It may be connecting some very obscure dots, but former Springbok rugby player, Ashwin Willemse’s walking off of the SuperSport set reminded me of tennis champion Arthur Ashe’s rebellious tour of South Africa some 45 years ago. The two events may be on a completely different scale. Ashe’s defiance of the global sport isolation of South Africa was a highly significant activist gesture against existing racial prejudice, while Willemse’s walkout was less clear – at least at the time of writing. It seems to have had at least some measure of self-indulgent personality cultivation where one-upmanship is typical of many of these panels.
That the Willemse incident became a loud gnashing of teeth about sport transformation, racism and quotas, reflects a rather puzzling paradox – how little and how much we have moved on from the days of Arthur Ashe. At the centre of it all is that much vaunted, but highly mythical and misunderstood concept of merit.
Just as strange is the attention it receives in an arena where it is the least arbitrary: in sport. At the highest level in this field, merit is simply not an issue – you are either competitive or you fall out and Willemse is clearly one of the former. If you don’t select the best by individual track record, you must be prepared to pay the price at the highest level; which in turn destroys aspirations to reach that level – at least for your own country. It’s clearly the surest road to mediocrity, and can only be addressed at grass roots where equal development opportunities supersede merit.
But the strangest perversion of all is the obsession with merit in sport, and the near absence of it in many far more important areas of society. I know this may resonate with some political rhetoric out there, but that too is based on a good measure of hypocrisy and no full understanding of the invidious, subtle and sometimes deliberate ways that merit criteria can be warped. They can as easily be used to entrench assumptions and prejudices as they can to ensure the best recruit. A self-evident sacrosanct principle of merit-based appointments is that all the criteria have to be relevant to the task itself and the value that the task adds to society. Any other criteria not only detract from and dilute the merit principle, but place self-gain above the needs of society or customers.
But one can only invoke the merit argument when you have done everything possible to develop the broadest number of individuals to meet the standards required. Otherwise it will be unfair and seen to be unfair.
This gives some validity to affirmative action, which can be seen as a socially prescribed merit criterion but has arguably failed because it has focused virtually exclusively on demographic metrics, rather than the development of value creators. Mentoring and development demand much self-sacrifice by the mentors, mostly in first line and middle management. In my management consulting days, I regularly witnessed how intransigent and resentful these managers were of the task. Not only are we reaping the fruits of that behaviour today, but it has weakened the argument for merit based appointments in many sectors, adding some unnecessary fuel to “legacy” arguments. It has also largely poisoned the potential benefits of affirmative action, which is contrary to pure merit deployment in the longer run.
Despite the enormous hurdles in applying merit criteria to all tasks in society, it is an aspirational imperative that should rank as high as any of the most important provisions in our constitution. Few can argue that its opposites: nepotism, cronyism and patronage have become deep-seated and systemic and have led to disastrous corruption. This has to be rolled back at all levels. The only way to do so is through a serious rethink of our approach to merit based appointments, perhaps even a review of affirmative action itself.
To be sure, the most serious rot has been in government, starting with local government and the strong link between political party branches and member deployment into local authority executive positions. Rivalry there has become so intense that contenders will literally kill each other to secure appointments. How far are we from having political assassinations at national level? Mature democratic societies counter this inevitably politically expedient scourge by making a clear and unyielding distinction between legislative and executive positions, where the latter is drawn from any source, race or gender purely on merit. Political standards too can be lifted by applying merit criteria in nominations for positions.
Nepotism spreads like a virus. When one huge sector, such as government, is infected to the bone, then others respond with their own bias. We have all been either victims or beneficiaries of some form of nepotism or cronyism, accepting it as “part of life”. Some are born into privilege; others into poverty. In turn, inequalities and inequities are entrenched and by their very nature create a sense of unfairness which is the nemesis of merit based deployment of human contribution.
The case for merit-based appointments in all of the working environment is self-evident and overwhelming. Yet it has been sadly neglected as a national principle. Service-driven merit criteria will:
• Substantially counter corruption.
• Vastly improve service delivery, product quality, standards and competitiveness.
• Optimise value creation, job creation and prosperity.
• Enhance individual aspirations and self-development.
• Create greater fair play in appointments.
• Reduce disparaging of appointees.
• Reduce accusations of discrimination in terms of race, gender and other.
• Give self-confidence to and respect for incumbents.
Perhaps technology can come to the rescue. It should be possible with today’s advanced algorithms to design highly sophisticated and comprehensive aptitude testing, including brain scan imaging to detect the psychopaths and emotionally unstable. This should eliminate most, if not all, of the human prejudices in appointments.
Of course, if you don’t want to subject yourself to this dehumanised process, you can always become self-employed and take your contribution directly to the market, where merit is judged more rigorously.