Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Shadow of Salem

Turning the petty things that divide us into damaging witch-hunts

Nicholas Monsarrat’s best selling 1950’s novel, “The Tribe that Lost its head”, has a lasting and universal message. Stripped of its racial overtones, unacceptable and even offensive in our context, it remains a frightening illustration of what can only be called collective madness. It’s an affliction that can strike any nation or group. History has many examples, both ancient and modern; sometimes as nations but mostly as divisive groups within a society.  

There are many things that can keep news followers awake at night – the plight of refugees, hunger, poverty, and for those with an economic bent, the enormous financial overhang that has put markets on a trampoline where no-one can be quite sure whether the next descent will crash through the elastic mat. There are many more at home.

One that still gives me bouts of insomnia is the continued presence and expansion of an ominous imperceptible cancer in our society. It is that collective madness or mob mentality which on the surface may appear insignificant and perhaps even benign, but under a microscope reveals its malignant and terminal threat to the whole body.

Such a lump or wart is the perhaps trifling incident of those two Stellenbosch University first year female students, whose body painting frolics brought upon them the wrath of a procedural nightmare, bizarre bureaucratic bullying and a wave of hysteria from the Open Stellenbosch group. The whole incident, including if you must, the clearly feigned and expedient outrage of a trigger happy marginalising collective, should have, and could have, been attributed to raging adolescent hormones that so often drive zealots on campus. Many adults have either witnessed or been part of such things. They do play a significant role in society, are valid reflectors of social ills and ultimately can and should effect social change.

A new and reckless feature, practiced at many levels including leadership, has taken hold in the discourse on race. They are acts and utterances of outrageous provocation simply “to keep the conversation alive”. It is like using an electric cattle prod to wake someone up. What makes this incident deplorable is the cavalier scapegoating of two young innocents, and amplification first through social and then mainstream media into an already highly charged racial atmosphere. Then the Salem witch-hunt comes to mind: recorded in the annals of history but equally ominous as Monsarrat’s fiction, and perhaps even having metaphorical similarities. The events have been well-documented, immortalised in a museum and also made into a movie.

The current obsessive gibbering, insults, accusations and innuendos have clearly mostly become irrational and are detracting from finding tangible and lasting answers to a highly complex problem but one that also holds within it the large and noble promise of peaceful multi-culturism. Very little of what is coming from social and political leadership is helping: indeed the largest part is highly counter-productive, expedient and perilous. In these things, our behaviour can take a valuable lesson from physics.

There is no such thing as cold, only an absence of heat. There is no such thing as darkness, only an absence of light. There is no such thing as evil, only an absence of good. You dispel cold by spreading heat. You dispel darkness by spreading light. Similarly, you dispel evil by spreading good. And you dispel hate by spreading love.

It’s a bit “Hallmarkish” to be sure, and no doubt some budding Einstein will contradict my high school science. It is also counter-intuitive to the lessons of early youth that has cemented the concept of a personified Satan, a living menace that has to be beheaded or at the very least driven behind our backs. The thing about physics is that it teaches us about cause and effect, and those lessons apply equally to tangible forces as they do to behaviour. It is simply a way of reflecting from a different perspective Edmund Burke’s immortal words: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

History, including our own, constantly bears testimony to that. One simply cannot eliminate evil and leave a vacuum. For in that vacuum even greater evil will flourish. We need not look further than the tragic headlines reflecting the nightmare in the Middle East. Driven by some self-righteous psychosis, Western powers took down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, left a country in total chaos and ensured the birth of ISIL. Those events, with the same motives and the same results, were repeated in Libya and the demise of Muammar Gaddafi. Not long after that attention turned to Syria and the specter of Bashar al-Assad.

To be clear, the current Middle East calamity is a multi-facetted mess that simply does not brook over-simplification, but one has to wonder whether much more would not have been achieved by resisting a knee jerk response in the drawing of swords, by simply spreading good where there was evil; aid where there was suffering; knowledge where there was ignorance and food where there was hunger.

Too much of what is happening in South Africa seems to be following the same perilous logic: simply tearing down instead of building up. There is a magic wand. We simply don’t know how to switch it on.

It is called empathy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Rebuilding Trust

Using the high level of trust in business and employee trust in companies.

If a couple is having a heated argument at home, what would they do if a robber broke in? It is an analogy I used in response to a detraction from my recent article on “Seizing the moment”, with the couple meaning South Africans and the robber a metaphor for the global economy.

Sadly, it seems that no degree of immediate external threat will distract us from throwing pots and pans at each other. It is a matter of trust and it appears that the level of distrust is so alienating that nothing will drive us into each other’s arms. Frankly, I don’t buy it! I am simply not swayed by the toxic garbage polluting social media, and the highbrow hype in comment sections on websites. I rely rather on those expressions of goodwill that I experience daily. And now we have figures to support it.

But distrust of government is a real problem. Perhaps Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan can go some way in this month’s budget in settling the financial markets and lifting investor sentiment while still appeasing the many open hands that are regularly outstretched at this time, now multiplied by the drought. It is a huge task. Unless he does the outrageous and politically impossible, it is doubtful whether he could even remotely make a difference to trust in government.

Government in South Africa has by far the lowest level of trust among the general population (16%) in the 28 countries and 33 000 respondents surveyed in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer. It is even lower (15%) among the informed respondents.

More significantly is the much higher level of trust in business (60%), which has shown a 4% gain over the previous year. It also reflects the second biggest difference (44%) between trust in business and trust in government. This difference is much bigger for the informed South African public (75% in business and 15% in government.) Informed trust in business has jumped 11%. Trust in South African NGO’s (58%) is nearly 4 times higher than trust in Government.  Even the favourite whipping boy, the media, enjoy a level of trust nearly 3 times more than that of government.

These are remarkable findings that no doubt will be scoffed at by government who, with some justification, can point to paradoxes and the inherent shortcomings of opinion surveys. One inconsistency is the ruling party’s success at the polls and its failure to impress in government. Many explanations have been given: unattractive opposition alternatives, struggle nostalgia, and democratic (albeit weakening) branch structures of the ANC. By their very nature, paradoxes become intolerable, and the gap between promises, expectations, and delivery has its own day of reckoning.

Unlike snap opinion polls, repetitive opinion surveys tend to become more reliable in time. Even without using the percentages as absolutes, the huge gap between trust in government and other institutions cannot simply be disregarded.

It will be a fundamental mistake to do so. The incessant ideological and populist bashing of business in South Africa is highly counter-productive. Erosion of trust in business and other institutions will not lead to enhanced trust in government. Gossipers may tarnish the reputation of others, but they seldom improve trust in themselves. All it will do is further erode public trust as a whole, causing more uncertainty and discontent. The converse is true: displaying more trust in South African business, ending the ideological belligerence and indeed publicly embracing business more in seeking solutions, will have substantial mutual benefits. Of course, business itself has to be more actively involved: especially when it comes to ethics, social conscience and employee involvement.

The same goes for organised labour. Its current stance is suicidal and simply a road to hell. Despite all the boss-bashing that organised labour thrives on, it has been a poison that it is now having to swallow itself. And all to little avail. For me, the most significant finding of the Edelman report (see this graphic) is the relatively high level of trust South African employees (70%) have in the companies they work for. This is one of the highest in the world, and only slightly lower than Singapore; outperforming countries like the U.S., Canada, Germany and even Japan (which now has only a 40% level of employee trust!)

This finding is so at odds with popular perceptions (including my own) about seething employee discontent, that one is tempted to assume that the survey is severely flawed. But it could also mean that the perceptions themselves are false.
·       Labour unrest creates media hype, warping perceptions about general employee satisfaction.
·       Ongoing labour leader hostility, histrionics and spin, exacerbated by competition for members and amplified during negotiations.
·       Peer pressure and collective coercion which overrides individual employee loyalty.
·       Protective labour laws and procedures causing employees to feel more secure than in many other countries.
·       The shift in human resource styles from autocratic to being more consultative.
·       Company brand loyalty as opposed to trust in company leadership. (Indeed this is borne out by the research which shows that CEO’s globally still do not enjoy a high level of trust.)

Even if the research is only partly true, it represents the most unrecognised and exciting opportunity for even greater engagement with and involvement of employees in enhancing the general level of trust in South Africa. The workplace is a highly significant arena for social interaction and cohesion.

While I have clearly underestimated the degree of labour involvement that has already taken place, I would argue that much more can still be done and I have covered this in much of my writing. It can be taken a giant leap forward by adopting principles of common purpose and common fate in the workplace and changing the entire South African economic landscape.

What else do we have?