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Muddling through: why is it enough?

Chris Gibbons is a veteran journalist, who anchors the award-winning The Midday Report on TalkRadio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He also presents a morning business report on Radio Algoa and edits the quarterly magazine, Directorship, for the IoDSA.

A major conference organised by a government agency has given me some understanding of why – perhaps – service delivery is a problem.

Given the sensitive content, however, I’m going to do the discreet thing and keep the government department involved anonymous. 

So here is the story, with some key details changed. 

I was set to MC for a conference arranged by a certain government department. The conference was scheduled to run earlier this month, around the same time as the Social Cohesion summit in Soweto. So far, so good.

My first inkling that all might not be 100%, however, came before the conference began, when the running order of the speakers kept changing at a rate of knots. It’s not completely unheard of for changes to occur in the speaker programme of such conferences, but that’s why there’s usually a contingency plan in order – at the very least, conferences organisers are prepared to hire an experienced MC who is used to last-minute alterations and can make things run smoothly on the fly.

This set of speakers, however, changed again and again. (And again.) It was not clear who was in charge of the process, either, so when chaos reigned, there was nobody who could rein things back in again. 

To explain: President Jacob Zuma had been billed to deliver the keynote address on Day 1, but we were told – the night before – that he had decided not to come. In the wake of his cancellation, a stream of cabinet colleagues jumped ship as well. A cursory check of the internet revealed that Zuma was going to be speaking on the same day at the Social Cohesion Summit, having announced the event himself in Parliament. 

To make matters worse, Paul Mashatile had given a media briefing about that event on June 6th, almost a month before the conference I’m describing, which proves that Zuma had been out of the picture for weeks before we were told. Did his office simply neglect to tell conference organisers? Did the conference organisers forget to confirm or double-check? Bizarrely, nobody at the conference seemed to know.

Two cabinet ministers did arrive on the day, but instead of starting their speeches, they went into a huddle in one of the venue’s VIP rooms. Why? Again, no-one seemed to know. As MC, I was asked to tell delegates that the ministers were dealing with “urgent business”. What that was, remains a mystery, although it took them over an hour to sort out. When they eventually reappeared and we began with the proceedings, we were an hour and a quarter behind schedule. As a result, the conference programme had to be modified drastically – you guessed it – on the fly.

Day 2 started the same way. This was a working day for delegates, with a key role played by the CEO of the government agency involved. He would outline his vision, listen to delegates, visit delegate workshops and then draw the day to a close. But again, it was not to be. That morning, he had been summoned by President Zuma to attend a different event in Richards Bay. After some back-and-forth with Zuma’s office, during which it was explained that this was a major event for the agency involved and that the CEO of the agency was a central figure in the process, it became clear that the presidential summons was a direct order. Moreover, one which required the charter of a private jet – at the taxpayer’s expense, naturally.

The rest of Day 2 passed off comparatively uneventfully, however, although the CEO’s absence resulted in more chopping and changing of the programme. 

Then came Day 3. This was a cornerstone of the programme, with distinguished speakers from West Africa. They were to share their experiences about a particular process which they had successfully implemented, and which South Africa is very likely to attempt, too. Important matters, in other words, and a lot to get through in one day. I met with the organisers early that morning to double-check the running order and guest list. Set at 8 a.m., it had already changed significantly by eight-thirty.

The agency’s CEO was back from Richard’s Bay, but after a 30-minute delay while we waited for him, he then decided that he would like to speak – unscheduled. Add 30 more minutes into a crowded programme. We were now running 60 minutes late. 

At this point I discovered more additions to the programme, and also that many of the West African guests had originally been invited to speak for 40 minutes, but some had been informed the evening before that they would now only have 20 minutes. That’s the curse of PowerPoint, of course – a carefully prepared, well-structured series of slides that runs for 40 minutes can become very difficult indeed to cut at short notice. One speaker told me bluntly that he would not shorten his speech; he had travelled a long way and would impart important information. Can you blame him? 

At one stage, Day 3’s programme was running nearly three hours late. To make matters worse, this was a Friday – people have homes to go to and flights to catch, so more frantic juggling of the programme was needed. By a small miracle, as five p.m. appeared, the agency’s CEO said his final words and the conference was over.

Without question, this was the most badly organised conference I have ever handled.

But here’s the curious thing. Every single one of the people from the agency with whom I worked was bright, intelligent, professional and fully committed to the conference and its aims. The agency’s CEO is an extremely impressive person with a very clear vision. He has a deep understanding of the economic benefits that might flow to South Africa if that vision can be brought to fruition. Even the members of cabinet who appeared eventually on Day 1 seemed to understand the potential on offer.

So where did it go wrong?

Clearly, there is a major issue with protocol. I’ve written about this before, but once again delegates were told to stand when ministers entered the room, like the entrance of a headmistress into a class of primary school six-year olds. That’s a pomposity and an irritation, but far more serious was the fact that no-one from the agency could say no to the CEO, nor could the CEO say no to President Zuma, despite the fact that quixotic decisions by both men caused havoc with the programme. The director general of the parent government department also appeared a few times – and believe me, he was treated as though he ranked alongside the Messiah.

I suspect that something similar occurred when speakers were added to the programme. No-one was wiling to say no to anyone else, so the line-up simply became unmanageable. That’s speculation because, as I’ve written above, I still have no idea who made these decisions. (Opacity rules.)

Ten days after this event, I still shake my head. I watched several captains of industry shaking theirs as the schedule drifted, their irritation turning to outright anger. The West African visitors were also annoyed, but by the end of the event they had regained their poise. Maybe conferences in their countries are equally chaotic?

My conclusion? The conference happened; it produced a process that might result in some far-reaching policy changes. To borrow a phrase from General Smuts, we muddled through. But with a little more discipline and less kow-towing to bigwigs, it could have been absolutely superb. 

In that sense, it seems to me that these three days were a very good symbol of what is occurring at a broader level in our entire government: with a great deal of heart-ache and unnecessary stress, we’re muddling through. But we could be doing so much better. DM


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