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Focus on the ordinary has extraordinary results

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President Jacob Zuma gave his State of the Nation address to Parliament on Thursday. Photo: Siyabulela Duda.

As I read the reviews about the State of the Nation address delivered by President Jacob Zuma on Thursday, the dominant feeling is that it was ordinary, delivered in the normal course of government business.

But then again, what is wrong with ordinary? We need to encourage going back to the ordinary and fixing the basic things in our country. We constantly seek the extraordinary that gets attention from the media and society. Sometimes the result spawns characters like Julius Malema who took that attention to heart, but without achieving much substantive impact on the lives of people.

The German economy is populated by ordinary companies whose sizes range from small to medium. This has resulted in a robust economy that has withstood the tough economic times experienced harshly by other European countries. Germany is anti-fragile economically while its counterparts in the EU such as Spain, Portugal and Greece are very fragile. The German companies are ordinary and deal with ordinary products and they are proud of this and it has paid dividends economically.

Embracing the ordinary means that we work on the basics – a basic mindset that embraces the principle that says: “I need to deserve every reward I get.” In other words, earning our keep.

This would revolutionise our economy because there would be no free-riders. We have a great imbalance in our fiscus where there are 7 million people paying taxes and 15 million getting some form of grants. The productivity generated by the 15 million grantees is minimal but with the new mindset, we could be tapping into a potential human-resource goldmine that could push the country forward.

Ordinary means that all workers do what is expected of them. Then we would not have to hire consultants to do the work that should be done by employees.

If people took charge of their development and pushed their employers to assist in teaching them skills in areas where they are lacking, the economic results would be astounding. This would propel skills levies collected on a monthly basis to be used appropriately by the people that sorely need it.

Embracing the ordinary means that municipalities apply their mandate in providing the local infrastructure, basic services like water and electricity. This means that they extend basic courtesies to their constituents when they have basic problems. A great example of this approach is the service you now get at Home Affairs.

It is ordinary. In the past, it took more than eight weeks to get a passport. It now takes two weeks and you are kept informed about the progress of your application by SMS. This is an example of an ordinary service well done but with extraordinary impact.

Ordinary means that teachers teach at schools while maintaining discipline and being positive role-models. This also means that basic reading and counting skills should be mandatory for pupils before they leave the schooling system.

We cannot sustain a situation where we have barely literate matriculants who cannot read, write and count. If the matrics are functionally literate, it makes it easier to even be absorbed at entry-level jobs or learnerships that do not require degrees.

Employers have the same obligations weighing on them. They need to go back to ordinary when it comes to executive pay. Most CEOs and executives cannot justify the stratospheric salaries they are receiving. They do not have their skin in the game most of the time and the risk they take is really minimal if they follow the corporate governance rules.

They do not stand to lose everything they own if things go belly up within their companies unless they were grossly negligent or fraudulent. The employers need to provide a safe environment to work in, as this has enormous impact of the quality of life their employees need to sustain themselves. These are ordinary expectations which, when fulfilled, can be impactful. When one reflects on all of this, it seems absurd to be begging employees and employers to do what they are hired for – but I guess that is the reality we faced with.

There is a big difference between celebrating the ordinary and accepting mediocrity. The latter is a below-par performance which, even by ordinary standards, is not worthy of any rewards. If we celebrate the ordinary, the extraordinary will take care of itself. The search for the extraordinary depletes our attention, which could be utilised to build a solid economic foundation for South Africa.


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