Monday, August 22, 2011

Half-baked Cakes.

There’s just too much noise and clutter in the kitchen. A good chef will always insist on an organised kitchen at the least before starting to bake a cake. And then you need a good recipe, an oven that works, and knowing the temperature and duration for the bake.

We need a similar approach in dealing with critical socio-economic issues. Far too many decisions are half baked, are based on poor ingredients, are being placed in broken ovens, and are then overseen by chefs who barely know how to boil water.

Take the latest violent South African municipal workers’ strike as an example. Now there’s a mushy cake if ever there was one. The negotiation started in the earlier part of this year, was taken out of the oven just before the local elections, put back for further baking and ends up with a breakdown on a wide pay hike gap of 6% offered and 18% demanded. The oven called collective bargaining is clearly broken, despite all its fancy knobs, dials and controls.

But then, the ingredients themselves are highly questionable. They include an appalling lack of knowledge and awareness amongst workers; a failure or absence of appropriate developmental communications; a lack of sound servant leadership principles; pay disparities; the absence of a common service focus; blinding ideological fluff and rhetoric; and questionable benchmarking on what demand or offer is reasonable and appropriate. The list goes on. This is indeed a recipe for disaster. The tragedy is that as individual ingredients they can all be fixed or changed.

The whole labour kitchen is far too cluttered with conflicting information, emotions and vested interests. There is an unwillingness to tidy up largely because of an inability to shift from old ideological paradigms on both sides. In turn, the neutering of the government as an effective referee has not helped. It’s a milieu that is nurtured in ignorance based either on a lack of information or an obstructive drawing bias. This past month alone, one popular TV economist scoffed at the notion that South Africa has a very bad strike record according to international norms. Shortly thereafter, another presented evidence that we are the worst in the world in terms of man-hours lost because of strikes.

The recipe itself, our liberal labour laws has to be reviewed. The vast volume of research and information, not all of which is half baked, has to be gathered, reviewed and placed before a statutory commission of inquiry representing the various interest groups and whose findings will be credible, perhaps even binding. Are Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s recent comments on the issue a precursor to something in this vein? It’s a forlorn hope given Cosatu’s outright rejection of the idea.

Another half-baked creation is the National health Scheme. Here we can have some sympathy with the government. The NHI green paper is a recipe for a magnificent multi-layered black forest cake. The ingredients and instructions are quite overwhelming. And this is the problem. Everyone is throwing utensils around long before the recipe is finalised. It is a green paper, after all, and still has a long way to go with wider inputs before it becomes law.

What makes this cake half-baked is that some of the essential ingredients, or perhaps even layers should have been in place already. Not the least is the rebuilding and getting into order the current public health facilities. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has conceded that without a sound infra-structure, well run hospitals and solving issues of hospital governance the overall scheme will collapse. Perhaps it would have been wiser to present this layer as a separate apple tart before adding black forest cake ingredients into the mix.

The toll road debacle went into the oven, came out unpalatable, went back in and came out just as revolting. Even the Automobile Association wants to take to the streets. They can count me out. Bearing an anti-toll placard in the “dorp” here will cast doubt on my sanity. The town does not even have traffic lights, only endless four way stops monitored by a predatory cop with fangs as large as the tusks of a walrus bull.

Then there’s the inedible pie called nationalisation. As with the labour laws this has generated much heat in the kitchen and there’s not much point in my adding a few degrees to the ambient temperature. The only bit of flavouring I would add as a chef way past his prime is that perhaps ownership is not the issue, but governance is.

One strange little scone that has come out of the Cosatu oven is that it is not intended to have government officials as bosses on nationalised mines, but workers! The nationalisation recipe is clearly no-where near final assessment. Perhaps it would be prudent simply to reduce the heat and wait for a well-researched and considered recipe printed on green paper before arguing about its effect on the palate. In the meantime, even our foreign friends are perplexed about what we want to dish up.

Which raises the issue of our motor mouth nation: it is not an undesirable thing for a society in transformation to explore new recipes and bakes. It is even exciting and coupled with a high level of transparency, the debate could be valuable and constructive. But when it is laced with so much racist vitriol and unshakeable ideological dogma then shooting off the mouth shoots us in the collective foot. It certainly smothers innovative solution seeking. What some may describe as “robust” debate and essential “engagement” have become nothing more than a platform for emotional sloganising, venting anger and spreading slander. They have become downright impolite and demeaning. This is encouraged by a new worrying media recipe called “provocative” journalism, which cares more for technique than content, sensation above information. Perhaps we should be more judicious in our recognition of who the chefs are and who the potato peelers are.

But even top chefs can occasionally produce half-baked little biscuits, of which Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “rich white tax” must certainly be one. Huge disparities in incomes are distasteful to even a smoker’s blunted palate and Warren Buffett has just added his flavouring to that mix. But that does not appear to be what his Grace has in mind. It seems to be more of a throwback to the dark ages when cash rather than prayer was penance.

It may have had some validity when it was mooted as an immediate outcome of the TRC, but what makes this biscuit somewhat unpalatable to many today is reflected in the supreme irony of suggesting an “absolution tax” in the same breath as chiding government officials for having ostentatious tax funded cars. No-one in his right mind would insert a coin in a vending machine that is clearly out of order, no matter how tempting the cup-cake is.

The archbishop has one quality though, that is sadly lacking in most of the other chefs, cooks and potato-peelers around. It is courtesy.

Courtesy is an attribute of patience, of wisdom and of authority. Like a whisper it catches attention and demands to be heard. It disarms the slanderous, the bombastic and the dogmatic.

It is such a fine human quality.

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