In an increasingly competitive world, businesses win over customers through providing excellent customer service. We see this in the digital technology tsunami sweeping across the world. Companies like Amazon, Google and Samsung are few of the many who are relentlessly innovating to retain competitive advantage. The 4th Industrial Revolution, globally, is driven by consumer demand for cheaper and more efficient services!

‘Disruption’ and ‘innovation’ are the hallmarks of the modern economy. Artificial intelligence, 3D printing, cloud computing and blockchain are some of the disruptive technologies that will change our lives forever. Ask Standard Bank how digital banks like Tyme and Discovery banks have disrupted conventional banking transactions, resulting in numerous employees being retrenched, or see how Uber and Airbnb have uprooted traditional cab services and the hospitality industry. The answer is simple, cost-effective and customer-centric efficiencies rule!

Why is then that our government is not taking note of these trends? South African tax and rate paying citizens are desperate for better services, if at all. Yet on a daily basis they put up with such gross inefficiencies from government—deteriorating roads, lack of water, electricity blackouts, relentless crime, ….! These are basic services that a functioning and caring government should address as a priority. Unfortunately, the lack of Batho Pele (People First) principles at many state owned enterprises and local municipalities is astonishing and yet, the same ‘culprits’ responsible for the mediocrity remain in office, year in and year out!

Despite civic protests, declining investor confidence and potential downgrades by ratings agencies, government responses at various forums—State of the Nation and the recent ANC 108th year birthday celebrations in Kimberley, are predictable. There was nothing disruptive or innovative that will address the many challenges facing South Africa. The logic of disruptive innovation and customer-centric service excellence, seems farthest from the minds of our public officials.

The revelations at the Zondo, Mpati and Mokgoro Commissions and investigations by civic groups such as amaBhungane show how incompetent officials allowed state capture and dysfunctionality to take root, particularly in the state owned enterprises. This not only stripped value from our economy, but more importantly, resulted in the rapid deterioration of these key institutions–transport; health; education; law and order; energy, which will have a negative impact on the economy for decades to come. Add to this, a bloated, unproductive civil service and the financial costs quickly become unsustainable.

The problems facing South Africa are many and complex, but not insurmountable. If the country is to dig itself out of the political and economic quagmire, there needs to be decisive will to do so. Unfortunately, the systemic challenge facing us currently, in public and private sectors, seems to be ineffective leadership; leadership that seems incapable to understand their problems, nor have the capacity to generate solutions. It is imperative that officials in leadership be the most competent to grasp the complexities of their tasks and be capable to deliver on their mandates, especially in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

However our biggest failing in this regard is the fact that we’re still locked into a populism matrix; into cadre deployment and political appointments, despite its inherent failures over successive years.

For leaders to be effective in the 21st Century, they have to do the right things right! They must be bold and decisive, be able to apply moral judgement, exercise reason and understand the consequences of their actions. Practices that degrade the natural environment, flout corporate governance and undermine investor confidence, will have serious knock on effects on physical health, quality of life and sustainability of our nation for generations to come.

With the new decade of 2020 upon us and Xmas and New Year celebrations still faintly ringing in our ears, where do we begin to fix our broken country? Anthropologist, Margaret Mead, suggested that ‘Thoughtful minds can change the world.’ So our starting point should be for our leaders to critically reflect on their actions, make the tough decisions where necessary and create a compelling Vision to drive the solutions. As Ronald Heifetz from Harvard remarked, ‘”vision” refers to our capacity to see, to interpret what it seen and then to intervene appropriately’.

The time for dreaming is over. With critical levels of unemployment condemning millions of our potentially productive assets, our youth, to the scrap heap, now is the time for action and it has to start with collective accountability. Government is unable to provide the solutions that people so desperately need. The answer lies with the joyful throngs of people who celebrated the Rugby World Cup win in 2019. The lingering memories of crowds in the streets celebrating the 2019 Rugby World Cup win, wasn’t so much about a rugby mad nation celebrating a sport victory, but a nation that embraced the slogan ‘Stronger together’!

The only way to thrive in the modern world is to see the world as it is, to discard our prejudices and combine our strengths and take charge of our joint destiny. Late psychiatrist, Victor Frankel, summed this up by recognising humans as ‘choosers.’ We choose our destinies through our thoughts and then we create it in our actions. The Japanese refined this to kaizen or making small incremental improvements on an ongoing basis.

South Africa’s economic and social challenges deserve nothing short of the very best solutions and the most qualified officials to implement them.

Poor service delivery at all levels of our social development value chain, show that excellence must prevail above all else. It is no surprise that politically stable and economically successful, Singapore, through upholding meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty, recruits the sharpest minds into its civil service, so that the most efficient service is provided.

For the sake of a better South Africa and for all who live in it, the embracing of an ‘excellence culture’ is imperative!

2020 is a new year and a new decade. The tagline associated with the Apollo Moon Mission, that ‘Failure is not an option!’ must be our rallying call.

A functioning, sustainable and winning nation is what we owe to those who sacrificed their lives for a better South Africa and to our future generations. For those who still believe in making new year resolutions, 2020 can either be the decade in which we embrace Obama’s ‘audacity of hope’, or a decade in which we languish in Dickens’ ‘winter of despair’!

Rudi Kimmie (PhD)
Executive Dean at TSIBA Business School