Big problems need smart thinkers

Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, should realise that bluster is not a helpful or relevant weapon of contestation. (Alon Skuy, Gallo Images)

Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, should realise that bluster is not a helpful or relevant weapon of contestation. (Alon Skuy, Gallo Images)

South Africans – from rural Ludeke to Zastron and the campus of Wits University – seem to be particularly fed up at the moment. There is open revolt in many corners of the land.

Most citizens in revolt are directing their ire at government: beating up on our leaders who hold public office is the flavour of the year.

But our problem extends way beyond the men and women who occupy high office in the Union Buildings and Parliament. Look across the entire landscape, from business to trade unions, and there is a dearth of the kind of people needed to match the challenges at hand.

Let us start with business. What is the job of a chief executive? Should he, or occasionally she, be inward-looking with a primary focus on growing profits and making shareholders happy? Or should they be outward-looking, with a keen eye on the landscape beyond the boardroom?

The litmus-test question for any chief executive should be: What is your primary goal for the next five years? Is it to consolidate your position by annihilating your main competitor; or is it to help ensure that there is a stable society in which to run your business?

Unfair juxtapositioning
At face value, this looks like an unfair juxtapositioning of alternatives. After all, chief executives are business folk and their job, surely, is to grow earnings and market share, increase profits and maximise shareholder value?

Unfortunately, life, particularly corporate life, is not that simple. The hard facts are that no chief executive can deliver maximum value and returns for shareholders without a growing economy, without social stability and without a capable state. Few businesses, except those trading in weapons of war or security apparatus, can make a financial killing in dysfunctional societies riven by dissent and plagued by poverty.

But it takes a special kind of person to get this right: they need to be an expert in the business of their business and have a deep understanding of – and acute sensibility about – the social and political environment in which they operate. They need technical knowledge as well as keen political antennae and social souls.

An interesting term is used to describe a person who has these characteristics – hybridity. The word has its roots in biology to describe something that is a combination of two different species or plant varieties. Over time it was taken up by academics and used in linguistics and in theories on race – and from there into theoretical discussions on postcolonialism, identity and multiculturalism.

Its most recent transition has been into business schools where it is used to describe the intersection between the market and social welfare. Social entrepreneurship is a case in point – companies that have both social and profit motives.

Worldly know-how
Hybridity works well in a different context too: to describe the combination of qualities needed in people who run countries, companies or co-ops. The best ones combine a mixture of expert knowledge with worldly know-how.

To be fair, these traits are not just needed in boardrooms. Great men and women in all walks of life can be distinguished by their ability to navigate landscapes that are outside their comfort zones. They impress with their expert knowledge, but their greatness is evident in their ability to transform the world beyond their immediate surrounds.

It is unfair to confine this critique to the corporate world where there appears to be a dearth of big thinkers among the big hitters, a state of affairs that incidentally is not confined to South Africa.

It is hard to come up with more than few names of successful American, British or Russian businesspeople who contribute as much to the bottom line as they do to the advancement and wellbeing of their countries.

In South Africa, the problem extends to the trade union movement, other parts of civil society and beyond. A tendency towards myopic  and small thinking infuses the upper echelons of nearly all our institutions and organisations.

Wage subsidy
Take the comments of Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers, as the Democratic Alliance prepared a protest march to trade union federation Cosatu’s headquarters in Johannesburg to hand over a document on a wage subsidy scheme for young workers.

“The DA march marks the beginnings of an open class warfare that will characterise the South African political landscape,” Jim told a press conference days before the march. “If they want direct confrontation, they will get it. Numsa is ready for them. We shall fight to the last woman and man to defend Cosatu and its leaders.”

Incendiary talk for a man who wields power and influence. Not surprisingly, the march ended bloodily.

If Jim had even an ounce of hybridity in his veins, he would have realised that barricades and bluster are not helpful or relevant weapons of contestation in South Africa in the first half of the 21st century.

He would have applied his knowledge of worker exploitation and organisation with an equally deep appreciation that the rights of others are inextricably linked to his own rights and those of his union’s members and that what makes societies stronger is their ability to manage differences of opinion in ways other than bashing in heads with bricks.

Down and destroyed
Further evidence of this kind of thinking emerged earlier this week when Buti Malemela, leader of the Young Communist League, told radio audiences that there should be a march on the Goodman Gallery and The Spear painting torn down and destroyed.

A few days later Communist Party head Blade Nzimande suggested we should not take the young man’s comments literally, but then went on to say that court action (to have the picture removed) was good, but “not enough”. Really?

With that kind of guidance and role models such as Irvin Jim, it is no surprise that young activists are upping the ante. Being burdened with older men in positions of power who espouse these views is disheartening enough. Knowing that there is a new generation with a similar lack of sensibility and hybridity is downright depressing.

To disagree with one another is one thing. To incite violence against those we disagree with is quite another.

High levels of intolerance are dangerous in any society. In one like ours we run a particularly high risk, given the violence of our past. The danger is not only from those who shout their rage from the rooftops; passive aggression, the preferred route of most captains of industry, is just as treacherous.

The more those in authority show a predilection to head-butt opponents, or to withdraw in silent rage, the less likely it is that we will make progress and the greater the likelihood that things will fall apart.

It is obviously impossible to prescribe hybridity for our leaders. The best that can be done is to keep our expectations raised and to keep asking the hard questions and speaking the hard truths.

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