Going with the flow

2009-03-06 00:00

Barbara Tuchman wrote a fascinating book called The March of Folly in which she described the “pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests”. She wrote particularly of rulers, but there is equal evidence to suggest that humankind as a whole is no less prone to such folly.

I asked Cees Bruggemans recently what sort of changes we might expect in the global financial and economic order once the current crisis has passed and we are climbing the slope of prosperity again. I was surprised when he suggested that in the course of time the landscape might look much the same as it did before the sub-prime disaster. I have rather more faith in people’s ability to learn from their mistakes, but whether this faith is justified remains to be seen.

Tuchman’s thesis is substantiated by history and as valid as Nietzsche’s observation that “insanity in individuals is something rare — but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule”. It is a sobering thought that an even economic keel might again encourage selfish, greedy people and those complacent in their positions and wealth, to make careless decisions which will plunge the world into another depression. It might be convenient to identify culprits and point fingers (although, strangely, some of the people responsible seem to have remained untarnished), but we must look to our own willingness to “go with the flow”. It is particularly pertinent currently to remember that we have the government we deserve.

Criticism of the practices of the ruling party is increasing all the time as the election approaches. It is hard to imagine that it will not be responsible for the formation of the new South African government, but the exposure of graft, corruption and nepotism, and the electorate’s new-found political morality and the voice to express its dissatisfaction, might be the most significant factors of the 2009 election.

Not for some time will the South African ruling party, if there is only one, be untouchable in its comfort and complacency again unless we yield to our customary apathy. In the meantime, despite just a few examples of dignity and tolerance, we are in the throes of a nasty political conflict, and not all of it across the party-political lines. Some battles are going on even within parties where antagonists are interpreting motives and ambitions, and trying to secure access to power for themselves. Party loyalty, already proven to be illusory in some cases, has been supplanted by allegiance to an individual or group, an inherently dangerous shift when the right individual is still to be identified. The submission of party lists, while clarifying some of the issues, will, no doubt, have also fuelled some of the fires.

Among the many party manifestos it is difficult to find significant differences of policy. Proposed strategies do reveal differences, however, but many are electoral promises which will be impossible for a government to implement. What is totally absent, as far as I can see, is any suggestion as to how government may be structured to improve its performance in respect of delivery.

Some years ago, the Msunduzi Municipality was restructured (not for the first, or the last, time) and among the guiding principles was the removal of the so-called silos. There is another restructuring taking place currently and the same guiding principle applies because the previous exercise was unsuccessful in this respect. National and provincial governments are also hampered by departmentalisation.

The creation of empires, each with its head and executive cadre, does not facilitate the cross-cutting integration of effort that is required in a modern, complex world where boundaries are disappearing. The prime objective soon becomes the protection of the empire and its court, and there is diminishing time for inter-departmental co-operation.

Thus, one can look forward to more of the same where even greater competency, hopefully, will be undermined by structure and custom. It is to Albert Einstein that a definition of insanity is attributed: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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