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Half-measures, the Blame Game and Just Doing the Basics.

It’s been an interesting week in the news in South Africa.

I don’t like to read (or listen) to the news. It’s mostly too depressing. But sometimes you do need to get your head out of the sand and pay attention. This week was such a week, and three headlines came to my attention:

We stay loyal to our friends

South Africa’s ruling ANC has been clear since the days of Mandela’s presidency: Palestine good, Israel bad. Not quite sure if the chaps have done the math on whether Hamas (am I spelling that right?) is still aligned with the way the previous regime did things. And it puts business South Africa in a pickle, doesn’t it? We love Russia, we support Palestine, but we kind of really really like the trade agreements with the US and Europe. Not sure where this all ends, but I suspect our Western friends have only so short a tolerance before we’re going to feel it as the private (and by proxy the public) sector. But that would be ok, because…

All the problems we have are because private companies are out to get us

Those evil banks, with their currency-manipulating ways, are a clear example of how private businesses would rather see a failed state. The West and capitalism are at it again, trying to screw the African comrade. It’s been screamed from the rooftops. Now I can’t speak for anybody else but, as a private business, an unstable currency and an ineffective state is a pain in the ass. I closed down the vehicles business because licenses are just too hard to get, and it should be a basic thing that our administrators get right – just do the damn paperwork on time so that people can get on with the business of growing their businesses and employing more people right? But blaming the “other” allows our peeps in the public sector to downplay their own shortcomings, which brings me to point 3.

No one is held accountable

Trains don’t run. There are thousands of trucks waiting to offload their goods at the ports. Maersk has decided to bypass South Africa, “gatvol” of the incompetence. And don’t get me started on the national airline.

Now how does this happen, one might ask? I mean, Transnet has a monopoly. Exclusive rights to all the traffic in and out of the country. Monopolies, generally, are really good business. You just need to do the basics well to look good. Ensure you have the right people and the right resources, plan for growth, stay current on technology, etc. You’ve got a protected pie, so even glancing competency will see you rock out on profitability.

And yet, from Eskom to Transnet they conspire to be massively unprofitable, repeatedly needing government assistance. They overspend on power stations, order the wrong trains, and horribly undercapitalise core assets like our ports, leaving us in this sorry mess. And it’s because it’s all political and, way before someone can truly be held to account, they move on, their pockets lined with cash.

Hey, it’s not new. But it does irritate the crap out of me. If the organisation simply had a culture of accountability, so many problems could be avoided and fixed. If Transnet was a private company, and shareholders held sway as opposed to the government, they would have long ago sold off SAA, partnered on critical passenger railway lines and probably done the same on the ports and roads to ensure profitability. But Transnet is not accountable to us, the voters. Well, not in any real way.

The H in EISH is about half-measures. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed, as they say. And our disastrous public enterprises are great examples of cultures where blame is shifted rather than taken on board. They say great leaders take the blame when things go wrong and share the credit when things go right. And great leaders generally are clear on the bigger objectives and hold their teams and organisations (and themselves) accountable to those objectives. The way to avoid half-measures is to be clear on what a full measure is.

This is not something that’s at all present in any of our public enterprises.

I don’t have an answer. We live in a society where shifting blame is par for the course. Private enterprise is asked to contribute and also blamed at every opportunity for being part of the problem. And government just sinks deeper and deeper into the muck of its own incompetence, while practicing half-measures on all fronts. Including inconsistency in the way we treat our friends and enemies.

I can’t do a damn thing about government, beyond voting the other way. But I am going to try and do my part in making sure all the clients and small businesses I work with understand the value of clear metrics, aligning our actions with our bigger goals, and making sure everyone in the team knows what they need to do, and what winning looks like.

And you know what? Those excellent private enterprises will find ways to win, even with the government's incompetence. And the price for that would be finger-pointing at “evil” business, because hey! You must be doing it at their expense, right?

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