Monday, May 27, 2024

Of tsotsi taal and the new leadership lingua

A new public policy lingua is being actively authored by some of the leading architects of the nation’s destiny as they repeatedly vow and vouch to push the agenda to craft a perfect republic of obedient and loyal citizens on the ruins of declining public confidence, gradually waning credibility and a crisis of democratic accountability.

Akin to ‘tsotsi taal’ gang slang or lingua franca common in ‘kasi’ – the socially deprived neighbourhoods that are typically found in Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and other Southern African countries, the public policy lingua is becoming characteristically ‘oxymoronic’ and defiantly so.

The nation has been entertained by an emerging wave of strange and sometimes comical posturing depicting two opposites (oxymorons), of ‘open doors’ with ‘pitbuls’ languishing inside, inviting citizens for dialogue; dishonest ‘homo dei’ or man of God; totalitarian democracy; state controlled public media; involuntary testing and disclosure of the private health status of individuals in the public interest, the list is endless.

The oxymoronic stance reflects the reality of the conflicts and contradictions of the beloved rich country with poor citizens; compassionate nation denying ARVs to foreign prisoners; good education producing unemployable graduates; least corrupt African country with cabinet ministers frequently facing corruption charges; peaceful nation with highest spending on security; banning of public protests with guarantees of freedom of expression; et cetera.

The following sentence (not quotation of anyone) with 18 opposites dramatises the current language used in the public policy theatre: “It is a ‘new classic’ for this year’s JC results to have come about ‘accidentally on purpose’ following the ‘strangely familiar’ ‘past prediction’ and ‘accurate horoscope’ of ‘chilling fever’ ‘sure-guessed’ by the ‘female pit-bull’ professing ‘arrogant humility’ in acting ‘alone in a crowd’ to engage in an ‘intelligent’ ‘fight for peace’ by ‘clicking the start button to shut down’ the war with teachers accused of ‘doing nothing’ , having now made the ‘initial conclusion’ to solve the crisis in the ‘near future’ using’ ‘new used’ ‘mass customised solutions’.”

Listening to or reading about public pronouncements by different leaders of this nation in their regular interactions with diverse stakeholders has become such a stressfully confusing venture. Most display emotional incompetence, perspective paralysis, jungle thinking, obsession with self preservation, power drunkenness, incorrigible arrogance and ego inflation due to Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.

How is it helpful to threaten to fire workers in the name of improving quality; or centralising power whilst aiming to increase service accessibility and quality; or limiting freedom of information whilst promoting transparency; or protecting cabinet ministers facing criminal prosecution whilst combating corruption; or being legalistic to grow ethical cultures; or vindictive to foster national unity; and using crafty political segmentation and kith and kin economic engineering to promote prosperity for all by 2016.

The country’s political principals have become activist without first building credibility by informing themselves and avoiding the impulsive passion to speak in tongues. Is it not time to rewrite the script using acceptable language of governance and democratic accountability before entering the stage in the public policy theatre?

The language spoken by those in leadership needs to be relevant to current realities and alive to public perceptions of what is critical to driving the country towards prosperity for all.
Moving from the language of instantaneous emotion to well constructed messages informed by logic and well researched evidence is the foundation for effective speaking on public policy issues.
All of us know that the public policy on HIV and AIDS during the Mbeki era in neighbouring South Africa was shaped by his ill-informed denialist pronouncement on the link between the virus and the syndrome.

Our leaders need to understand that language, including the words used, is more than a means of communication because they shape the beliefs, feelings, behaviours and actions of people. It has been said that language is mightier than the sword which can be used to force people towards a particular direction. It has been said that when it comes to language and communication, the rule is that it is not what you say but what people hear.

To move away from the current oxymoronic public policy platform, leaders need to start rebuilding the relationship with public servants. A strong strategic partnership is urgently needed between political principals and public officers who perform analysis, advisory and advocacy functions guided by both public policy and by ethics.

If government is truly committed to delivering service excellence, it should kick-start an agenda to recognise and treat public servants as citizens and/or customers and not cogs and appendages to the government machinery. Public servants are the consultants for the political leadership who are clients, thus, it is critical that strong performance cultures should be cultivated to ensure a motivated, loyal, high performance and innovative public service.

Trade unions or no trade unions, the government needs to recognise and elevate the employee voice to the core of public service reform because it is a key driver of engagement and therefore productivity. This means that public service reform should be underpinned by good practice people management so that the expertise of public officers could be channelled towards higher productivity when they feel valued.

The country is currently heading towards a cul de sac or dead end if the leadership does not recognise and promote healthy relationships with public servants and speak language that nurtures and strengthens the relationship. This is the foundation of a Government by the people and public servants are a key constituency in the democratic market whose performance underpins the quality of public services and the productivity of all other economic sectors.

Jowitt Mbongwe is a management consultant specialising in human capital, organisation development and strategy and can be reached at [email protected] or 3935758.


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