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Scourge of the yes-men

Verashni Pillay

There are so many tough decisions in South Africa and so few people to make them.

‘You need an anti-motivation lecture,” my friend said as she eyed me over a cappuccino. I had just listed a litany of things to which I had committed myself over the next two days, bemoaning my inability to say “no” to people. Meeting all my obligations meant I probably would not sleep or, more likely, disappoint quite a few individuals.

“You know what Barack Obama said?” she asked. “‘Yes, we can.’ You have to keep telling yourself the opposite: ‘No, you cannot.’” It is the sort of thing women say to one another all the time, right? Be kind to yourself, have more “aha” moments or whatever and learn to say “no”.

Because too much commitment and chronically saying “yes” is supposedly a female thing. Except these days I am seeing it all around me. We are a world of big talkers and big spenders, without the wherewithal to back them up (hello, debt crisis).

But this is not the only manifestation of the tendency. Look at the ANC. The party did a pretty good job of overthrowing apartheid, but a not-so-great job of governing. In its 18 years in power the ANC has been the political equivalent of an eager-to-please woman before Doctor Phil is through with her: promising too much and delivering too little.

And now that we are in an ANC election year, the ruling party is already in a fast-talking spin. Among the factionalism, infighting and flurry of word wars conducted through the press and on the stages at rallies, many in the party will have a tough job keeping up with their day job in the state.

Even in a normal year our politicians are expert at promising the world and talking big, instead of getting down to brass tacks. Culprit number one is President Jacob Zuma, who once pledged, infamously, to create a half-million jobs in a year in which the world was sinking into a recession.

There are the stars of government here and there. I think of them as prefects: Trevor Manuel, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. They beaver away and get the job done. But they are few and far between and, crucially, unable to effect change at the top, where it matters.

Of course, a lot of bad governance does come down to sheer immorality and not multitasking. But that is generally because the person at the top is not focused enough. The auditor general’s recent report noted that departments with strong leadership showed marked improvement as far as wasteful expenditure was concerned. We need politicians who stay on top of the job without wasting time and energy playing political games. Because being in control of a government department requires focus and single-mindedness—even when you are tasked with taking unpopular decisions.

And therein lies the rub. Learning to say “no”, as fans of The Oprah Winfrey Show will tell you, will not make you friends—but it will keep you sane and help you to be more effective.

Saying “yes” to certain things must, logically, imply that other things get a polite “no”. To say that this is a concept foreign to our president would be an understatement. He says “yes” to the unions, voters, investors and whoever else his audience may be. If the country is suddenly experiencing a misguided, nostalgic longing for the quasi-autocratic likes of former president Thabo Mbeki, it is because we would like someone to take a decision. Any decision. Just prioritise, damn it, so that we may know where we stand as a nation.

Everyone knows, for instance, that some tough decisions will have to be made about labour to attract investment and increase employment. But that requires someone standing up to the unions—something Zuma is exceptionally unwilling to do. He is too busy playing the crowd-pleaser. So, instead, he will accept the many economic plans presented to him by as many economic departments representing different constituencies, until we are swimming in a sea of possibilities with no clear way forward.

I have thus fallen out of favour with thinking I can do everything. And, more importantly, that my government can. Indeed, Obama’s own rallying cry that captured the world’s imagination was soon bogged down in the mundanities of reality. Yes, we can, but only if Congress lets us, which it generally has not. It is okay to dream big, but we lose credibility when we repeatedly fall short of the promises we have made. Maybe it is time we grasped the fact that “no, we can’t do everything that needs doing”—and keep everyone happy.

Verashni Pillay is the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian Online.
Follow her on Twitter at @verashni


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