Analysis of the third kind
30 August 2014 11:59 (South Africa)
Opinionista Andrew Miller

Working with failure

  • Andrew Miller
Unlike Joost van der Westhuizen, I have never snorted coke off a stripper's tits. Like Joost, however, I have a muscle disease. Both of us, and the country as a whole, are also struggling to deal with issues of decline.

I have something called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and I've had it since I was four years old. Mostly I've lived the “do it all” kind of life that the magazines say one must, but there are certain realities at play that challenge much of what popular opinion holds to be true when it comes to decline, attitude and narrative. 

With a progressive disease, the reality is that there are limits to what you can do physically. Now, you can challenge those limits, and you should, but you also have to deal with the risk of mindless positivity. When you push too hard and fall on your face, in other words, you often break something. A hip, let's say. And that puts you in hospital, under the surgeon's knife. This is the context where you lose strength in huge chunks, never to be regained. And then there's the flip side - much of the time you would prefer never to go outside the house again, but hiding away will see your body turn into terminal jelly. You need to move at the outer bounds of your physical ability to stay as strong as you can. 

Thus, when you're fighting progressive decline, there are many risks in taking a position of overt or aggressive  positivity – as many, in fact, as there are in being completely negative. The trick is to find a practical balance. 

So. Joost. We loved him as a rugby player, and we delighted in his proclivity for under-carpet adventures with various girls and substances. We lashed him joyfully. But now that he is in the throes of real-life seriousness, he has become a non-subject, save for the occasional tit-bit about a journey to outer Mongolia for a radical intervention. We just don't have the language for Joost anymore. We are at a national loss for what to say. 

In the country as a whole, we are also struggling to deal with issues of decline. Many Saffas currently perceive our land to be in a state of devastating free-fall. And there are indeed signs that things are less than perfect down on the southern tip. Whether it's the dark past of Marikana, the heavy current reality of De Doorns or the farcical hatred of the Gillian Schutte comments section, there is much to debate and be concerned about.  

Personally, I'm not so sure. I feel there are significant positive national movements in several areas. There is great stuff coming out of organisations like Section27, and from offices such as the Public Protector... good things are afoot in a good country, and we would be churlish to ignore them. 

Nonetheless, when it comes to the narrative of failure (and there can be no better example here than the hysteria surrounding the Gillian Schutte opinion piece) we appear to be utterly lacking: to be trapped in a Joost-like paradigm where we don't have the necessary language even to have a conversation. We only ever seem able to talk about failure when we're sticking the knife into a rival's back. When it comes to thinking about ourselves and describing our own actions in the public domain, failure seldom, if ever, enters the mix. You may fail. I never do.

I put a lot of this inability down to the 21st century tyranny of the brand narrative. To the incessant and obsessive narrative round-up that occurs across most facets of global society. Regardless of subject, we spin the story so that it sounds much better than the facts at hand. So government hails its ever-increasing matric pass rates, while those who deal with the graduates bemoan the fact that huge swathes of our graduating youth are borderline illiterate / innumerate. Our mining companies flight those ads on the radio telling us how they're changing the country for the better, while the industry as a whole is quite obviously trapped, motionless, in a centuries-old sociopolitical bog. Our brands tell us we're saving the planet (together, always together) by donating a percentage of this or that product purchase when we all know they're legally mandated to donate their 1% to charity anyway, so really they're just using our guilt to advertise a pseudo-social essence... and on and on we go.  

To read the verbiage from our businesspeople and brands and government representatives, one could be forgiven for thinking that ceaseless, profound and committed contributions to South African society are adding up to some kind of positive social change. But we see little evidence of this change. 

Our continual rounding up of narratives might mean we are steadily losing the ability to talk about our own failures. Sometimes it looks like we're at physical risk of losing the ability to even say the word – failure. 

Could this loss have serious consequences? 

A 2011 BBC documentary on colour perception, Do You See What I See, raised an interesting case study of the Himba people of Northern Namibia. According to the show, because these people use completely different categories and words to identify colour-sets (as opposed to most of the rest of the world), they can discern between extremely subtle shades of green at a glance, but routinely fail to distinguish between green and sky blue. They can't see sky blue because they don't have the language for it. The implication is that our ability to define colours depends not only on ocular equipment, but also on a language framework (there is much debate, of course: look here, and here that binds the entire process together. As I watched the documentary, I wondered if, by refusing ever to use the personal language of failure or critical self-assessment, might we actually be eroding some important cognitive channel within our South African skulls? If we carry on avoiding our own failures completely, will we eventually stop seeing them as completely? Are we constructing a powerful set of evolutionary blinkers?   

The ability to set a goal, to fail to reach that goal, to analyse why we've failed and then take remedial / correction action and try again until we reach our goal... This process is essential to positive human growth and development. It is only by talking about failure, by assessing failure, calmly and rationally, that we can create a viable feedback loop between strategy and implementation. In South Africa, that feedback loop appears to be dangerously absent. Instead of managing the all-important feedback loop, we surround our organisations and our personas and our plans with enormous bubbles of narrative hype.  

With all this in mind, I would love to see the country bring in some kind of explicit laws that force us back into line. 

  • Make advertising and communicating legally required corporate CSI spend illegal – brands should only be able to punt true donations (CSI spend that exceeds the legal requirement);
  • Massive fines for any person or organisation blatantly using preposterous half-truths and/or  senseless phrases such as “our commitment to broad-based empowerment across key economic nodes” without supporting evidence that will hold up in court; 
  • Ritual humiliation in public squares (CEOs and DGs in stocks, members of the public pelting them with tomatoes, etc.) for the leaders of any organisation using the word “Ubuntu” in any type of communication, ever. 

Ok, ok, fantasy... At the moment, the only way this subject can be treated is metaphorically. So, a final  thought. 

A doctor who has spent his life making equipment for disabled kids recently said to me, “Wheelchairs are for lazy people - for people who are too lazy to deal with the disabled.” He was referring to the fact that a great many disabled people need to move to maintain strength, and while the wheelchair makes it easy to transport them, it often does nothing for their actual health. For those not completely unable to walk, it is therefore often more physically beneficial to move a few painful steps than to be wheeled for miles.     

I think of Joost. I think of us. I think of the savage Gillian Schutte race debate. I just can't escape the metaphor. Often, nowadays, it feels like South Africa is wheeling its aspirational self around and around the exercise patch, spouting victory while misunderstanding movement for progress, and speed for strength.

But maybe that's just me. DM

  • Andrew Miller

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