Walking the talk

2009-10-30 00:00

MANY striking and memorable things were said at the recent City Summit, organised by the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi), but none was more striking than the little riddle posed in her speech by Ina Cronjé, the MEC for Finance: “Five frogs sat on a log. Four decided to jump off. How many were left?” The answer is five. Why? Because the four frogs decided to jump off. We are not told that they actually did jump off.

And there in a nutshell one has one of the great problems of human, social and political life: the difficulty of translating words into action. The difficulty, as they say, of walking the talk.

Some of those who were at the summit are asking this question about the two-day meeting itself. Madeleine Jackson-Plaatjies, the chairperson of Midi, in welcoming those present at the summit, promised that it was not going to be a mere talk shop. And, sure enough, there was plenty of emphasis in breakaway discussions on the specifics of the local situation and on the need for concrete decisions. Many practical proposals and suggestions were put forward and they were carefully recorded. But where are they now, and what exactly is to happen? Fortunately, these questions can be answered confidently. The proposals and projects are being co-ordinated by a Midi group, action teams are to be appointed from those who were at the summit, and before long, all interested people will know all about this.

Of course we don’t yet know how successful the whole enterprise will be — one never knows until things begin to happen — but there appears to be no lack of enthusiasm­, commitment and expertise­.

The whole question of translating words into action is worth pondering in a more general way. The issue turns out to be quite complicated. First, there is the obvious problem of considering all the facts and all the interested parties and coming to an informed and fair decision. The temptation to postpone the crucial moment is often­ very great.

But once the decision has been made, a new temptation arises: the feeling of pleasure at having committed oneself can easily lead to complacency and sluggishness. One has to face up to the hard fact that acting on one’s decision is often far more difficult than making up one’s mind.

If one is working in any organisation, whether public or private, there is a further serious complication. That is that the people who make the decisions are not the same as those who are to put them into action. In local government, for example, it is elected councillors who make decisions, or the main decisions, but it is full-time officials who act on the decisions. There might be a number of reasons why officials might not carry out the decisions, or not carry them out accurately or sensibly: laziness, incompetence or a disagreement with the decisions themselves. Of course, in most cases such blockages do not occur, but they are not uncommon.

There can be no doubt that some of the decisions taken in high places are not popular with some of those people who have the duty of carrying them out. Let us consider, for example, President Jacob Zuma’s many recent statements that his administration will not tolerate officials or elected representatives who are corrupt, lazy or incapable of doing the job for which they were appointed. It is reassuring that Zuma has said these things. But it is frustrating that not a great deal has happened as a result. It is a simple fact that talk of clamping down on corruption will only be taken really seriously when a well-known important person, say a cabinet minister, is charged with corruption.

Enduring a situation where all the right things are said but too few of them are actually done is at the moment the lot of South Afri­cans. We have one of the best constitutions in the world but many of its assurances cannot be effectively put into action. I became conscious of this recently in an e-mail from a friend. She said that in the Canadian media South Africa is associated with only one thing: crime.

Having said all this, I must add that it would be wrong for South Africans to sit around waiting for the powers that be to walk their own talk. Of course we must constantly urge them to do so. But if we are going to follow the “walk together” option, the best model offered by the Dinokeng Scenarios eloquently expounded by Mamphela Ramphele, we must ask ourselves what we ourselves can do. Sitting still and moaning is another kind of laziness. We must do our own positive talking, and walk it too.

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