I do not believe that government, by the pure force of will of the members and the clarity of their thinking, can change all societies or societal processes for the better. In fact, I tend to believe that outside of the basic provision of services and the function of co-ordination, benign neglect is what any country needs most from its government.

So, while I do not believe that governments can do much good, I am not advocating that we should not take the government, its capacity and intentions, seriously.

Because one thing is clear: through commission or omission, governments can really mess things up.

Thus I was interested and a little touched to see Joel Netshitenzhe’s farewell speech to his government colleagues. The address was reproduced in full in Ray Hartley’s excellent blog – Ray is editor of The Times as well as the Times Live website; and you can learn more about the inestimable Joel Netshitenzhe from my previous posts and their various links here and here.

Firstly, Joel gives a sense of how long he has been around government (actually from the very first and he was also central to the ANC’s ‘government in waiting’ in Lusaka:

From the early days with Mandela, when he complained that there was no smell of coffee in the corridors of the Union Buildings and we had to construct the president’s office virtually from scratch. We learnt then what it means to manage a transition and unite a nation;
And the cerebral pursuits of the Mbeki era, combined with forging an integrated democratic state;
To the firm but modest hand of Motlanthe in managing an uncertain transition; and
Now, the Zuma era, which holds the promise of merging some of the defining attributes of the two main phases of the first 15 years of democracy and taking us to a higher trajectory.

Then he quotes Geoff Mulgan, head of the policy and strategy unit in Tony Blair’s office – a position very similar to the one Joel has occupied in the four successive government’s he mentions above:

“It is widely assumed that governments have lost power … [T]he perception of powerlessness is an illusion … Governments overestimate their power to achieve change in the short term and underestimate it in the long term.”

Then he advises on how power can be exercised; how government should conduct itself to most powerfully affect shape outcomes:

If I were to add my tuppence worth, I would advise that for the Presidency to be able to exercise leadership in the context of changes being introduced, it:

  • Carefully wield the soft and hard power it has: winning the allegiance of departments, other spheres and society at large;
  • Master the science and art of ensuring all centres of government embrace the Presidency’s initiatives as their own;
  • Ensure both dignified articulation of generic issues and a dignified silence when necessary; and
  • Perhaps most importantly, organise the best parties ever at the end of the year so colleagues can know each other better.

Then he almost ruins it all by quoting a mawkishly sentimental Chris de Burgh song (see correction for this false attribution in end note) – but it kind of works, given the idea that he was part of the organised ANC endeavour that came to power in 1994 and then had to try and fix the things that had been broken:

Black bird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Black bird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free

I for one am going to miss his influence on government; and, in as far as government has any positive influence on our live, I imagine we all will.

(End Note – Blackbird is actually a Beatles song. My error started with Joel, who said it  was a Chris de Burgh song he had heard recently. I compounded the error by the fact that I never checked if he had it right and then presented his casual attribution as authoritative. Go to the comments on this post to see discussion around the song and see me suddenly decide that the song is actually quite deep and insightful, now that some kind readers have corrected me as to provenance and attribution of the song.)

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