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Words have the power to effect change


Most of us have heard the school-ground taunt: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

Whoever came up with that still had some lessons to learn about life. Growing up brings with it a realisation that words are, in fact, powerful. They can shape how we perceive the world around us, where we direct our interests and, some might argue, influence the direction our lives take.

Growing up also brings the realisation that the world isn’t always “rainbows and butterflies”. This realisation sheds light on the inequalities of the world and sometimes the unfairness of situations. But can there ever really be fairness? Perhaps not, though justice is something worth striving for. But I digress.

Watching the news of late, there seems to be an increase in the number of strikes. Even though they are independent, and take place at different institutions, I can’t help but notice some similarities. These go beyond the core grievance of pay and involve outlandish “requests”. The main commonality I have observed is the language that is used.

We hear people demanding a pay increase of X%, usually along with other terms. Some of the statements they make sound more like the terms dictated by a hostage-taker than by employees who believe they deserve more pay. 

Let us set aside for a moment the question of how some demands are going to be met, particularly if the institution in question is in financial hot water.

In some situations, such as when there are unjust labour practices, prejudice or assault in the workplace, demanding justice and change is completely warranted. Though more common than not, such words have become the go-to lingo in our country.

Now, one might argue that using words such as “demand” or phrasing pay expectations as “the people’s right” may be a way for unions to demonstrate some degree of (false) authority. Or it may be their way of making it seem as though they have their members’ best interests at heart. Whatever the case may be, such words and terms carry and instil an air of expectation and entitlement in people.

This behaviour, the air of entitlement, eventually trickles to the furthest reaches of the country. It manifests itself in people burning trains and blocking highways when their demands are not met. It leaves no institution untouchable — staff not attending to patients at hospitals, never mind their oath to save lives, and even the burning of schools when people feel forgotten by the government because of things such as not tarring roads (the irony of the situation).

After such acts of vandalism, it is then the very same people who expect “the government” to build new institutions. Or for “the government” to find the money to increase their salary or to pay out their grants — never mind the minor detail that they themselves do not want to pay their share of tax. Cue the curse of the middle-class South African …

When we unpack these things, we realise that the norm has become for people on strike to hold the country to ransom until their demands are met. This kind of behaviour had its place during the freedom struggle, when one of the few ways to be heard and to force a change was to take drastic measures. These included laying siege to public/government institutions, disrupting the functioning of the state and slowing down industries.

We have now had 24 years of democracy. Yes, we still have a long way to go as a country towards addressing the vast imbalances, including that of wealth. But this is going to take time, patience, co-operation among all of us as stakeholders and, of course, ethical governance — a feat much easier said and put in policy than executed.

The reality of life is that no one is really owed anything. When people go on strike and destroy property or bring the country to a standstill, what they are really doing is shooting themselves in the foot. The only things these actions achieve is to make other people feel unsympathetic towards their cause and to have a negative effect on the country’s global standing. We don’t improve our systems by holding the country hostage or laying siege to it but by coming together and finding a better way of doing things.

It seems that most people fail to realise that we, the people, are the government. Every individual in the collective has a part to play, to add value to the system, instead of always expecting hand-outs from “the government”.

Yes, we have a duty to support the most unfortunate and the destitute, for them to have bread on their tables and to be given the opportunity to improve their lives. But if we continue to plunge our country into a constant state of fixing what we destroy, how will we ever progress?

Where ubuntu fails, the tragedy of the commons takes its place. The question now becomes: How do we change mind-sets? How do we change the language we use as a nation, from that of victim and expectation to that of awareness and accountability? How do we instil ethical leadership and behaviour across all generations and make that the norm?

Unéné Gregory is the founder of Ambulation Technologies, a prosthetics start-up. She is a writer for The Contemplating Entrepreneur blog

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