There is a general expectation of rapid economic growth in Zimbabwe, driven by massive infrastructural growth, given the new political dispensation.
guest column: Tororiro Isaac Chaza
However, there is an adversary at work, the ‘African time’ phenomenon, which is probably the highest cause of retarded development on the African continent. “African time” is described at https://www.wikipedia.org/ thus: “African time or Africa time is the perceived cultural tendency, in parts of Africa and the Caribbean toward a more relaxed attitude to time. This is sometimes used in a pejorative sense, about tardiness in appointments, meetings and events. This also includes the more leisurely, relaxed, and less rigorously-scheduled lifestyle found in African countries, especially as opposed to the more clock-bound pace of daily life in Western countries.”
This is an adverse charge upon the African continent. One would desire to condemn the Wikipedia website for allowing such an acrimonious assertion to grace its pages. However, it is true.
The entrenched culture and practice of “African Time” is attributed to the Africans’ lackadaisical approach to time management, characterised by lateness to planned events, lateness in completing planned activities, and sovereign inertia.
All this culminates into mammoth delays in mega-projects and/or social and infrastructure decay. In short, we sow delay, and we reap decay. It is needless to say what the cost of such decay is. Killing time kills, hence the resulting atrophied African economies.
The predicament is even worse when you group the “African time” phenomenon, which its attendant cohorts of bad planning, lack of accountability, rent seeking, extravagance, and self-gratifying largesse. The purpose of this discourse is to provoke self-introspection in order to halt this apathetic, value-destroying practice, which is costing the African continent billions of lost man-hours and hence billions, if not trillions, of lost dollars.
The remedy I put forward, among others, is to look at the time value of money from the perspective of the project management practice, a subject I am humbly au fait with. Let us list the causes and resulting ailments of the ”African time” scourge.
It is appropriate to state right from the onset, that this discourse is a confession and an introspection of how I, among many others, have fallen foul of the practice of lateness, missing appointments, procrastination, fear of failure, queuing and quitting.
But I am on the mend as I now subscribe to the adage, “Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it,” M Scot Peck’s (Author of The Road Less Travelled).
I value myself, therefore, I value my time, and I believe I am doing some things, which are productive and useful to society with my time … hopefully. I confess, I have both been a perpetrator and victim of the “African time” syndrome.
I am doing something about it and, therefore, I am urging fellow Africans to self-introspect and stop this heedless indiscipline and redeem the time. In the competitive global economy, it is imperative that the African professionals and politicians be aware of this “African Time” rot and start to be answerable and responsible.
The problem — The rot
King Solomon the wise, penned, “There’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth.” To every purpose there is a season. The esteemed Apostle Paul also added: “A man reaps what he sows.”
My interpretation of what the two sages meant is that, what you are and where you are right now is a sum total of the seeds you have sown, whether you be an individual, a family, an organisation, a country, or a continent. You are the manifest embodiment of opportunities you have taken up, and opportunities you have squandered, that is, the choices you have made.
I studied for my first degree at Warwick University, Coventry, and after graduating I came back to Zimbabwe in 1980, the year of its independence, raring to contribute to the young country’s development.
A couple of years later, I travelled back to the United Kingdom during Margaret Thatcher’s rule. I had to travel from Crawley to Coventry. If I remember well, I took a bus from Crawley to Gatwick Airport, Gatwick Express train to Victoria Station, changed to another London Underground to Euston, and then on an Intercity from Euston to Coventry.
At each of these stations I did not stop for more than five minutes, unless I decided to take a smoke break, a habit I since stopped because the cigarette packet carried a warning: “Smoking kills!” It seemed dumb not to heed the warning.
Back to the Coventry trip, if a train was delayed, it would come up on the public electronic display, showing by how many minutes it would be late. I do not recall seeing a delay of more than two minutes. I was very impressed.
I then came back to Zimbabwe and a passenger train from Bulawayo to Harare was delayed by two days and there was no announcement. The gap in performance between British Rail and National Railways of Zimbabwe floored me.
I pondered as to why we are not at the same level of development as the UK. I deduced that colonialism’s inequity had left us dismally underdeveloped. I looked forward to a time of rebuilding under Black rule, a daunting task of building an economy meant for 200 000 privileged few into an economy of 15 million equals. The dream was to transition from underdeveloped, to developing, and then to developed.
Alas, three decades later, British Rail system (now unbundled and privatised) is still efficient, if not more so and The National Railways of Zimbabwe is in dire crisis (www.newsday.co.zw/2017/03/13/nrz-dead). What is the problem? Colonialism? I should think the colonialism slant has become a dim premise in the passage of time.
Three decades later, we should have overcome the demerits of colonialism. It is easy to blame politics and mismanagement also, but in this paper, I would like to posit that there is an underlying problem of the vernacular culture of “African time”. Zimbabweans are highly literate, I should add (what with 14-plus universities?), but highly unwise in the use of time.
By the way, can anybody tell me what happened to the Harare-Chitungwiza Rail Project, which was announced in The Herald on March 11, 2003?
Harare — Construction of the long-awaited Chitungwiza-Harare railway line is expected to commence soon, following revelations that negotiations between the government and a consortium of local businesspeople will be finalised this week.
“African time” variants
The indiscipline of “African time” encompasses practices such as late attendance of meetings, such as church services and weddings, to major delays in decision making on megaprojects.
If you attend a wedding which starts on time in Zimbabwe consider yourself very privileged. I have been invited to weddings where the invitation card says 9am, but the bride arrives only at 11am, and no apology for my time that was wasted thus giving gist to Oscar Wilde’s quip: “Punctuality is the thief of time.”
What about conferences, where a prominent person such as a government minister is supposed to inaugurate? The minister comes in with pomp and ceremony, but late, very late. No wonder most are now referred to as “the late minister so and so.”
This lateness would be understood if it happened once, but alas it happened and still happens as a rule. The delay is further exacerbated if there is to be TV coverage of the ministerial event and the TV crew is late as per custom.
In the corporate world, I have experienced great indiscipline when there is a crucial meeting called for and people strut in 30 or so minutes late. Lateness is considered better than not turning up as the latecomers quip: “Better late than never.” But regrettably this is equally bad etiquette and outright arrogant.
Lesson learned: Punctuality is a learned habit.
I have been guilty of non-attendance of many events and meetings that I have been invited to. The reasons range from recording the wrong time or date, getting the venue wrong, clashing schedules and downright forgetting. None of the excuses are justifiable. In this day and age, with all the scheduling and reminder tools available, there is no excuse.
It is good etiquette to excuse oneself from a meeting well before the meeting if you are for some reason, indisposed or busy. The meeting may have to be cancelled if your input or decision is essential. This is better than people gathering and meeting, only to adjourn because a vital attendee has not attended.
Lesson learned: Non-attendance is a deadly time stealer. Better to send in your apologies for not being able to attend rather than to not pitch up.
Indecision — Inertia caused by “African time”
This lateness practice is not confined to meetings only, it spreads into more serious matters such as decision making on major development projects. Let us call this “African time” inertia.
I have worked for a public sector organisation before and I can attest that there were projects where the professionals would make a procurement recommendation but an enduring impasse would be created because the “higher authorities” were considering the recommendation. Or was this impasse a rent seeking opportunity?
Accusations upon counter-accusations of corruption would obtain, but alas, no movement. Hence, “African time” inertia is evidenced by the many projects that are started, but not completed. They remain in an incomplete state for unreasonably long periods, abandoned, but not closed-out.
Compute and aggregate the cost of this inertia in producing the public good and the resultant impact on the economy. The aggregated delays in implementing mega-projects in providing energy, communications, transport, water, education, health and other developmental projects have had severe impact on economic growth in Zimbabwe.
It is no longer colonialism but the phenomenon of “African time” inertia.
Lesson learnt: Indecision gives opportunity to rent seeking, and is the thief of value.
Abandoning or quitting is laziness as King Solomon put it: “The slothful man does not roast that which he took in hunting, but the substance of a diligent man is precious.”
Let us use the Channel Tunnel (Chunnel) Project, a 31-mile rail tunnel underneath the English Channel. The British and the French governments embarked on this ambitious project, which was fraught with problems. The project was reported, thus (https://strategicppm.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/project-failure-channel-tunnel/):
Construction of the tunnel started in 1988, the project took approximately 20% longer than planned (at six years vs five years) and came in 80% overbudget (at 4,6 billion pounds vs a 2,6 billion pound forecast).
However, the same article says of the Chunnel’s benefit realisation: In fact, subsequently, the Channel Tunnel has been listed as one of the engineering wonders of the world, which emphasises its uniqueness.
The British and French governments “roasted what the took in hunting”. They were diligent. They did not quit, but revised project estimates.
Lesson learnt: Certain projects are very beneficial even if fraught with schedule and cost overruns. However, there is need for wisdom on whether to stop or continue.
When the wise King Solomon declared that “A time to kill,” he was wise to the fact that some projects need to be “killed” as they are wasteful of resources. Fixed overheads, license fees, human and other resources, are all tied up in “dead” projects.
I know of software based product development projects, which had to be abandoned because the software version became obsolete before product launch. Some companies would push such a “dead” project to launch and wrongly report it as a marketing failure.
Lesson learned: Failing/failed projects have to be terminated and closed-out properly, with lessons learned recorded as to the decision to terminate.
Procrastination is a cohort of lateness in that we are busy substituting real productivity with idleness as we delay acting now, in favour of spending hours on non-productive social media, games, watching TV, talking and playing politics, among other things.
These are time wasters we indulge in and slowly, but surely, they gnaw at our productivity. I am personally fighting against this as I have seen that my time is robbed by this futility.
Procrastination also comes in the form of perfectionism, that is, wanting to produce a perfect document, product or service. I have missed a deadline for submission of a tender by a whisker because of wanting to produce a ‘perfect’ document. The lesson is, it is better to submit a not-so-perfect document on time rather than a perfect document late.
Software developers know this very well, that you do not wait for a perfect product before you launch. Instead, you launch and progressively improve the product from market feedback. That is agility.
Lesson learned: Better to be imperfect on time than be perfect and late, or perfectly late.
I used to start my journey to a meeting late, and I would speed up to compensate for the lateness. I have since stopped that because of the warning on road sides; “Speed Kills,” — another warning which it seems dumb not to heed.
Speed or haste sounds like the opposite of the “African time” syndrome. No, it is not. It is a cohort. Haste is a product of inadequate planning and hence going ahead while ill-prepared. This causes serious setbacks, as one has an “accident” and has to go back to the drawing board to correct.
In a bid to speed up projects, the team makes short cuts and rushes to launch a product. I have been involved in projects with ambitious launch dates.
Blinded by the need to score highly on the employee performance evaluation, we often ignore the telltale signs of a distressed project.
Lesson learned: A bit more time spent on planning saves the cost of delay and rework.
Queuing is a time killer. At one time I used to queue to get money from the bank, only to be told there is no more money; queuing to buy bread, only for the price to double while in the queue; queuing for fuel, only to be told the fuel has run out.
Fast-food outlets used to promise that if your order is delayed over the 10-minute limit, you would get your order free. That was quickly abandoned and now you just have to wait.
Lesson learnt: Queuing is a non-productive time-waster and must be made illegal.
Lack of accountability
Having worked for both the public sector and private sector corporations, I am au fait with the workings of both sectors and their contrasting raison d’etres. The private corporation is driven to maximise shareholder value, whereas the public sector corporation is driven to maximise political sway, portrayed as national value.
Non-performance in the private sector is rewarded by demotion or loss of job. Non-performance in the public sector, if measured at all, is rewarded by sheltered tenure.
Delays in private sector projects are not tolerated as shareholder value is destroyed, and the public sector machinery justifies delays veiled as bureaucracy and/or good governance. Again, if we dig deep for the root cause for lack of accountability, we will perhaps uncover rent seeking right at the core.
It is the delays in the public sector that have a profound impact on national economic growth as they delay benefit realisation of the public good. The cost of delay is still met by the public.
Public sector projects are by nature huge, demanding equally huge funding. Failed project upon failed project characterises some public institutions, and yet the prominent persons and their choice chief executives survive without being answerable for non-performance.
Most of my childhood years were spent attending school. Lateness was punishable by a rod on the back or hours of hard labour. Lateness in handing in assignments meant failure.
Should we not, therefore, bring back the rod for errant prominent persons and chief executive officer, who are late for meetings or delay making decisions?
Lesson learnt: Errant executives and errant leaders, in terms of time-keeping, must be brought to book.
There are probably a number of remedies to this scourge, but I advocate for the institution of project governance at all levels, starting at the State level to local government and State-owned enterprises. I advocate for the up-skilling of most professionals who undertake projects, but are not trained on proper project management practices. This should be easy in Zimbabwe, with its 14-plus universities.
I advocate that project funding organisations should not advance any funding until it is proven that the receiving organisation has put in place solid project governance and project management structures, especially for mega-projects. There must be audits of past projects to ascertain the reasons for crisis or non-performance of projects.
The project management profession puts great value in delivering a product, service, or result according to the “triple constraints” of scope, time and budget.
A project is considered a success if it is done according to the planned scope, within the established time schedule, and within the budgeted cost.
Further on, the product or service is reviewed after being operationalised to determine if the planned benefits have been realised.
Project management balances the triple constraints because any adjustment to any of the triple constraints has a distinct effect on the other constraints, and hence the quality of the result, product or service. For example, a delayed project phase has an effect of increasing costs, or reducing scope in order to keep within the budget.
Alternatively, an increase in scope results in an increase in both time and costs, or a reduction in quality if both time and budget cannot be compromised. It is therefore evident that the “African time” syndrome of unjustifiable delays results in increased costs if scope is kept constant, or reduced scope if the budget is non-negotiable. Invariably the delays have huge costs incurred to cover up the project failure.
Tororiro Isaac Chaza is the vice-chairman, Zimbabwe Information and Communication Technologies (ZICT), a division of the Zimbabwe Institution of Engineers