Half way to the best policies on earth: an engineer’s first impressions of South Africa

Mr Potato has been here for a couple of months now; he sent this email to his former colleagues at Aerospace Company That Shall Not Be Named.

I’ve settled into life in South Africa, with all its ups and downs. Power cuts, theft, and language barriers. That’s just life in Africa. The land here is beautiful, and my wife and I agree that, on the whole, South Africa is more beautiful than any other place we have lived. I think only Ireland is as pretty.

This place is pretty screwed up, though, no way around that. South African natives I meet and hang out with openly admit it. When people hear my American accent, they immediately tell me how much they want to move to America (oh, but that’s a topic deserving its own email later) or anywhere else.

One thing I’ve noticed in South Africa are some of the best public/government Procedures (as opposed to Policy or Processes) anywhere I have lived. The US could learn a thing or two about laws, statutes, and regulation. For example, roads in dark and winding areas have LED lights on the sides of the road to make sure you don’t wander off a hill at night. In a land full of diseases I see posters and other encouragement for good sanitation. Anti-HIV drugs are free to anyone. Immigration laws are actually more concise and navigable than the US.

But this place is profoundly dysfunctional! The laws are world class, why is this place a third world country?

People I talk to here say it is as simple as the laws not being enforced. I think it is far more complex. I believe these seemingly well written public/government Policies are missing half their content. Procedures are very well done. I think Processes are a major point of failure. I know Compliance is non-existent, and I think that ties back to the missing half of Policies. Oh, culture and values also are huge factors – but I’d better put that in another email in the future.

Policies are rules and guidance that ensure consistency and compliance with company or national direction. Consistency here is good – the road system and public transit (in Durban, at least) is consistent with a policy of encouraging economic growth by facilitating transport. Yet I see empty City buses* passing waving would-be passengers time and time again. The bus drivers do not seem to believe it is their duty to actually stop for anyone, but the buses do run around the city quite a bit. It is the job of the Policy not just to turn objectives into action, but to ensure compliance. This bit seems to be missing from South African Policies.

Procedures are sets of actions that produce a specific end-goal. They are derived from Policies and drive Processes. Durban’s transport system seems well laid down, and confusing roads seem to be an artifact of the age of this city. There are city buses to carry people who do not have cars. There are stoplights and signage. There are maintenance crews that fix stuff – or at least make it look like a repair was attempted.

Processes are specific sets of actions for people or small groups to fulfill specific end goals. You write them based on Procedures. I’ve looked up many processes on South African government websites for things like getting a visa and purchasing a car. The breakdown here, between Processes and Procedures, is that communication of specific Procedures or their intended goals is not carried out to the people who either administer them (bureaucrats) or use them (people who need visas and cars). No one I interact with in the South African government seems to know their own processes, so they arbitrarily make up their own individual or site-specific process.

For example, when I went to get a visa, I gathered all the necessary paperwork as described on both the South African embassy and South African Home affairs websites. When I submitted the paperwork, it was rejected – there was a ‘secret’, non-published requirement for Police Certificates of Good Behavior from any state I have ever lived in for more than 6 months since I was 18. The administrator refused to show me the regulation.

To make it worse, they took the first piece of paper with “Colorado Police” on it as the certificate, almost 2 weeks before I actually received the real document from Colorado. They didn’t seem to differentiate between the requested document and a simple communication from the Colorado Police. I did not point out their error.

As an additional example, my wife had to get a South African ID number for foreign car buyers in South Africa. My wife presented the required paperwork as specified online, and was rejected for not bringing additional non-advertised paperwork. A quick search online found complaints by expats in other major cities – in 3 articles I read the ‘secret requirement’ list was unique. This did not seem a case of attempted bribery – when the documentation was presented, the ID number was issued quickly.

And compliance is where the most visible issues are. Now there is a huge cultural component here, but I want to stick to Policies, Procedures, and Processes. That city bus that never stopped? I am guessing there are compliance methods that track if a bus driver is moving around the city but not one that tracks if he actually stops for people. This is a specific issue, but I lay the blame here at the Policy level for not having a feedback (audit) mechanism that both identifies and corrects the issue.

Anyways, that’s the end of the long email. A lot of people find this boring (I’m sure my family will), but I think it neatly describes the non-cultural reasons why I have to use 6 different keys to get from my living room to my car each day, and am terrified of driving in Durban. (City buses are effectively replaced by private bus systems that do not seem to adhere to safety regulations in the quest for profit.)

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