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Letters to the editor: August 21 to 27 2015

Don’t take Forsyth at her word

So, Olivia Forsyth gets to be all hurt by reports of her (okay, alleged) promiscuity-for-a-cause, and even manages to clamber on to what passes for moral high ground (‘Sauce’ for the gander a disgrace to their gender).

She appears to have said little on the merits of the ANC for two decades until this airing of things that cannot be definitively proven one way or the other. Perhaps she imagines we should take her word for it, but pardon the scepticism of those who remember vividly the atmosphere of those times.

Comfortably resident in Britain, Forsyth seeks to drape herself once more in ANC regalia and womanly status as a way to moderate her treachery and deflect attention away from how she nurtured and exploited personal relationships. Her betrayals were deeply personal, irrespective of whether a few or none of them had a sexual dimension.

It would be another matter had she possessed the courage to apologise, particularly because she claims a latter-day affinity with the cause of those she spied on.

The Mail & Guardian‘s reporter Phillip de Wet was doing little more than reflecting views widely held by people there-abouts at the time. These things were not invented after her treachery was confirmed; they were being said while Lieutenant Forsyth was busy being an “activist”. They were funny then and still are.

Perhaps more elegant turns of phrase in the original M&G report would have soothed the frazzled sensitivities of younger M&G colleagues. But it would have been dereliction of duty to ignore Forsyth’s book, and what it does and doesn’t say, on the grounds that we do not have on-the-record confessions 35 years later.

Forsyth surely cannot claim never to have heard the things said about her. She should have covered these things, even if just to deny them. She chose to publish, and should have anticipated that those who were around at the time would respond unfavourably with their own vivid and lurid recollections.

Further, those who worked alongside a spy or three in newsrooms, student organisations and nongovernmental organisations in the 1980s are better placed than your reporter Victoria John to reflect on what it means to have this piece of apartheid cannon fodder turn up now with a sanitised autobiography.

Applying the wounded-but-aggressive tones of modern feminism has not helped illuminate the story or Forsyth’s motives. John’s intervention, couched in the terminology of “discourses” and “trigger warnings”, says a whole lot about today – but nothing about the 1980s. – Trevor Jones, Johannesburg

Not all state pensions are watertight

A lot has been said about the ongoing Greek saga, but little on what we can learn from it, though that is what Mosibudi Mangena addressed in the Mail & Guardian (Ignore lessons from Greece at our peril).

The problem with this tragedy lies in its complexity. Experts identify a plethora of issues as underlying problems. One of them, which is consistently mentioned and was first identified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2010, was the overly generous Greek government pension scheme.

Since then, some of the benefits, such as the 13th and 14th cheques paid to pensioners, have been trimmed, but with little effect on the overall picture.

Maybe that’s because the problem is in-built and no amount of trimming of benefits can address that. The Greek pension service, like most government schemes, is a “defined benefit” scheme, so, when a member leaves the scheme, his or her benefit is determined in terms of a formula defining what the member is entitled to.

The formula usually includes the number of years that the member contributed to the fund, his or her annual average salary in the last few years, inflation and other specified considerations. Of least concern is how much the member and the employer put in during the period of contribution.

This contrasts with to the other type of fund, a “defined contribution” arrangement, which provides that, on exit, the member gets what he and the employer put in during the period of employment, plus the investment returns earned.

This type of fund is found in the majority of South Africa’s private sector funds. The defined benefit fund still exists in the public sector and a few private funds.

The defined benefit appears to be a major issue for Greece, because it means the contributing employer and current employees have to keep contributing to the fund so it can pay benefits to retired members. This perpetual indebtedness of the Greek government as an employer is at the heart of the debacle.

A defined benefit fund is a pyramid scheme with a difference: it is presumed the employer will remain in perpetuity, and be solvent, and that active employees will always exceed pensioners, so they will always be able to maintain the pensioners.

The only institutions that fit the profile of perpetual existence and infinite solvency are governments – except, now, for Greece.

Mangena says that our Government Employees’ Pension Fund is sufficiently cushioned from the perils of dependence on government funds because its investments are separate and well invested by the Public Investment Corporation. Hence our pensioners are secure.

That is fair and good if, when speaking of government, we exclude local government (municipal funds) and parastatals (Eskom and the Post Office).

Regrettably, the majority of these entities have defined benefit funds. Should such schemes turn out to be underfunded, these employers have to top them up to bring them to solvency levels or the benefits will be reduced the Greek way. Both top-ups and benefit reduction have been applied by some of these funds in the past few years.

As to who is supposed to foot the bill when the employer can’t, we will have to ask ministers Tina Joemat-Pettersson (Eskom) and Pravin Gordhan (bankrupt municipalities) about bailouts. Ntate Mangena may have celebrated too early; it seems our feet of clay are already in the water. – Advocate Makhado Ramabulana, office of the Pension Funds Adjudicator

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