Small is beautiful

2009-06-08 00:00

Thanks to President Jacob Zuma not being seduced into using flowery language and literary metaphors, his State of the Nation message was starkly clear. South Africa is in a recession and tough action is needed. The pundits say Zuma stated the problem well, but was short on solutions.

The way forward has clearly become the subject of intense debate, with opposition parties, analysts and economists offering their share of advice.

A seminar in Durban last Wednesday, organised by newly formed think tank the Xubera Group, highlighted how passionately South African’s feel about wanting their country to work. An inspired panel of speakers discussed the topic Zumanomics: which way to shared prosperity in South Africa.

Economist Iraj Abedian offered an eminently workable solution. He said that history has shown that no policy has adequately dealt with poverty without meaningful, effective and efficient state machinery. “This is my passion, unless we get our machinery of public services working and the three spheres of government are finely tuned, we are not going to deal with poverty no matter what system we have, be it capitalist or socialist,” he said.

According to Abedian, while on a macro-level the country’s public finances are in good shape, the problem lies at a micro-level. This means that government departments, provinces and municipalities are not using money properly. He acknowledged that a root cause is the lack of skills in the country. He agreed with panelist Professor Bonke Dumisa that there is an urgent need for rapid skills development programmes. Dumisa called for an overhaul of the education system saying that, at the moment, there is an overemphasis on certification over skills and know-how.

However, for Abedian, we can start getting things right almost immediately if the current batch of civil servants across all three spheres of government simply do their jobs. This means arriving at work on time; answering the phones; responding to e-mails; checking the pipes; reading the meters; and, if you are a supervisor then supervising. According to Abedian, the cholera outbreak in Mpumalanga a few years back happened because whoever was in charge had put the filters on back to front.

He said we have to start doing things differently; there has got to be to a change in the culture of mediocrity into a cohesive machinery that will deliver.

His words held particular resonance the next day when a Witness reader mentioned her difficulty getting through to the Msunduzi Municipality to let whoever was in charge know that the street lights in her area had been left on for days. This set off a stream of thought: if the people in charge of switching off all the street lights in the city did their job, this would save on unnecessary electricity costs, the bulbs would last longer and the efficiency in this one department would leave more money in the coffers for other more pressing programmes.

The solutions sound so simple, and, as the robust audience at the seminar asked the speakers, why is it not happening?

Abedian acknowledged that for most South Africans there is a gap in what we profess and in what we practise. He said this happens in the corporate world as well. Their glossy brochures are full of environmental and social responsibility undertakings. But in the boardroom, it can be a different story as we have seen by the recent price collusions around commodities such as bread and cement, he said.

For the head of the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), Patrick Bond, the seminar proved an ideal opportunity to point out that South Africa’s woes, and indeed the world recession, was bound to happen.

It was inevitable, he said, that the internal contradictions in the capitalist system would lead to its own collapse. Nevertheless, Bond offered some practical advice. He said lessons on a way forward could be learnt from the country’s own history. He suggested a look at the period from 1932 to 1944 when the country enjoyed some of its most productive years. History indeed holds valuable lessons. It is well documented that the Afrikaners in the country beat illiteracy through a system known as box libraries. Boxes of books were sent out on loan, by train to the most rural of outposts so that people could learn to read. A very workable apprenticeship system was also introduced and organisations such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) were used to build scientific and technological skills among ordinary workers.

There is goodwill out there and Glen Robbins from the UKZN School of Development studies noted that Zuma is a listening president. Whether those who work in his government heed the advice on offer is left to be seen.

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