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The country’s public servants are stifled by fear amid uncertainty at SOEs

2019-11-27 10:09

Sir Isaac Newton got his idea of gravity while sitting under a tree and an apple fell on his head.

The ancient Greek scholar, Archimedes, found his in a public bath in the city of Syracuse, Sicily. Syracuse was a colony of Greece much as South Africa was once a colony of Great Britain.

When Greece pulled out of Syracuse, the people and the army elected Hiero as commander-in-chief.

At the same time there were bandits who were trying to capture the state and harassing the people. He waged war on them and won. The people were so grateful to him that they made him king.

“Imagine the shame and pain of telling your family … your children reading about you in the newspapers, colleagues, customers, suppliers, neighbours … everybody … everybody gives you the look, and then nothing happens for weeks, months and even years, earning a salary while sitting at home, and then nothing happens

So it is not an affliction of Africans alone to believe in strongmen who are saviours – but a weakness of humanity. It is easy to sidestep the institutions when people are euphoric. Patronage poetry deceived the Syracusans about the virtues of Hiero and he soon became a tyrant.

One day the goldsmith who made his crown was accused of fraud and corruption by Hiero for stealing parts of the gold and replacing it with silver.

He ordered a mathematical commission of inquiry which had to investigate and one of the mathematicians who was called to solve this problem was Archimedes.

The poor goldsmith has been forgotten by history. His name does not appear anywhere in the literature; a craftsman trying to make a living, but found himself suffocating in the shadow of the sword, waiting for mathematicians to decide his fate.

Recently a friend of mine ran a workshop with staff members of a state-owned enterprise. It was tense and he felt like he was trying to hold a conversation with trees.

Read: SOE failures: It’s not about race

Eventually someone stood up and said: “Look, I have just told my wife that she will have to take care of me in case I get fired because I am going to tell the truth. Everyone in this room is afraid of speaking. People have been suspended pending investigations.

“Imagine the shame and pain of telling your family … your children reading about you in the newspapers, colleagues, customers, suppliers, neighbours … everybody … everybody gives you the look, and then nothing happens for weeks, months and even years, earning a salary while sitting at home, and then nothing happens. You are called back to work but this time there is no media hullabaloo.

“Your colleagues look at you wondering what has happened. Meanwhile the people who were corrupt and were known to be corrupt continue with their lives.”

That is when my friend had his own “aha moment”. Public servants are afraid and when people are afraid they cannot do their work.

“Do you think I will ever sign anything after I have been spared from the guillotine?” the man asked. “The supplier contracts have not been signed and I am just lying low. I’ve learnt how to do nothing. I was suspended with full pay for two years. Bazozibona.”

Read: SA’s ailing SOEs need strong leaders

The fate of our country is in the shadow of people who have lost all their confidence. Our vilified public servants, who are just trying to do their jobs and feed their families, are buckling under the shadow of collective guilt, waiting for those in powerful positions to pronounce on their fate.

As Archimedes entered the bath, he noticed that the volume of the water that was displaced was equal to the volume of the body that was displacing it.

And so because gold is heavier than silver, he reasoned that a crown mixed with silver would have to be bulkier to reach the same weight as one composed only of gold, displacing more water than its pure gold counterpart.

Archimedes jumped out of the bath house and ran naked around the streets of Syracuse, shouting, “Eureka! Eureka!” meaning, “I’ve found it. I’ve found it.”

Read: Public servants can retire early – with conditions

Nobody knows what happened to the goldsmith. But we can take comfort in David Biello’s article that appeared in Scientific American, that Archimedes himself did not tell this story. It was written by someone else two centuries later.

Hopefully the goldsmith was saved. As for our public servants, may South Africa be kinder to them. They’re just trying to do their jobs.

Muzi Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency


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December 8 2019