Role models

2009-06-26 00:00

The elections were not long ago, and we are still in the perio­d of resolutions, promises and hopes. Many valuable things were said in President Jacob Zuma­’s State of the Nation address and in Premier Zweli Mkhize’s State of the Province addres­s. But resolutions and promises are always worrying. How can one be sure that they will be carried out, especially in an abnor­mal period of sharp economic recession? However good and creative the intentions (and most people seem very willing to accept the bona fides of Zuma and Mkhize), by what mechanisms can improvements be brought about?

This is a large topic, and I want to comment on just one aspect of it: the need for a change of heart, a change of attitude, among a fair number of politicians and public servants. I say “a fair number” becaus­e I do not subscribe to the view, held by some, that all politic­ians and officials are self-serving and corrupt. The fact that negative events get reported far more frequently than positive ones inevitab­ly gives a somewhat skewed picture. It’s a sad reality that a quietly dedicated worker is usually not newsworthy.

How then can one change attitudes, get more people to work devotedl­y and passionately? There are various approaches and techniques that can be used. I want to focus on the importance of role models. People who are prime and obvious examples of selfless dedication make an impac­t, inspire people, get people thinking in new ways.

But where are such role models? They are all around us. On the international scene we still have the remarkable Barack Obama, who works very hard, takes his responsibili­ties extremely seriously, and yet maintains good humou­r. Even his worst enemies have never claimed that he is in it for the money. There are many local people too: I know some politicians who are totally admirable in their quiet determination to work for a better South Africa. In other sectors too there are heroes: this newspaper has recently highlighte­d the cases of Sbu Khuzwa­yo, the municipal manager of the uMgungundlovu District municipality, who has agreed to a significant cut in his salary, and Jenny Stewart, the nursing sister who, with her dedicated team, has made the ICU at Grey’s Hospital a world-class facility. These are the people we should be focusing on and talking about.

There is also another remarkable figure on the international scene who has been in and out of the news in the past few weeks: Aung San Suu Kyi. She is internationally honoured and respected as a person who has dedicated many years of her life to the non-violent struggle for democracy in Burma/Myanmar. The party that she led won the election that was held in 1990, so that now she is in fact the prime minister elect, but the dictatorial junta that runs the country nullified the election, and she has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest. She has been given the opportunity to leave the country, but she has refuse­d to do so — even to visit her sick husband who eventually died of cancer in England in 1999 — because she knows that the regim­e would not allow her back, and she sees the struggle for democr­acy and justice inside Burma as her life’s work. In her firmness, her courage, her desire for reconciliation and a just peace, her marvellous serenity, she is often compared with those other her­oic figures, Mahatma Gandhi (who has always inspired her) and her fellow Nobel Peace laureates, Nelso­n Mandela and the Dalai Lam­a. At the moment, she is on tria­l, on a flimsy charge. It seems that the regime wants to imprison her, to prevent her from taking part in next year’s election, which she would certainly win.

Many will ask: does it make sense to hold up such a titanic figure as a role model for ordinary politicians and civil servants? What is the connection between dedicating one’s life, perhaps even sacrificing one’s life, for a nobl­e cause, and working in an offic­e, or mending, maintaining or producing infrastructure, or performing some other socially significant task? The connection is a very close one. Politicians and civil servants are not called upon, normally, to risk their lives for the tasks that they are paid to perform, but they are asked to carry out their responsibilities with dedication, intelligence, honesty and a certain passion. In this respect, they are in exactly the same position as Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandh­i or Mandela. And these great people would be the first to make this assertion. Every person who does her or his job really well, really warmly and diligently, is admirable and, indeed, heroic. And if more and more people follow this path, South Africa will bec­ome a great nation.

In contrast, how paltry and pathet­ic laziness and corruption look. Sitting at one’s desk doing nothing, raking in money from dishonest tenders, driving around proudly in a flashy car that one knows one doesn’t deserve or need. Ugh!

Aung San Suu Kyi has received many honours, from the world outside Burma. The next one that she is to receive is the Gandhi Peace Award, to be presented to her, in her absence, in Durban, on July 20, which is the 20th anniversary of her first house arrest.

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