Thursday, June 3, 2010




Meet Ciska. She is an adolescent boerboel whose job it is to protect life and limb at our house on the Breede River. She’s 0.6 meters tall, but somehow a lot taller when she sits and holds her head high. Ciska is nearly 40 kilograms of strong bones and chiselled, rippling muscle. Above her expressive eyes and the actor’s gift of highly flexible eyebrows, rest powerful muscles that hint at an ability to crush a good sized femur.

It has become routine at mealtimes for her to sit with her massive head hovering above and a few centimeters away from my TV dinner tray. She stares stoically into the distance while studiously avoiding eye contact. That would be too much like begging and well below her regal pose. But she knows that every now and then, some morsel will leave my plate and end in her mouth. Not on the floor, mind! That would not be fitting to this ritual of mutual respect.

Why does she not snarl at me just once? For then she would have my entire plate, and that of my friend Yvonne. We would cower on top of the nearest table while she has her way with our servings of hearty boerekos. Perhaps it is because, unlike most humans, she instinctively knows the difference between power and control.


Of these two African leaders, Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, who has the most power?

Still today, many would choose Nelson Mandela, despite his age, frailty and departure from public life. Certainly most would have chosen Mandela when he was President of South Africa at the same time as his Zimbabwean counterpart. The difference is quite simple: Mandela earned and maintained his power through service to others. Robert Mugabe may have had power but then corrupted it into control.

“The great leader is seen as servant first, and that is the key to his greatness.” Robert K. Greenleaf.

“The highest destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule. Albert Einstein.

Nelson Mandela was, and arguably still is a leader. Robert Mugabe is a ruler.

So when Jane Barrett, Chief Negotiator of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union declared: “To withhold labour is the only power workers have”, she got it incredibly wrong. The only power workers have is the value they add in the work that they do. Withholding that work is exercising control, not power. And if we earn power by the contribution we make, we arguably erode that power by withholding that contribution. Whether or not it is justified is a totally different discussion. It is a bit like justifying an extended suicide by a thousand cuts.

But it is so very sad that we have lost the significant distinction between the concepts of power and control. It is the same as confusing rights and responsibilities, and receiving and taking. Making a rigid distinction between power and control enables us to judge and respond better to all kinds of things – from the manipulative, moping child to the gun toting despot. It will give us a better grip on South African challenges such as Black economic empowerment, land reform, affirmative action and others, and help us convert unrealistic Constitutional expectations into actively pursuable aspirations.

Power is never in what we own. It is in what we do. We can never be given power. We have to earn it.

Perhaps I’ll deal with these concepts individually in some future post…that’s if Ciska inspires me again and allows me to plagiarise her wisdom.


  1. Would it not be great if the fat cats in government did a bit more earning and a bit less taking!!!!

  2. The definition of power as adding value is interesting, but it fails only in one important detail:

    Power or control does not exist if it does not materialize in some way. Labor strikes should be replaced by people doing other work. Withholding labor is neither power nor control it's a staring contest. A real threat and bargaining chip is that the laborer will switch teams or choose to spend more time cutting wood at his home for heat instead of purchasing electricity. It's an extreme example, but there's a point.

    Treating the employer as a convenience will make the employer think twice about squeezing the laborer. Also if power prices drop because people don't purchase as much, I'm sure the employer is buddy buddy with the power company anyway and the power company feeling the pinch will convince the employer to stop playing games.

  3. It is true that power under my definition is a passive attribute. But it can "materialise" through voluntary action. If I do something for you voluntarily, you have power over me. If I do it because you have a gun to my head, or bribe me with cash, you have control over me. (Coercion or seduction). Hence the unfortunate conclusion that most modern workers are "wage slaves". I do not condemn strikes per se, just the unfortunate condition that makes them inevitable. And there I agree with you, employers themselves are largely to blame.

  4. Very serious thoughts. Should encourage more viewers to this blog.