by Piet Coetzer

The road to hell -- and red tape

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

Final word

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” was an expression often used by my late father when I or one of my three brothers pleaded innocence for a mess-up on the basis that our intentions were good. Few terms illustrate the wisdom of this proverb better than ‘red tape’.

Just the other day, the Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, admitted that government needed to urgently tackle the problems of red tape in order to unlock investment spending by companies that had opted to keep hundreds of billions of rands on their balance sheets.
Illustrating that the problem of red tape is not uniquely South African, another article on the same day informed us that the heads of the World Bank and other international lending agencies had urged countries to salvage an agreement designed to help poor nations increase trade. They were referring to the remains of failed world trade talks that began in 2001.
“One part of the Doha round of world trade talks was a trade facilitation pact aimed at reducing red tape and other border delays that impact on the cost of doing trade,” the bankers said in a statement.
"More than a decade after the launch of the Doha round, this agreement could be a down payment on the commitment WTO (World Trade Organisation) members have made to linking trade and development," World Bank President Robert Zoellick and the heads of five regional development banks said in the op-ed article.
The modern definition of ‘red tape’ given by most dictionaries and other sources, more or less goes as follows: “excessive regulation or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders or prevents action or decision-making. It is usually applied to governments, corporations and other large organisations.”
Red tape generally includes filling out paperwork, obtaining licences, having many people or committees approve a decision and various low-level rules that make conducting one's affairs slower, more difficult, or both. Red tape can also include "filing and certification requirements, reporting, investigation, inspection and enforcement practices, and procedures."

Who started it?
It is clear that the problem of red tape is not only universal but often impacts negatively on the efficient functioning of societies and institutions. But where and by whom was it all started?
Ironically it all started with exactly the opposite intention to what we experience today.
Wikipedia tells us that it “appears likely that it was the Spanish administration of Charles V in the early 16th century that started to use the red tape in an effort to modernise the system that was running his vast empire. The red tape was used to bind the important administrative dossiers that had to be discussed by the Council of State, and to separate them from the ordinary issues that were treated in a routine way and were bound by rope.”
It is first noted in historical records in the 16th century, when England's Henry VIII bombarded Pope Clement VII with around 80 or so petitions for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
By the 19th century, however, the term had become much more figurative in meaning and referred to "any official routine or procedure marked by excessive complexity which results in delay or inaction".
But to this day, legal and official documents are still bound with red tape.


The road to hell
The wisdom of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, however, pre-dates red tape by a long shot.
It is believed to originate with St Bernard of Clairvaux who lived from 1091-1153 and wrote, "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs" (Hell is full of good wishes and desires).
There are also a number of variations of the proverb, one of which goes "hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works."
Makes one wonder how many bureaucrats will find their way to heaven.
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