An Enemy Called Average

Last week Thursday I had the privilege of attending the Public Sector Excellence Awards at the Sandton Sun in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was invited to these awards as the Editor of and I got the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of South Africa’s top technocrats and bureaucrats at the awards ceremony. The purpose for the awards is to honour and acknowledge those public enterprises, organisations and government departments in South Africa that have done an excellent job of providing quality services and improving the lot of the South African populace. It was encouraging to see that contrary to popular opinion, there are some great people working in the South African civil service who are committed to their work, the country and who do their job with an excellence that is seldom seen in many sectors of South African society. After attending these awards I began to think about the concept of excellence and its importance for the continent of Africa if the continent’s developmental goals are going to be achieved.

The Public Sector Excellence Awards are the brain child of Thebe Ikalafeng, a man who embodies the spirit of excellence which we need to foster if Africa is going to be turned around during the course of this century. He is also the brains behind another incredible Pan African initiative, the Brand Africa Forum which I had the privilege of attending this year and also the founder of the industry leading Brand Leadership Academy in South Africa. Everything this man does reeks of excellence and in my view he is a prime example of the kind of excellence that Africa needs to nurture but unfortunately so often desperately lacks. As impressive as the awards ceremony was and as inspiring as the whole evening was for me, I did however leave with one or two disappointments which highlighted for me the challenge we face as a continent to embrace the spirit of excellence. Firstly the awards ceremony started horribly late, because the keynote speaker, Minister in the Office of the Presidency for Performance Monitoring, Evaluation and Administration, Collins Chabane was fashionably late. This on its own was bad enough but what irked me the most was that no one seemed to take issue with this at all. It seemed to be expected and was treated by many at the function as normal. This struck me as odd. Here we were celebrating excellence and the evening itself was lacking in excellence at a most fundamental level, the keeping of time. It reminded me again of a fundamental problem that we face as Africans in our quest for development and growth. We too easily accept mediocrity without protesting and hence our results tend to be mediocre. As Dexter R. Yaeger Senior put it, “average is nothing more than being the top of the bottom.” In the eyes of average people, average is always considered outstanding and unfortunately this has come to characterise most of Africa, despite the best efforts of a few among us.

Across the continent, in different sectors of society we see daily examples of this tolerance for mediocrity and substandard work, service and effort which keep the continent from maximising its potential and achieving its developmental objectives. African citizens and African leaders seem to have little or no regard for excellence and as such, much of the continent is stuck in mediocrity and substandard living conditions. The time has come for Africans to demand more of themselves and their leaders by embracing the spirit of excellence and putting off this laissez faire mediocrity which is common to every sector of African society. In order to do this there are a few things that we should embrace which would help foster, nurture and entrench the attitude of excellence necessary to produce the growth needed to put the continent at the centre of human progress. Firstly there needs to be a renewed focus on working together, a social contract between the public sector, the private sector and individual citizens to put in maximum effort and contribute to meeting the continent’s developmental objectives. It cannot simply be left to the public sector, the private sector and even civil society organisations to do most of the work in order to turn things around on the continent. Individual citizens need to acknowledge and embrace their responsibility in this regard. Development is highly dependent on an active citizenry which takes pro-active measures to bring about change instead of waiting for government and the private sector to do all the hard work. Along with this social contract Africa needs to prioritise the setting of goals with non-negotiable timeframes, with rewards for performance and sanctions for non-performance, at every level of African society. This is essential in order to create and entrench a culture of excellence.

Secondly there needs to be a focus on problem-solving. Too often in African communities most of the time is taken up discussing problems and professing doom instead of trying to come up with actionable solutions for the continent’s multi-faceted problems. As stated from the one article in the Harvard Business Review, “stop trying to delight your customers, solve their problems.” According to Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, “that’s how you measure excellence, by solving people’s problems.” Thirdly, there needs to be a renewed focus on efficiency and effectiveness at all levels of African society. We should be putting the most efficient, effective people in the right positions so as to meet our growth targets. Each African citizen needs to work at becoming more efficient and more effective in all that they do. This is essential because social development ad economic growth depend on efficiency and effectiveness.

Fourthly Africa’s learning centres and academic institutions need to become centres of excellence, which foster and nurture an attitude and a culture of excellence. A good example of this is the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre for Excellence in ICT, which was established in partnership with the Indian government as Ghana’s first Advanced Information Technology Institute with the hope of establishing it as a home for the knowledge entrepreneurs of West Africa. It also aims to stimulate growth of the ICT sector in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional economic bloc and to provide an enabling environment for innovation, teaching and learning as well as practical research. The continent needs many more such initiatives and institutions in order to promote excellence. Another great example of the quest for excellence on the continent is, the “Good people, Great nation” branding initiative in Nigeria, introduced by Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Communications.

Fifthly there needs to be an increased adaptability to change on the continent. Too often Africans are too slow to respond to change and hence get left behind. There also needs to be a focus on “citizen satisfaction” as the primary goal of public service as well as promoting competition in order to encourage excellence at every level of African society. Finally we need to focus on building “entrepreneurial governments” on the continent in order to foster excellence. Entrepreneurial government is defined by Professor Shahida Cassim, the Director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial studies at the University of Kwazulu Natal, as, “government driven by goals rather than rules in the provision of public services, government in which innovation delivers proactive  initiatives through delegation of authority and one in which cross disciplinary and integrated initiatives are commonly found.”The following aspects characterise an “entrepreneurial government” according to Professor Cassim:

  • Citizen participation in the design and delivery of public goods and services
  • Perceptiveness to change
  • Fee-for services entities within the public sector
  • Use of risk in delivering services
  • Organisational learning
  • Knowledge management
  • Introducing and encouraging innovation

These are some of the aspects we can incorporate into African communities at all levels in order to bring about the culture of excellence which is sorely lacking. In the words of John Mason, “mediocrity is a region bounded on the north by compromise, on the south by indecision, on the east by past thinking and on the west by a lack of vision.” It is time for Africa to rid itself of this enemy called average and to embrace excellence as a way of life.

Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

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