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This prisons debacle was entirely predictable

Our management deficit was in sharp focus again this week.

Armed officers of the republic went on strike, and in the process threatened to endanger the fabric of the nation. The fact that they were prison officers, rather than policemen or soldiers, may have led many of us to trivialise the matter. That would be a dangerous error.

When I was a schoolboy, we would often see prisoners brought to cut the grass in an adjoining field. The way they were treated left us in no doubt that we were viewing a group of persons that society saw as a sub-species. They were brought there packed in the back of a lorry, like goats. They were dressed in tattered white clothing. Their warders kicked and whipped at will, shouting obscenities all the time.

We schoolchildren watched and tittered, and learned two things: one, that a prisoner is no better than an animal; two, that you don’t ever want to be one. The second lesson may have been salutary; the first was not.

This trait – of treating some sections of society as scum – extends far beyond prisoners and their warders. You can see it every day. The worst employers see nothing in their employees other than ignorant, lazy, thieving wastrels who have to be whipped – verbally and physically – to squeeze the slightest bit of output from them. Politicians seem to regard their constituents as filthy imbeciles who must be kept ignorant for their own sake. Golfers barely notice their caddies – except when they make a mistake, which is when the sky falls down on them.

But our most savage behaviour is reserved for those we believe to have committed a crime. Not a big crime, mind you: those who steal big and kill big generally get away with it. Or do you want to count with me how many people have been jailed for Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing? Nearly every road ever built in this land over the past couple of decades is a shoddy and shameful job – but who has ever been incarcerated for this open crime? We have had foetuses dumped out in the open, we have seen cruel child trafficking, we have had buildings collapse on the heads of innocents, we have witnessed ethnic pogroms – but almost never does the perpetrator face any penalty.

Snatch a mobile phone, however, and ‘justice’ will be instant. If you are unlucky, a bloodthirsty mob will emerge as though from nowhere, baying for your head. Armed with moral superiority, they will send you to your grave in the most barbaric and immediate manner possible. If you are somewhat more fortunate, you may find yourself a guest of the state for an extended period. Here, you can prepare to assume sub-human status.

The tragedy for the prison officers is that as they treat their wards like dirt, so does society extend the same treatment to them. Those who clean society’s filth and keep it out of view are never given any status in life; so it is with these unfortunates. As we now all know, they live in conditions little better than of those they guard, and are paid a pittance for a brutal and dangerous job.

Our new vice-president was quick to point out that this was a management failure, and he was right. But his solution showed why we are managerially still in the dark ages: appoint a committee! And to cap it all, a committee to be headed by his predecessor in the job, who had presided over this mess for the past five years. The predecessor, fortunately, has had the sense not to take up the appointment.

This fiasco reveals the management process followed by much of the public sector (and even some of the private): appoint the least qualified people to do the most dangerous jobs; pay them as little as you can get away with; starve them of training and equipment and decent working conditions; and then forget about them. The results are entirely predictable: those forgotten people will soon find violent expression. And because they have become as brutalised as the criminals they guard, they will point the guns you have given them back at you.

Faced with an armed insurgency, the VP was soon forced to backtrack and concede most of the demands made by the warders. And so an example has been set: if you are frustrated as an employee of the state, all you have to do is take the matter to extremes. That is the way to get noticed and heard.

Enlightened managers must be pulling their hair out observing this madness. They will tell you that if you treat your employees like scum, sooner or later they will return the favour. They will tell you that if you want to achieve serious results in any organisation, you recruit the best people you can afford, give them decent working conditions and tools, and manage their growth and advancement. If you don’t, prepare for a collapse. And if they have guns…

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