FAILURE is a sensational, miraculous thing. Our forefathers knew this, as did the Japanese, the Germans, the Afrikaners and the Scandinavian explorers.
On Monday, a young black English marketing graduate, who had failed in traditional job seeking, stood at the entrance of Waterloo Station in London with a sign indicating his name, his degree and curriculum vitae. He was immediately offered interviews, and on Tuesday, a job.
When one of South Africa’s most extraordinary citizens, James Thomas, was laid to rest last year, one of the eulogies described how he included a chapter in his CV entitled, "Nice Idea’s I’ve Tried But Didn’t Work Out" (Thomas, a courageous visionary who believed in the reconciliatory power of music above any politics, was brutally murdered by cowardly so-called jihadi savages in the Nairobi Westgate Mall attack).
Attitudes to failure have altered. Leadership courses taught at Harvard are not based on success, but failure — some banks, pharmaceutical and mining firms have sought to inculcate failures into their models or reports, listing them alongside successes in the latter — applied with the theory that negative results, assessed honestly, are a supreme catalyst to progress and ultimately, success.
Eskom is a failed organisation but we’ve refused to acknowledge this. It repeatedly fails to deliver its primary service — to the point where it today requests people use less of its product. It has failed to halt attrition leading to the departure of good people, it has failed to stand up to bullying ideologues in the government, it has failed to manage its relationship with municipalities and it has failed to assume any moral capacity against the rampant, grotesque culture of executive bonuses in context — despite being aware of the consequences.
Failure has two great enemies. The first is ideology. Writing in The Spectator in 2003, Andrew Kenny asked the question: "What kills more — religion or ideology?" Ideology emerged as an alternative to religion — according to Kenny it was darker, more irrational. Confronted with failure, ideology’s instinctive reaction is to mask it as success, instead of altering previous approaches. The second enemy of failure is a culture of entitlement. Without failure, progress — and therefore wisdom — would be impossible to achieve.
Post apartheid South Africa is littered with hysterical sets of incidents that have compromised failure’s true objectives. Declaring matric results as encouraging when the pass mark is 30%. Then KwaZulu-Natal premier S’bu Ndebele, holding court at the late David Rattray’s funeral in 2007, declaring that "the war on crime is being won".
Gloating at the economically deceitful announcements of the SABC or SAA results. Praising the epic losers Bafana Bafana and their arrogant administrators. Just two weeks ago, South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande launched into yet another rant against supposed discussions exploring Eskom’s privatisation; the suggestion that Eskom had "succeeded" in connecting households after 1994 absurdly articulates rights as privileges. Masking failure as success has distorted reality and set the course for the firm pursuit of mediocrity, and nowhere is this more evident than in Johannesburg — filled with unaccountable, complacent and inefficient people who are oblivious to their dependence on the state.
Confronting Eskom’s failures as a means to discovering the wisdom to improve it requires epochal changes to existing thinking. That includes, at least, the consideration of privatisation — and learning to stand firm against the tides of prehistoric, ad hominem-laced conjecture from trade unions and people such as Nzimande.