Joburg Expat: Time is Money. Or is it?

February 24, 2012

Time is Money. Or is it?

Time is money.

We've all said it. It's a universal truth. But is it really?

After I wrote a recent blog post about bad customer service here in South Africa, and how it's so much better elsewhere, I got to thinking. What is the root cause for such bad service? Years of isolation from the outside world during the apartheid years, leaving South Africa behind in a fast-paced and competitive world?

I think not. It's been over 15 years. Plenty of time to realize that in other places people actually do call back when they promise to call you "just now." Plus, there was no apartheid (although one could argue other forms of oppression) in the rest of Africa, where the service is often just as bad (or worse, prompting us to practically kiss the South African ground at OR Tambo upon our return from Mozambique).

The problem, in my mind, is that the old adage "time is money" is, in fact, not a universal truth. It is true in most Western countries, where people work themselves into a frenetic pace and overschedule their kids, but time does not seem to come at a premium in South Africa. It is something everybody seems to have plenty of. You just have to drive through the African countryside to see that. People waiting patiently for their taxi to arrive. People crossing the road at snail's pace. People sitting at the side of the road doing nothing. Yes, I"m speaking of the country's poor, and perhaps it is unfair to claim they have plenty of time when indeed they must be struggling. But also in less-impoverished circles will you find that in general, South Africans don't ever seem to be in much of a rush.

This is a fact that I've generally been very happy with. People will spend an entire morning with you over coffee, you feel less rushed, there is always someone willing to help you when in need, and the kids have much less homework and more free time than ever before. Basically, living here has taught me that most things are not THAT important, no matter how it seems at first. And, as a writer, I"m generally grateful for the constant supply of stories that make you shake your head in disbelief.

And yet. I DO miss Western-style efficiency. Is it possible to have that, IN ADDITION to our relaxed lifestyle here? Or are the two mutually exclusive and South Africa today is already the best compromise we can hope to find? Will more efficiency and better service come at a huge cost, is the price we pay for them that we'll someday sit around, nostalgically longing for those "good ole days" in South Africa when the pace was still so nice and slow?

I honestly don't know. It seems like this is a question almost going to the core of  the human condition, coming up again and again as we search for the meaning of life.

There you have it. I've managed to get to philosophy from plaintiveness.

What do you think?


The Loerzels said...

It's the same slow pace here in Morocco. The same lingers. There is a short term focus on money here. With the younger generation especially, they work a job and quit when they have enough money for the moment. Then they hang out and linger til they need more money and get a job again. From a western work ethic I just don't get it.

Sine said...

Very interesting that you say that. I was once pretty fiercely chastised by a reader when I lumped these kinds of observation all into "Africa". Her argument was that there isn't one Africa and it's unfair to make generalizations. But there is definitely an "Africa" attitude found here. I will always point out that I like many aspects of it, but you precisely narrowed it down to its core problem: work ethic. You can't have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is effectively an expectation gap. South Africa looks very efficient or "Westernised" on the surface but it disappoints routinely when it comes to simple daily occurrences e.g. traffic light failures, power failures, municpal services failure, potholes etc, etc. However, in this country one should rejoice that there is a thing there in the first place to go wrong. In other parts of Africa you don't need to get upset about non-functional traffic lights, because there simply aren't any. So my recipe is to count my blessings and marvel at the pleasant weather, the friendly people, and the comparative simplicity of life here. Despite all the bluster and frantic jabbering of politicians and the media, you can pretty much get on with your life with relatively few constraints, although one must admit that some of these are quite hair raising. So it's a trade off between say German efficiency and micromanagement on a municipal and governmental level compared to South African laissez-faire and "inefficiency" which admittedly can drive you round the bend. Hang loose!

Sine said...

Very well put. That's pretty much what I've come to think, you probably can't have the relaxed and friendly and slow-moving side of Africa that is so wonderful, and still expect efficiency. And if it became efficient overnight, it might lose its charm. There you go, the new vision for South Africa: Efficient Charm.

Anonymous said...

I think the "western" efficiency you're referring to is really just limited to a few countries, perhaps the Anglo-Saxon ones. Western countries in Southern Europe (France, Italy...) are everything but efficient or customer friendly, and German bureaucracy is a nightmare.

Anonymous said...

Oh, by the way, my name is Kristy, nice blog you have here.

Sine said...

Hi Kristy, thanks! Good point on "Western" efficiency. And if I do have to choose, I often rather take friendliness over efficiency!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Everything involves trade offs but I do agree it is a cultural thing. However, I would have an easier time accepting the inefficiencies if they could at least stop the rampant theft. All the casual stealing that goes on really annoys me.