Is it heroic cowardice?

04 December 2012 - 02:06 By Zama Ndlovu

To say I dislike initiatives that suggest that one person can make a difference, would be a gross understatement.

I would chuck a puppy into the fires of Mordor just to avoid being anywhere in that band of hall monitors' good books.

So when I found myself involved in such an initiative last week as part of my job, my cynicism was in full swing.

This particular initiative didn't require that I hide behind the bush to pounce on unsuspecting pupils arriving late for school - but it still left me peevish.

My employer donated lap desks to three schools in the Bushbuck Ridge municipality area in Mpumalanga.

I was asked to represent the company at the special handover ceremony to give the desks to primary school kids dragged away from their summer holiday to dress up in traditional gear and put on a dance for ''the generous people from Johannesburg".

While giving a speech on working hard at school for a better life, I noticed that one of the school blocks had a missing roof, barely any of the classrooms had proper desks and some 400 pupils have to share two toilets. Though I know these lap desks will make a small difference, that difference is not enough to save these children from an unfortunate schooling experience.

Walking around after the presentation, I couldn't help wondering how much more beneficial it would be if we eased up on the trinkets and started agitating for the provincial education department to make some real changes.

Often, when faced with dysfunctional social arrangements, society responds with quick-fixes meant to ease our own anxieties and lull us into a false sense of control.

These solutions often solve one aspect of the problem, but don't really address the real problems.

Good intentions create a new standard of ''normal" that consequentially circumvents challenges to the official channels , allowing those in charge to renege on their responsibilities. In essence, it's a heroic cowardice.

A good example of this is the Outsurance pointsmen project. These men and women have become regular sights at broken traffic lights and problematic intersections.

The company's commitment to the programme is commendable and there is no denying the social value derived by society because of them.

However, in accepting Outsurance pointsmen as a regular feature we have lowered our expectations on the traffic departments.

Outsurance has been so effective in providing a temporary solution that we overlook the real problem - many of our traffic lights don't work.

Because of its inefficiency, the government has effectively outsourced basic functions to greater society.

Lap desks, Outsurance pointsmen, and private-sector sponsored fixing of potholes are all great temporary solutions to alleviate pressures under extraordinary circumstances, like when a hurricane hits, but we pay taxes so that children have desks at school, traffic lights work and roads are repaired.

Setting up parallel functions to alleviate the government's accountability is not a sustainable or efficient model for society.

How far can a nation move forward when its most innovative sector is preoccupied with fixing the basics? Meanwhile, the self-congratulation that accompanies these ingenuities misleads us into thinking ''if we stand together" we can cover these gaping holes.

I'm reluctant to join the cheers. I'm afraid of cementing this deluded pretence that we can somehow fix society without confronting those in power.

The pupils I met in Mpumalanga were grateful for their lap desks, but as I handed over those desks, I wished there was a way to assist them without shielding them from the reality that their rights are being infringed upon.