Wednesday, February 25, 2009

For the people, by the people? Bah, humbug!

By Llewellyn Kriel

For a country that claims to be “for the people, by the people”, South Africa has a despicable disregard for the individual in society.

Adverts in every format bombard us with “We care” tripe. Government departments have Batho Pele messages plastered in every nook and cranny. Banks festoon their sterile halls with merry posters of happy people. Department stores lay claim to being people-centred.

All of these are, of course, utterly devoid of either truth or value. Sure they might fool some of the people some of the time, but …

And more and more of us are getting wise to the subterfuge and the sleight-of-hand illusions implemented to bluff us into thinking these messages, charters, bills, slogans, mottos, whatever are true. As in the classic movie Network we’re getting mad as hell and we won’t take it any more.

All the cheesy feel-good pink-eyed NGOs — SA The Good News, Homecoming Revolution, the International Marketing Council, Tourism SA — that try to sell South Africa both internally and abroad sell snake oil with a success ratio about as credible as Foolius Malema’s next asinine rant.

But where the rubber hits the road it is all bullshit. The value of the individual, the little person, is vaporised with almost every encounter. Batho Pele is meaningless because it is universally ignored. The words of the Constitution and the Bill of Human Rights are nothing but chicken scratchings on paper because they exist only on paper, not in day-to-day existence. And, unless one has massive financial resources in bags under your bed, your personal value in society is zero.

I defy anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances to prove me wrong. For every tick on the Great Scoreboard there are at least 100 crosses. And it is something we should all be deeply ashamed of. Each one of those tragic little crosses on the roadside represent an actual, flesh-and-blood human being just like you. To our inept and insensitive government they represent the shame of failure. That is why the authorities would outlaw them. How is that petty attitude in the least reconcilable with the immense value that human being embodied for the people who erected and maintain those crosses?

Yet it is far too easy to tut-tut about the amorphous hermetic thing we generally call “bureaucracy” or government. Home affairs routinely “kills off” living people with the tapping of a few computer keys. Police routinely shatter lives through nothing more than callous neglect. Government hospitals and clinics just pass the dead or dying in their waiting rooms by with apathy and disinterest. Everyone I know has his or her story to relate. And, no, SA is by no means unique in this inhumane attitude.

In SA it has become too easy for companies to casually segue into the same realms of despicable behaviour. The over-priced bombast of Woolworths has already caused torrents of customers to leave its hype and frigid aisles in their tens of thousands for the cheaper and more client-sensitive shelves of Shoprite Checkers — and that is despite the abominable behaviour of its CEO Whitey “Big Bonus” Basson and its horrendous labour-relations track record.

Raymond Ackerman’s noble ideal of a supermarket chain for the ordinary people now lies in tatters on the shredding floor of corporate profits at any cost. Where Pick n Pay was once trustworthy and good value, duplicity and blatant dishonesty now prevail. Come all you clever geeks; we need a truthometer along with our GPS that could quickly tell if P n P’s shelf prices are worth it or not. That would be really valuable!

Despite being roundly castigated for their dodgy practices, banks in SA (like banks everywhere else) continue to openly rip clients off. The distinction is that they don’t try it with the big clients. Such clients would quickly scramble their squadrons of lawyers and auditors to stop whatever deviousness the bank tried. The fact that they tried it at all is monstrous and immoral, but that’s just the way it’s always been.

But with the little guy like you or me? Ah well, that’s a completely different thing now isn’t it? We are fair game and it’s always open season on the individual. You are always the prey and the onus on saving your life rests on you — never the predatory bank. As with getting into debt, South Africans have no choice but to have a bank account. The weight and force of circumstance gives you all the options of a bug in a pesticide testing laboratory. And once Absa, First National, Standard or Nedbank or any of the smaller crooks get their hideous claws into you, you’re theirs to toy with as they want. The simple fact that they colluded to fix prices or interest rates in the past — just as we all knew but couldn’t prove because we were just suspicious little people — was highlighted in the report of the Competition Commission. The fact that it took a massively costly commission of inquiry to uncover criminal dishonesty speaks volumes for the moral decrepitude of our banks.

FNB has just hit me with their latest creative bit of shenanigans deliberately designed to penalise the little guy. Their multiplicity of dysfunctional departments, which isolate themselves better than workers at a nuclear facility, ensure a miasma of disconnected and cavalier managements aimed at ensuring the little guy suffers maximum harm and loss with minimum effort. Somehow they have been able to get a business account with no overdraft facility so deep into overdraft that some nameless, faceless auditor who last knew the value of human touch in utero and has probably never met a real flesh-and-blood human being to arbitrarily close the account — effectively preventing deposits. And, of course, they have conveniently lost all documentation and emails, and no one has any records of the vast extents to which I went to ensure they would not make my teensy-weensy account fubar again.

And First National Bank couldn’t give a flying financial for the consequences for me, 7 000km away. After all, they are just doing what every other large, all-powerful and utterly insensitive corporate entity in SA does. Safely cocooned behind call centres (the greatest evil of the 21st century), endless barricades of robotic “consultants” and an ivory-tower, over-paid phalanx of managers led by Sizwe Nxasana (formerly of Telkom — say no more!) it doesn’t matter what pitiful platitude they spout on TV or radio or billboards about how they can help me, they just don’t. And they won’t.

I doubt whether many more than one in every 10 South Africans actually trusts his or her bank’s claims. It probably explains why we schizophrenically delight now that they’re squirming in abject shame worldwide — until we realise with a hideous jolt that they will never actually get hurt. We will.

As with recessions in the past, the current global economic crisis is showing time and again just how ingrained and pervasive has become the vast gap between the individual person, you and me, and the megalithic structures that define, control, manipulate and wield the power to end our lives. News stories worldwide are right now reporting on ordinary folks killing themselves because they see no way out of the debt they’re in. There aren’t any stories of what banks are doing to stop this epidemic. Their multibillion-rand campaigns to con-vince us otherwise are as powerful yet see-through as spider webs. And that is exactly what they are devised to do.

To my mind it is not right for us to live in fear of becoming a victim of the very institutions — be they in finance, health, energy, law, transport, retail goods, education or government — that depend on us for their survival and growth. In the words of James Herbert’s classic literary work, Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer”. Our world and our own South African society is not, as the powerful would insist, people-centred.

People-centric organisations just don’t behave as if the people don’t matter. I hope the positive outcome of this global recession will not be the survival of banks, or financial institutions or even governments, but a re-invigorated militancy on the part of the little guy to insist that he and she matter more than profits.

1 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

Talking about financial service companies, it's a huge battle to actually invest money. I must have phoned Old Mutual 30 times yesterday to meet a deadline for today for a contribution to a retirement annuity. Been hassling since Monday to get this done. All of the staff are Indians and coloureds, which is not really the issue, although it feels weird not hearing any white voices, but e-mails don't get answered, voice mail is on all the time, messages left on voice mail don't get answered, it's a huge barricade to force your way through. It's like no-one acknowledges your existence. And they are making money out of this!

It's much less hassle to get SARS clearance and invest offshore than it is to invest locally.