County News Home Page
February 12, 2007
NACo Home Page
NACO Home Current Issue Back Issues Editorial & Advertising
County News

 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Look Beyond What You First See

The HR Doctor had a glorious experience speaking at the Institute of Municipal Personnel Practitioners of Southern Africa’s (IMPSA) annual conference. This is one of several articles derived from that experience, and deals with a particularly thought-provoking growth experience we had immediately after landing in Cape Town.

The IMPSA was kind enough to dispatch a driver and van from the hotel to meet us at the airport and cart our immense quantity of luggage to the conference site. We were met by a middle-aged bellhop for our 45-minute drive from the airport. On much of the public right of way, such as areas along the highway, we saw terrible slum dwellings without power and often without plumbing. They were shanties, thrown together with scrap metal and, from the look of them, barely able to keep from toppling over.

It was poverty on display in a way which we have never experienced in amazingly fortunate, if not arrogantly spoiled, America.

As students and practitioners of public administration, HR daughter Elyse and I were exchanging comments with one another and snapping photos. Our comments were about these terrible conditions in a modern nation. Our driver joined the conversation very thoughtfully. He discussed how, in fact, there is a huge amount of poverty in South Africa, exacerbated in the first decade after apartheid by the government’s keeping a fundamental promise it made to the “frontline” states bordering South Africa.

The government promised open borders. Subsequently, the tens of millions of poor already making up a large part of the South African population were joined by many more from other countries seeking and dreaming about better opportunities. These very poor people were simply living where they could live and surviving however they could survive.

Our thoughtful driver became not only a hotel bellhop but also an important teacher. As we were speaking about the so-called “informal housing,” he asked us to please look beyond what we were seeing. “Look 300 yards beyond and see what is there.” We saw hundreds, if not thousands, of small, perhaps 800-square foot, concrete block houses with electricity and with plumbing being built as fast as the South African government could possibly work.

These houses and the postage stamp-size lots on which they sat were given to the residents of the informal shanty dwellings as soon as they were ready. They were given to them as personal property to do with as they wished. They could move in and live in the new houses as most did.

When that happened, the shanties were bulldozed away. They could develop their own property and sell it, hopefully at a profit. The point is that these new houses were clean and were private property.

This contrasted sharply with our recollection of the giant tenement apartments which form public housing and were subsidy-rented to people in America’s slums. With the rent and the crowding came feelings of being “temporary.”

In contrast, the South African model was to develop a sense of private property ownership and pride as part of the overall economic development of the country and the slow climb out of poverty for millions of people. True, many of the people receiving houses chose to stay in the shanties or to move into the new houses and immediately build an “informal housing” addition out back.

It is also true that cleared shanty zones were often quickly replaced with new shanties as other migrants entered the country’s urban areas looking for a place to live.

“Look beyond what you first see” was the message from our driver/life philosophy teacher.

The HR Doctor thought long and hard about this simple and eloquent admonition from a very nice man whom we had just met.

“Look beyond what you first see” is a lesson we can all learn when it comes to judging other people or judging other countries. A phrase in the Talmud that the HR Doctor often cites is “find thyself a teacher.” Amazingly our greatest teacher on this trip is the man who hauled our luggage and our bodies from the airport to our hotel. That 45-minute drive has left us with a lesson we will never forget.

All the best,

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •



Job Market / Classifieds

Financial Services News

The H.R. Doctor Is In

What's In a Seal?

News from the Nation's Counties

NACo On the Move

Research News

Profiles In Service

In Case You Missed It ...

Tools for Tough Times
Write to Your Editor
Print This Page

Bookmark and Share
NACo Home  |  Current Issue  |  Back Issues  |  Editorial & Advertising
© Copyright 1996-2002 County News