It will be difficult but not impossible to achieve Batho Pele
SPRING has sprung. New life has spawned; barren lands have become lush with growth and rejuvenation. It’s only in our turgid politics where rigor mortis and decay still prevail.
There are no “green shoots” of wisdom to address the problems facing the nation. Instead, we are fed a daily toxic dose of what many of our politicians are up to. It seems we’re still doomed to our “winter of despair”.
The current leadership battles raging within the ANC have paralysed South Africa. State resources are diverted to either protect or undermine certain factions, while potential investors and ordinary citizens wait in the wings to see which way the dice falls.
The tragedy arising from these are the opportunity costs, waste of precious time, and crushing of the hope of millions of our young who still believe in the dream that a better life is in reach.
In such a volatile and complex political climate, it’s easy for hopelessness to set in. However, the trump card we as ordinary citizens can play in such uncertain times is to assert our individual power and take charge of our attitudes and what meaning we give to what we see happening around us.
One way to respond and bring immediate relief to our angst is to find inspiration in the small, powerful, yet meaningful changes we can bring to our lives. As humans, our gregarious nature feeds off the solidarity and support of others.
Therefore, at a basic level, we need to embrace the Batho Pele (People First) principles that promote empathy and service excellence.
If each person, especially those in the service industries – our municipalities, state owned enterprises, public institutions and the business sector – can embody these values, there will be immediate benefit in the lives of ordinary South Africans.
Elevating the Batho Pele principles should not be difficult in a country that has given us the most progressive constitution in the world, and that has birthed some of the greatest humanitarians of the 21st century, such as Nelson Mandela and more recently, Gift of the Givers’ Dr Imtiaz Sooliman.
It is just that our humanist values of ubuntu need to migrate from wall plaques and find their way into the hearts and minds of our people.
The human-centredness theme that wound its way from the Freedom Charter to the RDP and finally to the Constitution enabled many of the successes of the postapartheid government.
Spurred on by a concerted drive for social, economic and political reform, increased state funding, commitment and a vast number of new policy pronouncements achieved good progress in reducing the inequalities of the apartheid legacy.
Besides the physical and logistical challenges of transformation – collapsing numerous, diverse and separate departments into coherent ones; developing a common purpose; resourcing underfunded municipalities – significant successes were achieved.
Some of these include the massification of higher education, the roll-out of low-cost housing, as well as electrification and water services which in the apartheid past were not readily available to the majority.
Unfortunately, subsequent to our post-apartheid “honeymoon”, what has become a tight noose around our collective necks remains the political polarisation arising from differing ideological standpoints. This has resulted in the battles playing out currently on the national stage.
From a Batho Pele perspective, we should realise that as South Africans we share a common destiny and the focus should always be about creating a more sustainable and better life for all.
With the democracy dividend from our relatively peaceful political transition in 1994 squandered, what could have translated into a vibrant and growing economy, has instead slumped into a grant economy where about a third of the population subsists on handouts, generated by a declining tax base.
Batho Pele is not a government priority alone. It should be embraced by all. Social media crackles with stories of consumers being abused by large retailers. Consumer watchdog organisations have many horror stories of individuals being skinned by companies with scant regard for the unethical conduct of their actions.
It is not surprising that there is rising anger at monopoly capital. The danger is that this anger is not logical but lashes out and tarnishes all capital with the same brush.
Building a Batho Pele culture will not be easy, especially when there is so much frustration and disappointment. But it is attainable through us radically reshaping our thinking and how we conceive of and respond to reality.
Perhaps we should learn from the Japanese kaizen philosophy which emphasises continuous improvement and in the long term aims to achieve small, incremental changes to improve efficiency and quality.
Kimmie is UKZN’S manager of the Hub for the African City of the Future and an associate of the Leadership Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.