Educating leaders

2010-08-26 00:00

I NEVER thought I would live to see the day South Africans criticise the idea of an organisation spending money to increase the skills base of its employees. Yet we have strange bedfellows, with the Democratic Alliance, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party all agreeing that giving KwaZulu-Natal members of the Provincial Legislature (MPLs) each bursaries worth R20 000 a year would be a waste of money.

They further agree that the idea of procuring researchers and interns would be money poorly spent. I seem to recall a time when there was a hue and cry about the fact that many of the local government councillors were poorly educated. You would think that the people who had issues with this fact would be happy to see some measure of correction happening.

Not that I agree with the view that educational qualifications define who will be a leader, but education is important and however good you are without it, chances are that you would have been even better with it.

In many South African communities, leaders are those men and women whose wisdom has been proved in what for some might be minor irritations not fit for a public representative, such as being able to settle marital disputes, bringing naughty children to order and doing simple things such as visiting bereaved families and attending the feasts.

It would be a mistake to think that this type of leadership is illegitimate because it is not in keeping with the style that the chattering classes are used to. It therefore makes sense that such people, whose leadership and commitment to their people is unquestioned, might need further technical education and help that interns and researchers would be able to provide to make them better public representatives.

The same people howling about this being money poorly spent will have to choose between this and public representatives who are no more than voting cattle toeing the party line. In March this year, DA councillor Pam Passmore wrote a compelling piece showing how ANC councillors in the uMngeni Municipality were behaving like voting cattle.

“The African National Congress caucus approved everything that was put in front of it. Previously unseen documents got the okay the moment they were tabled.

“Pleas from the DA to be given time to read them were ignored. The municipal manager’s contract of employment was renewed without anyone seeing it.

“When questioned why they did these things, the response was always the same, ‘We trust our management’, or on occasion, ‘We trust our mayor’. The contribution by ANC councillors at council meetings is a symphony of ‘I move’ and ‘I second’ to every single item,” wrote Passmore.

Their behaviour was a mixture of ignorance and arrogance. A thrashing at the polls can sort out the arrogance problem but ignorance’s only known cure remains providing knowledge.

uMngeni’s problem is not unique to local government or that municipality. It also lends weight to the argument that it could be cheaper to provide interns and researchers than to have to pay the costs of folly.

The least a people’s representative forum could do is ensure that those making decisions that affect those who live and work here, do so on the basis of some intellectual input rather than a belief that they can push anything through because they have the numbers.

While one can understand why the DA would display its party-of-privilege gene and be unable to countenance the possibility that there could be a public representative who would not have tertiary education, Cosatu’s logic in opposing the move seems puzzling.

Have they all forgotten that the reason the Skills Development Levies were enacted was to address the real problem that we are a country short of skills and that employers should also bear the responsibility of correcting this situation?

Would Cosatu be equally opposed to its members receiving bursaries where they work or would it agree with bosses who say that investing in their employees is a waste of money?

I certainly would love to have a wellness centre, including a gym, where I work. I would regard as a progressive workplace one that, for example, provides prayer rooms for employees whose religious convictions require them to pray several times a day, such as Muslims, or adequate crèches for working mothers. I cannot see why MPLs would be different.

In any other context, an organisation seeking to provide help for their ill, disabled or elderly would be lauded. Imagine if your company dismissed employees because even though they had sharp minds and were productive, their inability to drive themselves to work meant that they would be dispensed with.

A R500 000 once-off investment will be a gift that will keep giving. To say it is an “insult to striking workers” is as tired as saying that the government should not spend money on the arts when there are homeless people.

The strike will end but public representatives will, like Beet-hoven’s Ninth, be with us forever.

We should be careful not to use as a standard our own poverty or the inability or unwillingness of employers to provide as comfortable a working situation as possible. Just because you are obliged to take a nap under your desk where you work should you feel slightly unwell, does not mean that is the way all workplaces should be.

We must stop at nothing to improve standards all round instead of settling for the lowest common denominator. The ideal remains a better, not a worse life for all.

MPLs might have been shaken by the knee-jerk reaction to the proposal. I can also see why this would not go down well with public servants being on strike. But I cannot for the life of me see why any organisation should be embarrassed to spend money on improving the skills of its own or taking care of the health of its disabled and ill. I hope the honourable MPLs vote yes when the proposal comes to the table.

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