Viva the little people who create jobs and serve their communities

20th April 2022

Dunvegan, a suburb east of Johannesburg, is bisected by a road with two large traffic circles. The circles feature attractive, well-designed and lovingly maintained gardens. That is both welcome and surprising, as the local government is not particularly known for its public gardens.

My wife and I enjoy discovering the latest colour and texture combination as we walk through them. So when we saw someone working in one of them, we stopped to chat. It turns out that he is a local resident who does this as a hobby in his spare time. Professionally he is a banker. He obtained written permission from the local authority, and for several years has gradually planted, shaped and maintained this lovely public asset. He is grateful for the opportunity to exercise his hobby in these large spaces – each several times larger than a typical suburban garden.

It made my day and stimulated thoughts about how citizens step up to fill in the gaps left by formal authorities. This is particularly evident at times of national disaster. In KwaZulu Natal, for example, the riots last year and tragic floods this year have highlighted the initiative, courage and generosity of ordinary people. Sometimes generous people possess unusual organisational ability too, and create wonderful private agencies like the Gift of the Givers. Thank God for them.

But it is also evident in the continuing quiet, faithful volunteer work of ordinary people in ordinary times, like Sally who many years ago planted gardens on the pavements in Malvern and arranged for residents in every street to meet and create a sense of community. Or those many people who prepare food for the hungry at their door or at the traffic intersections.

This enterprise in public service mirrors the energy that goes into entrepreneurship. Our world is filled with energetic people who create a living for themselves with creative ideas for a service or a product that people will pay for. They are the heroes who provide necessary goods and services, create jobs, and pay the taxes that keep the country going. So thank God for them too.

It suggests that whatever our political persuasion, room should be made in society for private initiative. Freedom to follow our conscience, not just in what we believe, but in putting our best values to work to aid our neighbours has to be one of the best features of human society.

Authoritarian societies do not encourage this. Under a dictatorship people tend to become passive. Risking enslavement for the uncertain prize of stability and economic growth is simply not worth it – and anyway evidence shows that democracy is better at supporting prosperity. I don’t mean to espouse the excesses of free enterprise – huge harm is done by greed in the guise of freedom. Bad governments can come in any ideological dress.

Bad government stifles enterprise through unnecessary bureaucracy, or worse still, kills initiative by “rent-seeking” – siphoning off money through bribes or extortion. Good government works with the people to liberate and celebrate their initiative.

I happen to think that social democracy underpinned by an appreciation for human rights and liberty may offer the best combination of government leadership and private initiative. But this is not an essay on politics. Freedom can be achieved under a wide range of political and economic systems, provided you and I are empowered to act when we see a need or an opportunity.

Viva the little people who create jobs and serve their communities. Those who design political and economic systems should put them at the top of the agenda. And let public servants everywhere understand that their job is to put power in the hands of the people, not themselves. Maybe that could be the focus of our next investment conference.

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