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From Ashe to Ashwin

Confronting the thorny issue of merit-based appointments in society.

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.


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I understand the need for restitution and I support efforts by individuals and companies to treat people equally and to ensure that everybody is awarded equal opportunities. When a group of people in society abuse the legislator to enforce “equality”, it will destroy the economy and social cohesion .

When the law forces employers to treat people as if they are equal, when there are in fact huge differences in capability, work ethics and intelligence between people, it will destroy the competitiveness of that economy. The handicap system works well in the game of golf, but the moment you implement the handicap system in the business environment, you will get all sorts of problems. Firstly, if the competing international companies are not also forced to use the same handicap system, the competitiveness of the local company will be destroyed. Secondly, it is unavoidable that certain capable individuals will now be branded as “handicap” players. Thirdly, the social tension and breakdown in social cohesion accelerates as the economy suffers and levels of unemployment rise.

Equality has been enforced by the state for 24 years now. What are the results? “White Minority Capital”, “Quota Players”, Expropriation Without Compensation, imploding BEE transaction, looting cadres, destroyed municipalities, a breakdown in service delivery, bankrupt SOE’s and rising social unrest in a country on brink of anarchy.

“Either fraternity is spontaneous, or it does not exist. To decree it is to annihilate it.” – Frédéric Bastiat

“I cannot possibly understand how fraternity can be legally enforced without liberty being legally destroyed…’ – Frédéric Bastiat

Excellent article. Enlightening and insightful

Agree excellent. Just a pity the people who need to hear this would not understand it or cannot read or will just ignore it as white neo colonialism.

In SA hardwork and merit does not count anymore….its who you know that counts.

“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.”

You’re preaching to the converted.

Unfortunately there’s no way of converting a quota.

Ashwin’s petulance apparently stems from 2 situations. He was caught with his hand in the cookie-jar, ie late and unprepared and his financial independence. Apparently he has been quite a recipient of some dodgy BEE contracts. He could feel all powerful and not needing to be put in his place by what he sees as superior craftsmen/commentators.

Ashwin,s conduct by leaving his work place at a critical time for his employer ,done only to show his unhappiness with the conduct of his fellow announcers , is a stark illustration of the attitude problem of a large segment of employees in SA . On any scale , a Super Sport tv announcer is a top job , available to a select few . As a role model , one would expect such a person , to conduct himself impeccably . The minister of sport referred to the incident as an issue of racial discrimination .It is time that SA moves beyond the race card as an excuse for poor behaviour and ill discipline , and measure merit on actual performance and ability .

There has still not been an official announcement by Supersport about this Willemse incident or have I missed it? Why is it taking so long( if I have)? And if there has been one, can someone enlighten me?

Simply unprofessional behaviour that would not be tolerated anywhere else in the world.

There is no such thing as merit-based in this country anymore. Merit-based has been decolonised!

All things considered Ashwin, who I have always liked, has made an enormous error here. He had every opportunity to handle his personal issue in the confines of the privacy it deserved yet chose to attack Botha and Mallett on live television (with racial undertones) and then rely on the sympathy of the majority. That’s just plain wrong. I hope he makes a public apology (preferably live on television).

We see it over and over .If you cannot adapt ,the next step is to destroy

“Perhaps technology can come to the rescue. It should be possible with today’s advanced algorithms to design highly sophisticated and comprehensive aptitude testing” It does exist, its called an IQ test , but it cannot be used to select employees even though its a objective measurement and a strong predictor of productivity. Any case, Ashwin and I am sure any player does not want to be labelled a “quota” player, however how can there be no quota players in a quota system?

You can get access to the following pages online. “IQ and the Wealth of Nations” by By Richard Lynn, Tatu Vanhanen, M. Stuart

Pages 196 and 219. This should put the situation into perspective. Keep in mind that the US military does not enlist anybody with an IQ below 80 because they are regarded as untrainable. It explains the reason why South Africa is “the most unequal society on earth”. The prognosis is up to you.

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