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Reckless transformation is doing great damage

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

There is increasing evidence that the high velocity drive for transformation is doing more harm than good in some quarters. It is giving jobs to people who are patently unready for the responsibilities they are taking on, and in the process sabotaging the very careers they are meant to be progressing.

Because the ANC and the great previously disadvantaged majority are doing everything to accelerate the pace of transformation, few people, it seems, have the courage to say: “Slow down! You are shooting yourselves in the foot”.

If, as reported, five of Jo’burg’s biggest service delivery departments are beset with allegations of financial misspending, huge losses and accusations of fraud and corruption, should we not be asking “Why?” And should we not be thinking that people need training and proper development before they are let loose in such important roles? The initial allegation suggests that the debacle in the city administration has been due to “jobs for pals”. We should be careful not to confuse nepotism with transformation, but in these particular circumstances both would seem to have been the cause of the problem. It is clear that people have been appointed to positions where they have not had the ability required, and have been put there, according to the reports, by the authorities who have been trying to create opportunities for friends.

If those of us who are serious about building the economy and doing the best for South Africa are to apply ourselves to the problems reported in the never-ending saga of incompetence and corruption in the state-owned enterprises and government institutions, we have to say that transformation is happening, but not yet working. And it is not only in the most obvious instances that this is the case. Even in the senior leadership of businesses and on the boards of many listed companies, where there is a strong desire for real transformation, its record is very patchy. Young people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds are propelled into senior executive and governance roles, often completely out of their depth, just to satisfy the war cry for more transformation. We are doing harm. The wise old-timers stand back and shake their heads. Fear of being branded a racist keeps them quiet and makes them play along. Are we really building the next generation of skilled business leaders by force-feeding them and then setting them up to fail?

Previous generations of executive trainees had to start at the bottom rung of a business and gradually learn the lessons of sound management, working their way through the ranks and finally reaching the top.

By that time they knew the ropes and could make decisions based on a deep understanding of what makes a business work. Now, in distressingly frequent circumstances, young, bright and highly motivated people are brought into the business right at the top and clearly lack the perspective that a more cautious development might have provided. In some fortunate circumstances it works. In others the perpetrators of the inevitable mismanagement get hung out to dry. They are crucified by our increasingly vigilant media and are consigned to the rubbish heap of failures.    

Where people have acquired responsibility step by step, they have been tested as being trustworthy. Their confidence in themselves has been established and they have internalised the values of trust. When suddenly people who have never had to account for the funds under their management are held accountable, things often go horribly wrong. It is understood that we do not anymore have the time for gradualism and the “slow-cooker” variety of leadership development, but we do have the responsibility to craft some kind of balance that might enable us to avoid this on-going national embarrassment. For goodness sake, where else in the world is there a chief of police in jail?

This year saw the launch of Corruption Watch, an independent civil society institute formed to enable South Africans to report and confront corrupt activity in both the public and private sectors. Its good timing because we have also heard this week, not only about corruption in the police force, but about gross abuse of authority by policemen who have abused and sexually manhandled women who they stopped at highway intersections. If a policeman cannot be trusted, in fact if women now have to fear them, who will protect the cornerstone values of our fragile democracy?

I’m not saying that mismanagement, poor governance, corruption and abuse of authority are caused by ill-considered transformation, but I am saying that more careful training and greater rigour would serve the ultimate transformation agenda much more successfully. DM


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