for the loophole.

Jul 29, 2011

The South African skills crisis close up

I'm really looking forward to abandoning the camera on my phone.
This crappy picture is of a bunch of textbooks my host sister is currently reading.  They're for a correspondence course in several subjects having to do with school administration and the like, obtained from North West University, and I helped her download several supporting documents.  Paging through the books, the courses seem at least somewhat legitimate—not obviously a diploma mill-style efforts, at least.  There are repeated instructions to help people avoid common South African mistakes, like copying the textbook verbatim.  My sister applied for course because if she passes, she will get a R1000 salary increase.

She has no chance of passing.  The courses assume a passing familiarity with the academic gearshifts—computer and internet skills, ability to parse legal and academic language, and most importantly good writing skills.  My sister did not know the meaning of the word "legislation."  How much did the course cost?  R21,000 (about $3000).  Of course, there are no refunds.  Obviously the government is trying to incentivize skills acquisition, but if the school system can't turn out graduates with decent English skills, the program will be stillborn.

What the heck is this thing?

It looks like a praying mantis, but with some kind of weird upturned abdomen. Any guesses?

Jul 27, 2011

Guest post: The Cyclotwistorator!

[This is an onion-style piece from my dad.]

Dateline June 24, 2011. Washington, DC. Reports that climate scientists have been apprehended igniting cataclysmic forests fires in 14 states have been difficult to confirm. “ Many of these science types are actually quite clever,” said Senator James Inhofe, chief the upper chamber’s climate change deniers. “They’ll be up in Minot breaching dikes in the morning and lighting a 60,000 acre wildland fire in Florida the afternoon. Senator John Kyl noted that he a personally chased off a suspicious person dressed in a lab coat and carrying a test tube when he went to see if his cabin had been consumed by the fire that has blackened 900 square miles of Arizona and continues to burn. Sarah Palin’s blog reported that climate scientists have discovered a way to cause the formation of class 5 tornadoes by use of a top-secret “cyclotwistorator” device that is about the size of a toaster. The machine was accidently plugged in at a top-secret climate scientist’s breakfast in Vermont this year and devastated much of the city of Burlington.

Reports from various sources of climate scientists whipping up terrific dust storms in the West have been validated by the unprecedented number of the events taking place in recent years. It is also probably no coincidence that the graph of the average temperature of atmosphere closely mimics the graph of the number of climate scientist world wide. “There’s no way you can ignore the relationship,” said Inhofe. “The explosion in the population of climate scientists is melting glaciers, drowning polar bears and killing coral reefs, which were once the nurseries of the sea. The facts are plain.” In Inhofe’s view, the idea that human activities may be causing earth’s climate to change is preposterous. “The earth was created for us. For us to replenish. I’m unclear on who plenished it in the first place, but its climate will always be ‘just right’ for incubating humans,” Inhofe said. “All climate-change realists argue backwards from this certainty. There may not be a stick left to burn in Arizona, or ice an cube in the Arctic. There may be half a billion starving Bangladeshis at my front door and the gulf Mexico lapping at my back (Mr. Inhofe is from Oklahoma) and I’ll still know what I know: this global climate change fraud is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public.”

The atmosphere and climate of our planet do seem to be in an exquisite balance between the near absolute zero of interstellar space and the 11,000 degree F of the surface of the sun. Climate scientists warn that the equilibrium is fragile and sensitive and point to evidence that the planet Mars seems to have once had free surface water but whose ancient oceans boiled off after a change in surface temperature of only a few degrees. Climate change deniers attribute Martian aridity to the rise of Islamic militancy on that planet and subsequent revocation of divine favor. “The purpose of humanity is to praise God, who discovered late in the game that the mollusks, crustaceans and ungulates he had been cranking out were ill suited for praise singing. It was either create a world for us or teach starfish to croon. The best way to maintain our balmy weather is stay in good graces with the supreme being, “Inhofe said. He suggested cutting funding for Planned Parenthood and the Women and Infant Care program as a way to avoid having the oceans boil.

While the refusal admit any human-caused alteration of the climate has become a matter of Republican orthodoxy, with former believers reversing their positions as fast as they can manage without anyone noticing, the issue seems to have fallen off the table for the Obama administration as well. “Our focus is jobs, jobs, jobs,” a spokesman said. “Climate change may be the biggest, toughest and most important question facing the nation and the world but we just don’t have the time, money or inclination to save the planet right now."

Jul 26, 2011

Painting the roof white

One of Sullivan's readers makes a good point about white roofs, which I explored myself awhile back:
Another points to a post by Duke scientist Bill Chameides, who says that "if white roofs became ubiquitous [worldwide], the extra energy needed for heating in the winter would exceed the energy savings in the summer." An innovative solution:
A group of recent M.I.T. grads, as reported on the school’s web site, has developed a temperature-sensitive tile — it’s black when temperatures are cold and white when temps are warm. It’s a chameleon roof tile — so adding the Greek word for heat to the English word for the colorful lizard, they named their invention Thermeleon.
It's true, a white roof doesn't make sense for every climate.  I reckon it would work best in a very hot place like Phoenix that requires little or no heating during winter.  My village in the Kalahari is actually rather temperate—yesterday it was freezing cold—but given that most people here don't have any heating and most houses are so poorly designed they retain little heat anyways, a white roof is still a decent idea.

House design plays an important factor too.  My parents' house back home, high in the Colorado mountains, has enough south glass that during winter it can get past 90 degrees during the afternoon, but it's well-insulated enough that they could probably get away with no night heating even with a white roof.  During summer, a roof overhang (and heavy insulation) keeps the sun out so they dispense with cooling too.  Not bad, eh?

Collected links: happy 900 posts!

I was sort of hoping I'd hit 1000 posts before I went home, but that looks pretty unlikely.  Still, 900 isn't too bad.  Here are some links to celebrate!

1. A train ride with history.  Dude made it through Stalingrad!

2. Towards wrenching the US system in a parliamentary direction.

3. The campers that saved dozens in Norway.

4. A video game as a religion?

5. Seven really creepy, but possibly useful, experiments.

What happens to the Peace Corps if we hit the debt ceiling?

Kevin Drum has an alarming post (chart borrowed from the same):

But starting on May 16, when we reached the debt ceiling and Congress did nothing about it, no more bonds could be sold. For the past couple of months Treasury has been playing games to stay in business, mostly by raiding other accounts or suspending payment of securities that could be held off temporarily. But that's done, and now we're headed inexorably to zero. On August 3rd we go into the red and we stop paying a whole lot of bills.

Which bills? Well, the tea partiers never say. But if you're expecting a check from the U.S. government after next Tuesday, you might want to make a contingency plan.
As it turns out, the government owes me something like $7000—my readjustment allowance, to be paid when I leave the country on August 19th. The idea is for every month in service Peace Corps will hold a bit of cash that they will pay out upon my end of service to ease my reintroduction into America, or wherever I might end up. As I understand it that money is actually deposited every month, so it should theoretically already be there safe and sound. 

But still, it seems like we're in largely unknown territory.  A real default could induce so much chaos I don't think anyone can say for sure what would happen.  To say this is unsettling is putting it mildly.

Jul 25, 2011


I'm normally an extremely even-keeled sort (as in, I've been called a robot by more than one ex-girlfriend).  But wrapping up my service here is inducing all kinds of emotional turmoil.  The volunteers in my group are dropping like flies—my neighbor is gone, so I'm again alone in the valley.  Cooper over in Cambodia, one of my fellow Peace Corps blog-obsessives, has closed up shop.  I keep thinking about all the things I will likely never do again.  It's strange and disorienting, and I just want it to be over already.  Eish!

Jul 24, 2011

Taxi cartels, ctd

My thinking on the taxi issue here in South Africa has been shaped a lot by Yglesias' posts on taxi medallions and barber licensing.  I know he catches a lot of flak for being a sellout on those issues, but I think it might be illustrative to consider the different situations here and back home, because (and I suspect Yglesias would agree) the solutions are exactly the opposite.

Via Wikipedia
The standard "neoliberal" story about taxi medallions goes like this: taxi drivers try to get the government to erect barriers to entry, to restrict competition and drive up prices.  The solution is to not grant medallions and instead allow as many taxis as the market will bear, subject to some more basic regulation about vehicle safety, driver's licenses, and so forth.  However, so far as I can tell, in South Africa there are no legal grants of association status for taxi organizations.  Instead there is market failure driven by insufficient government regulation (most obviously in law enforcement), leading to endogenous monopolies that then restrict competition and fix prices.  Now, obviously the details would vary a lot between each ideal situation, especially since the most obvious problems with South African taxis have to do with crime and basic safety.  More particularly, since South African taxis (really share taxis) are performing a much more complicated task than US-style one-passenger taxis, government might have to help coordinate between cities and ranks. 

But the underlying story here is clear: the government should be on the side of the weaker party, in both cases here the taxi passengers, and lean against the natural tendency of businessmen best encapsulated by that great Adam Smith quote: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."

Jul 23, 2011

A melancholy anniversary

Two years ago today I landed in Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.  It was the first time I had set foot outside North America.  Three weeks from today I'll leave my village forever, and if House Republicans don't manage to destroy the US, I'll fly home that following Friday.  The times, they are a'changin.

Collected links

1. A critical look at psychiatry, part I.

2. Part II.

3. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist comes clean.

4. Just read this.

5. Europe's perfect financial storm.

Jul 22, 2011

Taxi cartels, ctd

This isn't a very good picture, but it illustrates some of what I'm talking about when I mention taxi system inefficiency. This is the Rustenburg taxi rank, and one of the striking things you notice on walking in is the staggering number of idle taxis sitting around. There's probably upwards of two hundred in this rank alone. I asked a few people about that, and of course they had various reasons for it, but I cannot imagine this doesn't represent a huge waste of resources, both in terms of unused potential and just in that so many empty taxis are quite literally clogging up the rank.

Jul 21, 2011

The technocrat personality

There's been an interesting debate going back and forth between Yglesias, Henry over at CT and a few others about neoliberalism and the technocratic school on American left.  It's a bit strained at times, but I think still illuminating.  Here Henry says the technocrats lack a theory of politics:
Hence, it’s a problem if neo-liberalism doesn’t have a theory of politics. This not only means that it can’t think about long-term change in any coherent or useful way; it means that neo-liberals have difficulty thinking about the interactions between short-term policy proposals that they like and the political conditions that might make these and other proposals achievable, and sustainable after they have been brought through.
One might reply that the technocrats (like Yglesias, and especially Ezra Klein) have begun writing more about unions recently—as I understand it on the strict economics even someone like Krugman would say the case for unions is weak, but on the politics it's cut and dried.  A large interest group solidly on the side of the middle class is something desperately needed in America.

Yglesias' response is telling:
This is one reason why I put a fair amount of emphasis on disparaging the folk theory of political change which holds something like “change happens because the president shows ‘leadership’ and delivers awesome speeches.” Belief in that theory of change tends, I think, to distract people from the reality that it really takes massive, difficult-to-achieve feats of collective action. How exactly one goes about achieving those feats is somewhat mysterious (I’m partial to Theda Skocpol’s ideas), but if you’re frustrated with the pace of change this is what you need to be working on.
It's a classic technocratic response.  How do we achieve change?  Well, someone wrote a theoretical book it you can check out.  And I'm not knocking that!  Now I want to read that book, and if I weren't out of the country there's a good chance I would have ordered it.

From a closer standpoint, I think this has a lot to do with personality.  I write about bloodless technocrat things in a bloodless technocrat style because, well, I am a bloodless technocrat to a large extent.  Quite frankly, I suck at the thankless task of political organizing—and I speak from experience.  A couple examples: at Reed I founded a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and in 2008 I volunteered for Obama, and I was basically a miserable failure at both of those things.  I've been down that road, and for me it ends in disillusionment and failure.

Some time ago I took a personality test, and while I don't put too much stock it it, I thought some of the profiles were pretty spot-on:
The INTP is above all a thinker and his inner (private) world is a place governed by a strong sense of logical structure. Every experience is to be rigorously analysed, the task of the INTP's mind is to fit each encountered idea or experience into a larger structure defined by logic. For here is the central goal of the INTP: to understand and seek truth. The experience of anything takes a back seat. The INTP is not interested in experiences themselves but is far more fascinated by concepts. The drive to understand things that are not yet understood is a very powerful force in the life of an INTP...

A further result of the Ti function is the concept, lived out by many an INTP, that knowledge is everything. They tend to believe that information is the key to life. All mistakes can be avoided by having the right information at the right time. This has at least a certain logic about it. Where they differ from other temperaments (especially from SP types) is that a large gap may exist between knowing and doing. To know is everything, to do is a lower order necessity, if it is necessary at all. This breeds the potential for lazy aloofness...

One-to-one conversation is preferred in almost every situation. In a group situation, INTPs are sensitive to whether they believe they will be listened to or not. If a dominant (strongly extraverted and loud) person is present, the INTP will withdraw and sulk, believing the dominant person to be a brute. If an INTP speaks, he must be listened to, for he believes his spoken opinions to be important. If not, he withdraws (at least in spirit) and assumes that the people who do not listen lack intelligence. Hence, INTPs make very poor leaders, for they depend too much on the attitudes of others. This is one of the negative sides of the Ne function. INTPs tend to jump to intuitive conclusions, can be fatalistic and have little perseverence. On the other hand, they can make very good assistants to leaders, provided they and the leader are of one mind, for their perceptive analysis can give the leadership useful insights which they may overlook, being too busy with leading. Indeed, INTPs are often glad when someone else takes over the lead, again providing the leader is of the same mind. An INTPs ideal is to provide all the ideas for a project and have a charismatic leader, who agrees with him, carry them out.
On a technical level, I could probably argue "political theories" and their relative merits all day, but on an emotional level I think I'd feel a little sheepish.  I don't  think much about theories of politics because I strongly dislike the grunt work of political organizing, and I write about dry theoretical issues because I love that stuff.  (Obviously, I do it for free.)

The above failures were a source of some anxiety for awhile, but I've kinda moved past it.  Play to your strengths, I say, and a political movement needs technocrats as much as passionate, charismatic leaders.

Jul 19, 2011

Got my ticket home

So I'll be headed home on the 19th of August. Anyone that wants to meet up, or if you've got a plum job in the DC area (wink, wink) drop me a line.

Jul 14, 2011

Aqueous cream?

One thing I appreciate about South Africa is that you can get a lot of simplest-possible products, with none of the frills, doodads, or slick advertising campaigns that are almost impossible to avoid back home. This Stalinist tub of lotion, for example, cost about $1.30.

Jul 12, 2011

Taxi cartels

[Edited and expanded for clarity.]

The South African taxi industry forms the backbone of the daily transport service across the country, especially for the poorer areas, and it is relatively cheap and reliable.  For Americans, "taxi" usually conjures up the classic New York yellow cabs, but here it's a bit different.  A taxi here is usually a medium-size van, most often the Toyota Quantum (pictured), usually carrying 10-22 people.  While there is a brisk business just carrying people around cities, I'd say the majority of the industry is intra-city or -town transport.  People arrive at the taxi rank (the taxi nexus for the area) with
toyota quantum specsa destination, and when there are enough to fill every seat (and sometimes then some), everyone pays and they can go.

However, there is a high degree of cartelization in the industry, something that I've really noticed in the last few months. Every area I've visited is dominated by one or a group of taxi associations, which mainly exist with the purpose of restricting competition and fixing prices. For example: there is tension in the very design of the taxi system—the passengers want to leave as soon as possible, while the drivers want to wait until the taxi is full.  If it's a busy route, the wait isn't long; but if it isn't you can be waiting for hours, and sometimes people prefer to hitchhike.  An obvious strategy here would be to post a departure schedule so you know when the taxi is leaving, or better yet try to coordinate between ranks so that passengers can arrive at the same time.  The ranks, though, often prefer to pin down the traveler by making him pay up front (see below), then waiting as long as possible.  Then, of course, the drivers shout abuse at the hitchhikers as they're leaving town.  And that isn't the half of it. Sometimes taxi hitmen machine-gun buses or competing associations (though overt violence has calmed a bit in recent years).  See here for more.

I see this sort of thing all the time.  Once on holiday we wanted to contract someone to drive us a long distance, thereby avoiding much time-wasting taxi switching at all the intermediate ranks. My friend Noah wrote down an account:
There were 7 of us which is a kind of magic number for inconvenience. It is too few to buy out an entire taxi without spending twice the normal amount but too many to easily fit in a taxi with all of our gear. Choosing thriftiness over comfort, we made it about a third of the way to our ultimate destination by noon. Most of our driving was still ahead of us and we got stuck waiting for a taxi that was not filling up. We paid our fare, piled our gear, circled around and tried to psychically persuade every traveler to get into our taxi so we could get going (at least I did). Fearing we would not make it all the way on time, we started pursuing other options. A few of us started to seek out someone we could pay to take us all the way to where we wanted to go. It was a long shot but if it worked out, it would save us the trouble of a few more taxi ranks. After some searching, we found a willing driver and negotiated until we finally settled on an equitable price. There was still the matter of talking to the taxi rank.

You see, we already paid the fare to take us to the next taxi rank along the route. An honest and forthright business would be unhappy about refunding customers who decided not to partake in whatever service they were offering but would ultimately refund any money. Since we were dealing with a taxi rank, which takes most of its cues from the mafia, we anticipated problems in getting our money back. We decided to use deceit rather than honesty but I am convinced either way would have yielded similar results. A few tried telling the taxi rank office that some members of our party were feeling sick so we decided to stay in town and therefore no longer need a taxi. The taxi rank refused to give back any money. I suppose we had the option of just leaving our money and getting the hell out of there but like I said we are cheap and it would have justified the taxi's bullying techniques by giving them a cool 630R payday (we have principles to uphold). So we stood our ground and an actual argument ensued. I was not part of the team involved in this process and for good reason. I can be a stubborn and spiteful person and this was one of those situations where it was coming out. I was advocating calling the police, this would have taken hours and probably would have accomplished very little but if it had the slightest chance of interrupting and ruining their day, I was for it. I was willing to camp outside the rank and go into monumental debt by paying each customer twice as much as the fare of the taxi to stay home or walk. I was considering petitioning all of the gas stations in the area to go on a trade embargo with all taxis directly involved and kill their fuel supply. I wanted to start an uprising and squeeze the taxi rank out of existence! Thankfully, it was not up to me to handle this particular situation. It was left to more cheery and hopeful individuals who did not get us kicked out of the rank.
Eventually, after a great deal of negotiation, we managed to buy a taxi most of the way through the rank officials, only about 30% more what we would have paid the original guy to take us the whole way.  It was a pain in the ass, but we were over a barrel.

Another story I got from some friends. They were riding in a taxi that, on the way to its Pretoria, picked up someone outside its agreed zone. It turned out to be a sting operation; several other taxis surrounded the first one, all the passengers were forced off onto another taxi, and the offending taxi sent back to its rank. My friends were sent to the other taxi rank, where they were put on another ride to Pretoria, which duly left after a bit. So far, only twenty minutes or so wasted. Then, halfway to town, the new driver asked why no one had paid. "We all paid the first taxi," the passengers replied. He immediately stopped and refused to go further until everyone paid again. Fortunately, the South Africans on the taxi then (quite appropriately) threw an enormous fit, prompting the driver to eventually call his association president, who agreed after some arguing that they could continue.

It should be emphasized that for the most part taxis work relatively well despite the monopolies. It's during abnormal operation, like during a breakdown, or there are a lot of people going home on a holiday, or as when we wanted an unusual service, that the system really shows its flaws. That and the mafia-style turf wars.  In any case, a bit of industry regulation, and more importantly strong law enforcement, would do a world of good for an already fairly-decent public transport system.

Jul 10, 2011

Programming note

Apologies for the light posting, I've been rather busy with getting ready to come home.  Hopefully I can dream up something plausible-sounding in the next couple days.

Jul 5, 2011

A further thought on the camp

Thinking again about the camp I recently helped with I was struck by a couple things.  First was that overall it went off very well.  The kids got there on time, the food was sufficient and cooked on time, the activities went off more or less how they were planned—and most of all, the kids had a great time.  I'd say it was one of the best organized and best executed events I have attended here in South Africa.

The second thing is that the stress of the event nearly gave the volunteer organizing it ulcers.  The key thing I noticed here is that the actual logistics weren't the stressful bits.  It was the thankless, selfish, and petulant attitude evinced by a large fraction of the people involved with the camp.  Beforehand, people who agreed to help or contribute often went back on their word or didn't keep their promises.  A local politician who had agreed to organize transport reacted to inquires about said organization with disbelieving fury—only later did it come out that she had actually done nothing.  During the camp, on one occasion, younger volunteers stayed up all night and then begged off their activities the next day, claiming sickness.  As the camp was ending, there was a frenzy of people trying to score free stuff from the extras—we're still trying to track down the soccer balls.

All those things were relatively small and easy to deal with, but the cumulative psychological energy required to deal with all the petty bullshit was nearly overwhelming.  The easily waked sense of grievance and entitlement that one encounters here is a major reason I'm excited to go home.

Jul 2, 2011


Recently I had the illuminating experience of participating in a lobola negotiation for my host sister. Lobola is a word for bride price—money the groom's family must pay in order to proceed with a marriage.  Traditionally the payment was in animals, usually cattle, but as those are increasingly expensive often people just use cash, or mostly cash, these days.  Now, technically someone like me would not be allowed to sit on the negotiation panel, because only those who are already married are supposed to participate. However, they decided that because I'm a visitor the rules could be stretched a bit.

The process is governed by a set of rules whose origins are somewhat mysterious. For example: the groom's family must go to the bride's family's house in the middle of the night—we started at about 2 in the morning. All the negotiations must be finished—the lobola agreed to and paid, the groom's family fed by the women of the bride's family—before the sun rises. When the groom's family arrives, they must greet everyone on the panel before sitting. The panel must not say anything until the groom's family lays down a bit of cash, in this case 100 rand, after which the negotiations can start. At a certain point the groom's family must choose the prospective bride from a lineup of several women. No one could explain to me exactly where all these rules came from, but since any mistakes redounded to the benefit of the other party, everything was strictly observed.

The actual negotiations took place in rapid Setswana, so I didn't catch all the details, but it seemed fairly straightforward. Each member of the groom's family, after a bit of preliminary discussion, laid down an offering of some cash, and in some cases an animal or two. Then the panel would have a quick discussion to determine if the amount was enough—usually they would ask for a bit more. Once both sides had agreed on an amount, they would move on to the next person in the groom's family. The bulk of the money, some R10,000, came from the groom himself. All together it was just short of R12,000 and two sheep. (The sheep were tied into feed sacks with fencing wire, which definitely won't win any humane animal transport awards.)

It was a little unsettling to hear what the discussions tended to turn on. Since my host sister is nearly fifty, there was a lot of talk on the groom's side about how she won't be having any children and so forth, which seemed to deduct a few thousand rand; but also about how she has a steady job as a teacher, which seemed to add a few thousand.  A bit odd for an American, but it's how things are done around here.  Take note in case you want to marry a South African someday.