Melanie Verwoerd

Mr President, should we not rather sweat the small stuff?

2019-06-26 08:02
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Sumaya Hisham, AFP)

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Sumaya Hisham, AFP)

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Before we build a new city, should we not perhaps first fix the potholes in our roads and get the traffic lights in Johannesburg to work, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

In the early '80s two American criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published the so-called broken-windows theory. It was based on research that observed that when kids threw rocks at a vacant building and broke a window and the window was then not fixed, the remaining windows would soon all be broken as well. However, if the one window was fixed immediately the others would remain intact.

They were able to prove that if you deal with small crimes, it puts a stop to larger ones and lawlessness in general. This was proven effective by a man called William Bratton who was hired in 1990 to reduce the 15 000 felonies (major crimes) per annum happening on the subway system in New York City.

Despite enormous backlash from officials and the public, who wanted grand steps that would attract media attention, he asked his existing law enforcers to simply stop vagrancy at the stations, arrest those who jumped the turnstiles or urinated in public. These seemingly small steps (with very little additional cost) led to a 50% reduction in major crimes in the subway system in just 27 months.

This idea of starting with small things and taking small steps if you want to achieve big and radical results is called the Kaizen method and has been implemented with great success in particularly the Japanese business sector for decades.

Like the "broken window theory", the basic principal underpinning the Kaizen method is if you want big change, you need to "sweat the small stuff".

Over the last few months I have been asking both foreign and domestic investors to tell me the one thing they need politicians to do in order for them to regain confidence in the country and thus invest money.

Expecting grand policy changes or implementation successes, I was taken aback by what they said. Time and time again I was told: "If we see corrupt politicians – even just one or two – arrested, that will change our confidence levels dramatically." Of course they could add many other things (policy certainty, etc.) but when pushed to identify just one thing, it was something relatively small: simply prosecute one or two corrupt politicians.

On Thursday night the president delivered his State of the Nation Address. Given that it was the second one in four months, I didn't expect many new ideas. However towards the end, clearly in an attempt to be inspirational and aspirational, the president told us about the dreams he has for the country. He wants to build a new city, a new high speed rail service and he wants us to be part of the fourth industrial revolution, in particular by teaching children how to code. He invited us to dream with him.

Now, I like to dream big. Even as a child I would spend hours dreaming up future plans. So I am all for dreaming and frankly, we are in desperate need of some Kennedy-like lets-go-to-the-moon inspiration from our politicians. However, I felt a deep sense of frustration with the president's attempt to inspire us.

I could not help thinking that we are trying to solve the proverbial breaking of windows by building new vacant factories in the place of the old ones.

Before we build a new city, should we not perhaps first fix the potholes in our roads and get the traffic lights in Sandton (our financial hub) to work?

Should we not first ensure that our children can read properly and do basic math before we try to teach them coding?

Does it not make more sense to first make sure that teachers rock up for work and text books are delivered to all schools before we try and give children iPads?

A high-speed rail service is undoubtedly a great idea, but should we not first fix the 20km train ride between Khayelitsha and Cape Town, where commuters put their lives at risk daily, if the trains even arrive at all?

Before we build a big new technologically advanced city, can we first just get the water and electricity supply stabilised in our existing cities? (Or even just send a couple of trucks up into Alex to pick up rubbish?)

Instead of recruiting more and more people into the police force, can we perhaps just make sure that they have pens to write statements with so you don't have to bring your own pen when reporting a crime?

I can guarantee that if the governing party were to ask the people what would make the biggest difference in their lives and what would rebuild their faith in the government, these issues would be on the top of their lists – not some high-speed railway or new high-tech city.

After Barack Obama became president in 2009, he asked towns across the US to identify (and cost) just one thing that would make the largest difference to their day-to-day lives. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) the answers were almost always small things, like fixing speed bumps or potholes.

Perhaps instead of inviting us to dream about a new city, maybe it would be more useful to ask ordinary South Africans to come together to 1) name one very practical thing that the government can do to change their town dramatically and 2) to say what they will do in return.

In doing so, we can actually get South Africans and our government to start with the small stuff that will really make a difference in our lives, and in the process get a new, workable social contract.  

And oh yes, in the mean time, if we can arrest a few of the big guns mentioned at the Zondo commission, we could possibly see a dramatic upsurge in business confidence. All at very little political and financial cost.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  sona 2019  |  corruption


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