/Mr President, should we not rather sweat the small stuff?

Mr President, should we not rather sweat the small stuff?

2019-06-26 08:02

Before we build a new city, should we not perhaps first fix the potholes in our roads and get the traffic lights in Johannesburg to work, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

In the
early ’80s two American criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published
the so-called broken-windows theory. It was based on research that observed
that when kids threw rocks at a vacant building and broke a window and the
window was then not fixed, the remaining windows would soon all be broken as
well. However, if the one window was fixed immediately the others would remain

They were
able to prove that if you deal with small crimes, it puts a stop to larger ones
and lawlessness in general. This was proven effective by a man called William
Bratton who was hired in 1990 to reduce the 15 000 felonies (major crimes) per
annum happening on the subway system in New York City.

enormous backlash from officials and the public, who wanted grand steps that
would attract media attention, he asked his existing law enforcers to simply stop
vagrancy at the stations, arrest those who jumped the turnstiles or urinated in
public. These seemingly small steps (with very little additional cost) led to a
50% reduction in major crimes in the subway system in just 27 months.

This idea
of starting with small things and taking small steps if you want to achieve big
and radical results is called the Kaizen method and has been implemented with
great success in particularly the Japanese business sector for decades.

Like the “broken
window theory”, the basic principal underpinning the Kaizen method is if
you want big change, you need to “sweat the small stuff”.

Over the
last few months I have been asking both foreign and domestic investors to tell
me the one thing they need politicians to do in order for them to regain
confidence in the country and thus invest money.

grand policy changes or implementation successes, I was taken aback by what
they said. Time and time again I was told: “If we see corrupt politicians
– even just one or two – arrested, that will change our confidence levels
dramatically.” Of course they could add many other things (policy
certainty, etc.) but when pushed to identify just one thing, it was something relatively small: simply prosecute one
or two corrupt politicians.

On Thursday
night the president delivered his State of the Nation Address. Given that it
was the second one in four months, I didn’t expect many new ideas. However
towards the end, clearly in an attempt to be inspirational and aspirational,
the president told us about the dreams he has for the country. He wants to
build a new city, a new high speed rail service and he wants us to be part of
the fourth industrial revolution, in particular by teaching children how to code.
He invited us to dream with him.

Now, I like
to dream big. Even as a child I would spend hours dreaming up future plans. So I
am all for dreaming and frankly, we are in desperate need of some Kennedy-like
lets-go-to-the-moon inspiration from our politicians. However, I felt a deep
sense of frustration with the president’s attempt to inspire us.

I could not
help thinking that we are trying to solve the proverbial breaking of windows by
building new vacant factories in the place of the old ones.

Before we
build a new city, should we not perhaps first fix the potholes in our roads and
get the traffic lights in Sandton (our financial hub) to work?

Should we
not first ensure that our children can read properly and do basic math before
we try to teach them coding?

Does it not
make more sense to first make sure that teachers rock up for work and text books
are delivered to all schools before we try and give children iPads?

A high-speed
rail service is undoubtedly a great idea, but should we not first fix the 20km
train ride between Khayelitsha and Cape Town, where commuters put their lives
at risk daily, if the trains even arrive at all?

Before we
build a big new technologically advanced city, can we first just get the water
and electricity supply stabilised in our existing cities? (Or even just send a
couple of trucks up into Alex to pick up rubbish?)

Instead of
recruiting more and more people into the police force, can we perhaps just make
sure that they have pens to write statements with so you don’t have to bring
your own pen when reporting a crime?

I can guarantee
that if the governing party were to ask the people what would make the biggest
difference in their lives and what would rebuild their faith in the government,
these issues would be on the top of their lists – not some high-speed railway
or new high-tech city.

After Barack
Obama became president in 2009, he asked towns across the US to identify (and
cost) just one thing that would make the largest difference to their day-to-day
lives. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) the answers were almost always small
things, like fixing speed bumps or potholes.

Perhaps instead
of inviting us to dream about a new city, maybe it would be more useful to ask
ordinary South Africans to come together to 1) name one very practical thing
that the government can do to change their town dramatically and 2) to say what
they will do in return.

In doing so,
we can actually get South Africans and our government to start with the small
stuff that will really make a difference in our lives, and in the process get a
new, workable social contract.  

And oh yes,
in the mean time, if we can arrest a few of the big guns mentioned at the Zondo
commission, we could possibly see a dramatic upsurge in business confidence. All
at very little political and financial cost.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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