My office manager Miss Tash (named for the unfortunate shadow beneath her dainty little nose) has a lot in common with much of South Africa’s workforce it seems – she eagerly anticipates tea and lunch breaks and knocks off promptly at 4.30. In between, she doses at her desk.
That may be trivialising some very real concerns right now – South Africa’s unemployment peaked at the highest level in 11 years during the first quarter of 2015. The remainder of the workforce is one of the least productive and most expensive in the world.
That probably sounds pretty rich coming from a cynical next generation colonialist eager to exploit the proletariat and foster capitalism.
It is and it isn’t. The reality is the classic chicken and egg scenario – growth creates jobs and vice versa. But, with a lack lustre workforce and disempowered employees, the inevitable low productivity and poor service that are endemic will always be an Achilles heel.
For me, the most disturbing part of the recently released quarterly labour survey was not so much the 26.4% of South Africans who are out of jobs, but the large proportion of those over and above the job seekers who have been officially labelled discouraged or described as having given up looking for employment. More worrying still is the fact that a large portion of those who receive pay cheques each month have a lot in common with them – they’re discouraged, demotivated and disempowered.
We’re all guilty of sniggering that government has as much chance of reaching its lofty job creation targets as I have of getting Telkom to repair my faulty phone line within two weeks. Then comes the next –and closely related question – how can small business be the next best source of jobs and the salvo for economic stagnation when, according to the Department of Trade and Industry, nine out of 10 starts ups fail?
Most depressing of all – how can industry have a chance of keeping its head above water when it is at the mercy of a labour movement that is using the factory floor as a battle ground? Here unions fight to win numbers and union officials, when they are not assassinating or ousting one another, are arm wrestling for political power?
The biggest question of all, then, is do we follow in the footsteps of the workers at our desperately needed Medupi power station and down tools, light a candle and contemplate the prospect of a South Africa caught in the grip of apathy and self-pity?
For me, that is simply not an option. But the solution is as much in the boardroom as it is in the factory, as much in the managing director’s office as it is in the workshop.
For starters, we need to dismantle that culture of entitlement that is paralysing our workforce and economy.
As employees, we need to realise is that we do not have a right to a job. Instead, we have a right to being given opportunities. You, rather than the company that pays you, is accountable for how you use these.
As entrepreneurs, we cannot expect business to come to us. It is about awakening your market to the opportunities that you offer them.
As employers, we don’t owe people jobs – but we do owe them a business environment that motivates and even inspires them to better themselves, one that tells them what they can do rather than what they can’t do.
So often those at the public interface simply pass issues and concerns up a seemingly endless stairway to corporate heaven and have absolutely no way of helping you, even if they wanted to.
Try to get some meaningful assistance from a call centre where the person on the other side is a hired voice and can simply push buttons. No follow up calls possible. Try having a car repaired at a dealership – in my case Alpine Motors – that leaves it in a queue for three days before even attempting to find and repair the fault. The somewhat dispirited customer service man says there’s no policy to provide you with a car while they dither – but he will try to loan you his company car. He just needs permission from the powers that be.
So many of our companies shackle their employees, afraid of the damage they could do if they give them the power to break out, be efficient and make their own decisions rather than pass the buck.
That’s the root of the do as little as possible for as long as possible approach. It is this that keeps an employee semi inert at his desk for 10 years or more. He may get a long service award but he’ll never move upwards or generate enough additional work to create a place for another.
Which brings me back to the problem I have with Miss Tash and my tilting filing tray – rectifying that is simply not in her job description.