Friday, August 20, 2004

Working for the man 

When we had the turf laid for our new lawn, we diligently selected the cheapest operator who returned our calls, then got them to come and do the job. They didn’t ask how far the lawn is from the road, so we didn’t offer the information. When they arrived, they were dismayed to discover that the road is a steep climb away from the lawn, and the lawn itself is an awkward shape across 2 levels. There followed a depiction of traditional South African work in miniature.

The bloke driving the truck was about the fattest guy I have ever seen. He must have someone else to do his shoes up for him. It was all he could do to haul his bulk in and out of the cab. My immediate concern was that his inevitable heart attack would happen on my driveway, since I wasn’t sure I could manoeuvre him into a sitting position, let alone carry him anywhere. There was no way he was even going to climb our driveway, so he spent his time leaning against the truck whilst his “boys” did the work. There are still plenty of South Africans who refer to grown (black) men as boys. The habit should have died out by now, but almost everyone I know talks about their “garden boy”, meaning the man they employ to mow the lawn. Anyway, Mr Fat Bastard Grassman stood sweating in empathy while his team hauled 30 or 40 barrow loads of turf up the hill. In this case, unskilled labour is cheap and black, and those who own and run the businesses are still white.

At the other end of the pay scale, the reverse is, in some cases, true. South Africa has some “level the playing field” legislation around affirmative action – positive discrimination which encourages companies to employ those who were previously disadvantaged. It’s hard to discuss it without blurring things with euphemisms, but basically the theory goes that the way to improve the lot of the non white population who were so horrifically treated by apartheid is to provide an unequal advantage to them in the new world. The effects of this are many, not all predicted by the economic planners. For the black professional, life is good: he is in demand, and many are promoted fast and far. This means that some are promoted beyond their competence, and some are given opportunities that they grasp firmly, and do better and flourish more than they ever would under different circumstances. The effect on the white professional population is also interesting. Many have left the country altogether in a sulk. Many more have become entrepreneurs, through choice or otherwise, and are in turn helping the economy by generating new jobs, and attacking their working lives with a newfound vigour.

You might expect, then, that the situation with the grass guys is reversed in business. Maybe you should see a black guy promoted out of his depth surrounded by competent white guys doing the work for him. This is actually pretty unusual, and no more likely than a clueless white boss in the same situation. This suggests to me that the affirmative action is working, and is further evidence of the enormous potential in South Africa. This is not to say that there aren’t clueless bosses supported only by their egos and the competence of their staff – there are, and as a consultant I see lots of them, black and white, but that’s universal. It’s the dynamic, smart guys who are the rarity, and in South Africa, a disproportionate number of them are black. Perhaps it’s because they have a greater hunger for success than the soft white guys who have had it all on a plate for so long. I once heard that one of the Australian ex-coaches of the Springboks lamented along similar lines: he had to chase the South Africans to do their individual training, whereas the Aussies are used to hard work, and are happy to put it in. The competition gets everyone going, which has to be a good thing. It even seems to be working for the Springboks lately.

Listening to: The Men They Couldn’t Hang: Waiting for Bonaparte. Rollicking stuff!

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