Don’t for­get about the lit­tle peo­ple

Let us not un­der­es­ti­mate the value of the com­mon man – not all knowl­edge is ly­ing in books or re­search pa­pers

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY SIZWEKAZI JEKWA sizwekazij@fin­week.co.za

IT’S NOT very of­ten that I get a chance to at­tend an event as a par­tic­i­pant. As your prover­bial hack, a jour­nal­ist, I’m just an ob­server on the out­side look­ing in. But re­cently I had the priv­i­lege of be­ing se­lected as one of 55 par­tic­i­pants from across the con­ti­nent in the very first Afrique Avenir Fo­rum held in Paris in Fe­bru­ary. The fo­rum was or­gan­ised at the re­quest of French Pres­i­dent Jac­ques Chirac to pre­cede the African Heads of States Sum­mit in Cannes that same week. It was ar­ranged as a sort of “think tank” to serve as what would pro­vide a plat­form of ex­pres­sion for a dy­namic and suc­cess­ful Africa: one that’s poorly re­flected in the world at large.

To that end, 55 Africans from var­i­ous in­dus­tries, back­grounds and ex­pe­ri­ences, who were hav­ing a pos­i­tive ef­fect on their en­vi­ron­ment, were as­sem­bled to share their sto­ries and per­haps iden­tify ways in which such suc­cesses on the con­ti­nent could be repli­cated and spread. Par­tic­i­pants ranged from en­trepreneurs, aca­demics, chemists, nu­clear physi­cists, doc­tors, lawyers, artists, film­mak­ers, jour­nal­ists, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and en­gi­neers, to name but a few. What made this fo­rum spe­cial was the fact that it com­pletely ex­cluded all gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, am­bas­sadors and celebrity busi­ness­men. Only or­di­nary peo­ple were in­vited, peo­ple who prob­a­bly wouldn’t be re­garded as high profile in their re­spec­tive coun­tries but who were iden­ti­fied by civil so­ci­ety as peo­ple who were suc­ceed­ing in their own right.

This de­ci­sion to in­clude only the tes­ti­monies of or­di­nary peo­ple and ex­clude politi­cians and high profile busi­ness­men made the fo­rum all the more ex­cep­tional. Peo­ple shared their sim­ple ex­pe­ri­ences with pro­found im­pact. When we en­gaged each other in the open panel ses­sions, the de­bates were more hon­est and frank and above all… real. The sto­ries told were those of peo­ple on the ground, who dealt with the real im­pact of lofty gov­ern­ment poli­cies and strate­gies. They pro­vided re­al­is­tic case stud­ies of what was hap­pen­ing on a day-to-day ba­sis in all the var­i­ous sec­tors and ar­eas of eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment in nu­mer­ous African states. The ses­sions lacked that an­noy­ing diplo­matic jar­gon and side­step- ping that usu­ally ac­com­pany con­fer­ences and gath­er­ings of this na­ture. There were no flowery in­tro­duc­tions, no at­tempts of un­war­ranted flat­tery or crit­i­cism be­tween speak­ers, no pol­icy driv­ing, no grand­stand­ing or po­lit­i­cal ma­noeu­vring, no elab­o­rate speech mak­ing or grandiose an­nounce­ments.

Be­cause none of us were politi­cians, there were no po­lit­i­cal agen­das to push – all we could do was share our per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and try to fig­ure out what it all meant. The only fan­fare in the oc­ca­sion was a 20-minute visit by Chirac, which re­quired us all to meet and greet him in a long pro­ces­sion line, which took an hour to as­sem­ble. Apart from this short po­lit­i­cal in­ter­lude, the ex­pe­ri­ence was re­fresh­ing and re­ward­ing.

At the end of the fo­rum, scribes who had been record­ing com­ments through­out the pro­ceed­ings for­mu­lated a mes­sage that was con­veyed to the African Heads of States in Cannes. The only iden­ti­fi­able fail­ure of the fo­rum was the fact that the fi­nal mes­sage was not en­tirely sat­is­fac­tory to many del­e­gates – my­self in­cluded – who felt that it failed to cap­ture the spirit of the fo­rum and the dis­cus­sions that took place. But de­spite this con­fer­ences of late, is that they rarely have any real ef­fect on the bot­tom line. And per­haps more im­por­tantly, they fail to cap­ture an ac­cu­rate por­trait. In­dus­try lead­ers in at­ten­dance are of­ten prone to paint­ing a pic­ture that is some­times far re­moved from re­al­ity in fear of los­ing their “top job” or in­ter­fer­ing with agen­das. Of­ten th­ese con­fer­ences lack in­put from the very peo­ple who would be im­ple­ment­ing, or who are af­fected by, the de­ci­sions that are taken.

Some­times, it’s not enough to en­gage the cream at the top for strat­egy build­ing; I be­lieve it is cru­cial to en­gage or­di­nary peo­ple as well: the nurse who runs a small clinic in a rural town, the farmer who em­ploys 10 labour­ers on his small dairy farm and the 5th grade teacher in the town­ship school. Th­ese are the peo­ple who re­ally know what’s go­ing on, who can give the truest ac­count of the re­al­ity of life in South Africa and can tell us what is work­ing and what is not work­ing. Per­haps it’s time we re­alised that even or­di­nary peo­ple have knowl­edge to im­part and some ex­pe­ri­ence to share. Typ­i­cally com­mu­ni­ties are only con­sulted at the end of the process, once the pol­icy or so­lu­tion has been formu-

Some­times, it’s not enough to en­gage the cream at the top for strat­egy build­ing; I be­lieve it is

cru­cial to en­gage or­di­nary peo­ple as well

dis­ap­point­ing hitch, the ex­pe­ri­ence it­self was worth­while. In fact, I found it so en­rich­ing that I would rec­om­mend a sim­i­lar model of con­fer­enc­ing to our own Pres­i­dent and other de­ci­sion mak­ers in deal­ing with other na­tional or in­ter­na­tional chal­lenges. Un­til now, the ba­sic model for any con­ven­tion or ind­aba in this coun­try is to: iden­tify all the ma­jor stake­hold­ers, in­vite all the top de­ci­sion mak­ers within those stake­holder groups and con­vene. Con­fer­ences are bi­ased to­wards com­merce and pol­i­tics and rarely in­clude creative play­ers in arts and cul­ture.

And al­though the cur­rent model is some­times valu­able, my gen­eral ex­pe­ri­ence with lated and es­tab­lished.

One of the par­tic­i­pants in the con­fer­ence was a cot­ton farmer from Burk­ina Faso. De­spite the fact that he had never fin­ished school, François Traore is Pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of African Cot­ton Pro­duc­ers. Dur­ing our ses­sion, he ex­plained to us how on many oc­ca­sions he had in­structed men with far su­pe­rior ed­u­ca­tion than he on var­i­ous as­pects of cot­ton farm­ing. He ex­plained that even though he was an un­e­d­u­cated man, his ex­pe­ri­ence as a farmer, which spanned his en­tire child­hood and adult life, had taught him many things that peo­ple couldn’t learn from a book.

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