Just the other day I had an experience I can only hope most of you never have to endure. I had a meeting with the director general of a government department and his minions. I was there as project manager, (something I used to do before I became a penniless author) with someone proposing an affordable, proven and viable solution to South Africa’s potentially catastrophic water problems.
After my man, a pharmacist with an MBA degree, had given a 40-minute high-powered presentation on the water situation in South Africa as it was, is and will be very soon unless something is done – urgently - the DG politely asked if he could respond. The politeness was in stark contrast to his unapologetic 30-minute-late arrival.
His response was not far off a Monty Python skit. The first thing he thought he couldn’t stress enough was that the product had to be certified. It didn’t have to work, it didn’t have to be affordable and it didn’t have to be accessible – but it had to be certified. “By whom?” we politely enquired.
“Oh, maybe by the SABS, or some such body,” he said. The fact that it’s very difficult to certify a proprietary product, (does this BMW Z3 conform to BMW Z3 standards?) was neither here nor there. Apart from anything else, if the product doesn’t work, all the certification in the world is worthless.
But he was only warming up. “Another thing,” he said, “is we must be very careful that we don’t create the impression that the informal settlements are demonstrating and rioting, because of the water situation or because they do not have satisfactory sanitation facilities. That would be very wrong and unfair on them. I mean, after a long time, we have only just managed to dispel the myth that informal settlements are responsible for an increase in crime in an area...”
It was extraordinarily difficult to know what to make of what he was saying. We had just presented him with the keys to a permanent solution to the country’s water woes and there he was wittering on, very self importantly, about how being careful that informal settlements not be seen as having exacerbated or even caused any of the problems.
I could go on, but at that point I think my mind shut down. Any person with half a brain in this DG’s position would have asked, “Where have you used it? What are the results? Can we set up a test and when can we start?” (And of course the inevitable, “How much does it cost?” Answer: 20% of the cost of the toilets the government is currently hiring.) But what did our sensitive fellow do? He warned us not to create the impression that the informal settlements were unhappy or some such tosh.
The other astonishing thing is after he had just seen proof that the product works, is affordable and, should he so require, more tests could be done immediately, he asked for all of these as though it had never been brought up and he had just thought of it.
The fact the presentation gave results from ongoing tests in the heart of the Harry Gwala settlement also seemed to go over his head. To be fair, I do suspect that that part of the presentation came at the moment he was busy sending an SMS on his cellphone, so he probably missed it.
I now understand the frustration the advisors to Eskom must have felt when they knew they had the answers, they knew what should be done, they knew what was coming, but no one listened.