The South African Radio League in 2002

Last updated 2002-06-30

Editorial note added 2005-03-12

Editorial note: There are signs that things have changed for the SARL. This document dates from 2002 and must be read as such. As things unfold, you can check the SARL page to check the current status.

Contextual note: This document does not paint a pretty picture. It is a personal opinion, but an informed one. My intention is not to belly-ache, but to galvanise SARL members into action. If the current apathy continues, the SARL is history. It would be a pity.

The South African Radio League (SARL) comes a long way. It is the second oldest national radio society, having been founded around 1926.

I am no expert on early SARL history, having only become a member in 1979. However, in 23-odd years of membership, I have seen a number of Presidents and other Council members come and go, and have seen the direct impact of their influence. I have had regular dealings with the SARL over the years (or have tried to!), and have been involved as a magazine contributor, Contest Committee member and behind-the-scenes editor of League material throughout this time.

Unfortunately, recent developments in the SARL have provided ample proof that Council members are not keeping their eyes on the ball. Council and the SARL have become ends in themselves, rather than vehicles to serve the interests of Amateur Radio. Control is everything. There is no visible motive but perceived personal power and glory.

Volunteer organisations are not simple to manage. Volunteer labour has special challenges, in the absence of the coercive mechanism that a salary provides. I am therefore the last person to claim that I understand how to run an organisation like the SARL.

I am, though, a very strong believer in the premise the person that does the work must make the rules. If we accept that the SARL is more than simply its Council, we must also accept that there are many people outside Council who do the work. However, while the jury on the new Council makeup is still out, the previous regime under Hans Potgieter ZS6ALJ was a dictatorship. What started off promisingly enough, soon turned into a personal tyranny where personal interests, likes and dislikes became law. How on earth is this possible? How can a volunteer organisation be run as a dictatorship? Why do those volunteers not revolt? Perhaps a glimpse into the South African organisational psyche is needed.

South African politics

William Schirer, in his tome The Third Reich, poses the question: How can one man, with an infantile world view based on extreme prejudice, whip an entire nation of reasonable, cultured, educated people into a frenzy? How do reasonable people become part of something that is in retrospect clearly an atrocity? He proceeds to show how their history, from Martin Luther to the petty warlords that followed, to the Emperor at the turn of the twentieth century, contributed to a subservient, unquestioning attitude to government. When WWI turned out badly for them, they felt let down and abandoned. They were just waiting for someone to pick up the reigns. When an eloquent leader came and told them what they wanted to hear, they jumped.

South African history has many parallels. Fifty years ago, people were calling themselves "bloed-Sappe" and "bloed-Natte". The term, which translates to something like "blood Democrat" or "blood Tory" in English-speaking countries, implies that party affiliation is a genetic issue. It matters little whether the Party is right or wrong on a specific issue--"it is still my Party"!

Unfortunately, while the Natte and Sappe themselves have disappeared (although a late incarnation of the Natte continues to flow with the tide in the current arena), the attitude has not. A recent survey, reported by political commentator Lawrence Schlemmer in a radio interview, confirms that three-quarters of South Africans, regardless of race or cultural group, still suffer from this malady. "My party may be wrong, but it's still my party", they say. Schlemmer expects that the ANC government will stay in power for at least a decade on this basis, despite widespread disillusionment with its performance.

And the Radio League? It is, after all, also a political organisation. Its involvement with radio is almost coincidental. Witness recent issues of RadioZS, its official journal. Once upon a time, there were radios, antennas, Field Day stations and radio amateurs on the cover. Recently, the cover has been as likely to feature a League office-bearer as something radio-like. While there is no denying that a League office-bearer wearing a gold chain is an impressive sight, it certainly does not indicate that amateur radio is a major emphasis.

What's rotten in the State of Denmark?

What are they doing wrong?

Every Council and President in the past 23 years has had one thing in common: His (for they have all been male) own interests were spectacularly catered for. We, as a nation, have an awesome reputation for participating in things that involve satellites and packet radio. We have an awesome political machinery in place. Unfortunately, although a nationwide survey of some two years ago indicated unequivocally that DXing was a major emphasis in South African amateur radio, there has been absolutely no support of this aspect of the hobby.

Perhaps we can argue that interest groups are themselves at fault if their interests are not adequately represented. Perhaps I shouldn't complain that contesting receives no support, as no contester has stood for President. In the interests of fairness, I will concede this point. Perhaps it is fair that Councillors represent their own interests, rather than those of the amateur population. Perhaps.

In that case, perhaps we should concentrate only on the global fiascos of recent weeks. The four most glaring examples have been the Callbook, the SARL's decision to leave the IARU, the demise of the QSL Bureau and the departure of the Contest Manager.

The Callbook was a misguided waste of League funds. The previous issue appeared electronically, and while the database software was not the greatest, it worked. Publishing a new version on paper is a questionable decision at the very least. Those carmudgeons who insist on a paper version could have been accommomdated at relatively modest expense. However, printing a high-volume run on paper is inexcusable.

In the event, the final product suffers from some glaring errors, most of which would have been picked up by even a cursory attempt at proofreading. Every second column had a "Z" missing from every callsign. Almost half of the addresses contained no postal codes, making them useless for mail delivery. The introduction contained a diatribe that stated that the database was suspect. This did not prevent the Editor from publishing it regardless! Perhaps most seriously, they elected to publish physical addresses. Apart from the fact that the majority of those addresses have no mail delivery, there are some very real privacy concerns around those addresses, that the League had no right to infringe.

I did a quick spot check of nine callsigns that I could think of. Of those (ZS4TX, ZS4TZ, ZS5BBO, ZS5LB, ZS6CAX, ZS6EZ, ZS6P, ZS6WB, ZS6Z), only one had an address that was sufficiently complete to ensure delivery! Can we assume that this sample is representative, meaning that 90% of the database is useless?

I wrote a letter of complaint to the Editor (Laurie Devereaux ZS5DL), SARL HQ, the President (Hans Potgieter ZS6ALJ) and the editor of RadioZS (Fritz Sutherland ZS6ASF) on 2002-04-08. As of this writing (more than two months later), no response has been received. I'm told that Council is still very proud of its latest Callbook. In the absence of any direct response, I can only assume that to be true. But, even if it proves not to be true, at least their refusal to respond demonstrates their Total Control!

The decision to leave the IARU has been the result of members' dissatisfaction with a continued pattern of abuse over several years. Councillors have been sent on all-expenses-paid trips to IARU parties, with little or nothing to contribute. The SARL's participation has been confined to representing its own interests, often not in line with the interests of Amateur Radio at large. Perhaps the famous example of this trend is the exception to the 10 MHz band plan, allowing South Africans to use SSB there, and causing widespread QRM. It is therefore with some wry amusement that I recently read a Councillor's explanation about the decision to leave the IARU. One of the factors mentioned was that "all our motions were defeated". Would they have been defeated if they were for the greater good, or were they being defeated because they were demanding exceptions outside the framework of international amateur radio?

The costs of IARU membership are cited as a reason for leaving. Hogwash! The subscription costs themselves are less than R 10 per head (if the figures being touted are indeed truthful). The expensive thing has been the holidays for Councillors. And I can say nothing in defence of those holidays, I'm afraid. I'm all in favour of getting rid of them, but dispensing with IARU membership must be the ultimate form of parochialism.

Well, we no longer have international representation, but at least we have Total Control!

The QSL Bureau is another sad story. On 2002-04-08, I wrote a letter to initate discussions with Council on the future of the Bureau. In this letter, I pointed out that I was concerned about the arrangement, because the incumbent Bureau sorter, Hal Lund ZS6WB, perceived a lack of support, and indeed a confrontational attitude from Council. I believed that the problem could be alleviated, and in the course of subsequent corresponence, suggested several practical measures that might alleviate the problem. Instead of cooperating, the then President Hans Potgieter ZS6ALJ issued immediate written instructions to his Council, forbidding them from communicating with me. Two contacted me freely. Two more contacted me on condition of anonimity, as they knew that they would be victimised by Hans Potgieter if they were found out. I was gobsmacked. Why on earth would people work as volunteers, if they are being held to ransom by some little tinpot dictator?

The QSL Bureau has since left Hal's house to return to HQ. The decision was made at a Council meeting, citing a "lack of control". The Minutes mentioned my letter, and proceeded to state that the Bureau had been moved. It made no mention of the content of my letter, making it seem like my letter acquiesced with their decision. My request for the Minutes to be appropriately amended has been met by total silence.

One of the main reasons why Hal felt increasingly alienated was Council's insistence on Total Control. They wanted all envelopes to come back to HQ, to be checked and verified, even though it would have been easier for Hal to mail them directly. They demanded statistics from Hal which he declared himself unwilling to do from day one. Was it too much to ask that they, while doing their Total Control thing on those envelopes, could compile those statistics themselves? Even though all parcels and envelopes were eventually mailed from HQ, Council still claims that absolutely no statistics are available for the past two years.

At HQ, there is no expertise to run a QSL Bureau, and no labour to do the work. Recent HQ Bulletins have included plaintive cries for help from new hapless volunteers, who will doubtless be treated with the same confrontational attitude that has characterised previous arrangements. How long will it take before the outgoing bureau operates with some semblance of normality again? Those skills are not that easily acquired! But at least there is Total Control...

The Contest Manager recently resigned. Why? Because Council insisted on appointing a Council member to breathe down his neck. In the past five years, Tjerk Lammers ZS6P had re-written the Blue Book to harmonise the disparate contest rules, introduced formal contracts with contest sponsors to ensure that commitments are kept, introduced a system to publish claimed scores and address lost logs, and produced thoroughly-checked HF results for the first time in history. There have been no reported problems with lost logs or late results. Yet, a meeting of Council members during which not one contester was present (except perhaps John Fielding ZS5JF, who was a VHF contester in the Seventies in the UK), it was decided to unilaterally change the system. Logs would again be sent to HQ "to ensure control". Amazing, given the absence of problems that needed to be "controlled", and the fact that Council has no HF contesting or administration skills. While Hans Potgieter's own fourth place in the Phone contest was publicised with great fanfare and obvious affection for "our President" (Radio ZS 55/3 p.9), perhaps it would be instructive to compare his final score to his claimed score. Given the world-wide emphasis on accuracy in contesting, perhaps some work remains to be done. More important than the lack of contest operating in Council, though, is the lack of knowledge of modern contest checking techniques. The entire debate about clean logs, unique rates and cross-checking is a closed book to them.

The result? Council now has Total Control of contests. There is no expertise left, but what the heck: TC wins again! Look forward to an absence of checking and late results, as we had in years gone by.

These are four recent incidents that concern Amateur Radio in this country. Closer to my own skin, their new Propaganda Minister, Richard Seddon ZS2CLI approached me during May with a demand that I remove a specific sentence (a vague reference to the SARL's administative inefficiency) from my Web site. When I refused, saying that I would gladly change it if and when facts warranted, a series of letters resulted. Subjects ranged from how useless the IARU is, to various lessons on how to live one's life, to the ultimate conclusion that I am clearly evil to the bone, with not even one redeeming feature. I would have been devastated, had it not been for the almost endearing naivete of his approach. While the discussion did not directly produce any useful results, it did indicate that the level of propaganda is unlikely to change, and it did prompt me to finally sit down and pen this call to action. At least the long-winded exchange wasn't entirely a waste of time!

Now what?

If the SARL Council is allowed to go its merry way, League funds will continue to be squandered on paid trips for Councillors. In the past years, League members have paid a fortune towards baby-kissing trips by politicians (such as Hans Potgieter's countrywide jaunt), paid holidays for Council members (such as attendance at IARU Region 1 conferences that could have been served equally well by proxy or postal votes) and Council meetings that could equally well have been conducted by email or other electronic means. For a hobby that's all about remote communications, we're awfully reliant upon personal travel!

If members do not complain vociferously, the status quo will continue or deteriorate. We have already lost the right to administer the licence database (although ICASA has been trying to devolve that responsibility for all types of licences). We have already lost all international representation. We have practically lost the QSL bureau.

If you feel as concerned as I do about the League, take this opportunity to contact your local Club, and ensure that your concern is heard. Be specific with your complaints, and suggest suitable courses of action. Volunteers are available, and the work can be done if Council abandons its insistence on personal control and glory. Do not be tempted to descend into a mud-slinging match, even if you are attacked personally in response. It is bound to happen! If you get the cold shoulder, publish it as widely as possible for other members to see. I would be delighted to help in this regard.

Council members now claim that they are doing a great job. Only if enough voices to the contrary are heard, do we have any hope of an improvement. The SARL's constitution does, after all, make Council responsible to the membership!

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