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Wanted: real leadership

Nov 26 2012 07:11 * Mandi Smallhorne

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SO I went to the last of the South African National Roads Agency Limited's (Sanral's) Gauteng meetings on e-tolling, held in Sunninghill. 

That gives you a hint, right there, of Sanral’s attitude to road-users: when I asked why my husband and I were forced to choose between driving from Roodepoort to Kempton Park, Pretoria or Sunninghill to make our voices heard, I was told that Sanral had decided to hold meetings only where people would be most affected.

Right. So people travelling the N1 to work from the Soweto area – everyone in that massive complex of formalising settlements from Orange Farm to Lawley, as well as Soweto residents – to William Nicol, at an e-tag discounted cost of just over R300 a month, are not considered "most affected"? Iiinnn-terrr-esting...

It was quite amusing, actually. At one point I muttered to my husband: “The middle class worm has turned.”

You don’t expect to see people from the upper crust yelling, some of them in plummy private school accents, shaking their fists and booing, do you? If they’d known how to toyi-toyi, they’d have been up on their feet and shimmying round the room in a long conga line.

Mind you, the audience (if that’s the right word) wasn’t as homogeneous as all that – right alongside the St Stithians’ boys were chaps from Orlando West High, equally angry and outspoken.

OK, I’m guessing at the schools, and there were a lot of women, too, so don’t get all picky on me; it’s only a metaphor, right?

There were several clear themes that emerged:
• We don’t trust you – we’re suspicious of your motives, your calculations, your explanations and your claims;
• We don’t believe you’re actually going to listen to us and take our comments and concerns into account; and
• We’re bloody angry.

Bit of a macrocosm, really, an echo of so much that is happening in this country.

E-tolling is a prime example of a failure of leadership, a failure of ideas, and a failure of empathy.

Here’s what real leaders would have done: first, they would have understood that a project of this magnitude is a bit different from your pothole patch on the R55 or traffic-calming measures alongside a school.

This is a very expensive project which will materially change the lives of people in the province, for better and for worse. Real leaders would have said: right, we think this must be done, but let’s start by engaging in a comprehensive information campaign.

Let’s take the public into our confidence about what we see as the way forward, and ask them if they agree that it is the way forward – do they have other ideas (such as, oh, I don’t know, starting with a decent public transport system)?

Then tap their bright ideas on how our aims can be achieved. Then let’s go back to them, with a genuinely new proposal that GENUINELY incorporates their ideas. And then let’s hold a referendum.

I appreciate that this would have cost a lot, but let’s compare that putative cost with what it actually has cost to delay, engage in legal action, deal with a massive resistance campaign and, and, and...
 
Instead, according to SA History Archives, “consultation at all levels of government (national, provincial and local) [was] conducted over a two-year period from 2005 to 2007 prior to the national cabinet approving the project.

"However, public consultation was limited to the opportunity to make representations over a one-month period (mid-October 2007 to mid-November 2007) after notices of intent regarding the project were published in a variety of print media.”

Notices that didn’t live up to their name – who noticed them? The idea, my friends, is to get as much participation as possible if you want buy-in, not to try and slip it past us.

Neither government nor Sanral seems to have understood an important, a vital lesson of leadership: people will respond to you the way you treat them. Treat them like partners – which is what they are: whose country is this, anyway? – and they’ll come up with creative ways to help.

Treat them like children, and you will get resistance, anger, civil disobedience.

The public plainly does have ideas on how to pay for the roads (and is willing to do so, if it’s done in a way we accept and believe is fair and not corrupt); but with its top-down approach, the only idea Sanral seems to have is: we’ve reduced the tolls – now why aren’t you satisfied?

In this project and a myriad others, you’ve given us stacks of reasons not to trust you. At the meeting, Ms Marissa Moore from treasury got a bit miffed, and told us we had the most transparent treasury in the world. 

Ma’am, we already know that, and it doesn’t help. That’s like saying: “Look at this transparent tap showing the water flowing into the hosepipe.”

But the pipe turns opaque and no one can tell you what happens to the water next – or why so little trickles out of the pipe in the end. Until you can tell us what happens to our money and why so much is stolen or wasted, your transparency adds up to no transparency at all.

The anger emanating from the audience was a huge red flag. I kept hearing Tracy Chapman singing: “Don’t you know, talkin’ about a revolution.”

You don’t want the middle class rising alongside the poor, chaps, you really don’t...

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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