How to eat an elephant

By Mike Muller

“The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” Contrary to popular belief, that’s not an old African saying. It is attributed to American general Creighton Abrams, chief of staff in Vietnam from 1972 to 1974. By the time he got there, it was already too late to put his simple wisdom into action.

Have we learnt anything from his observation? A would-be American president is promising to build a big wall to keep the world out; Britain is digging an even deeper ditch between itself and its neighbours. Closer to home in Zimbabwe, the soldiers haven’t been paid, which should worry all South Africans because the Limpopo river is not deep enough to keep refugees out. And it’s not as if we don’t have enough problems of our own. Just for a start, almost four out of 10 people don’t have jobs, while in a growing number of towns and villages, the water supplies that we were so proud to have built are beginning to fail.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, if something bad happens on the other side of the world, we can watch it on our phones. So it is clear that we live in a complicated world, full of big problems. And whether at home or abroad, it too often seems that there is not much the average person in the street can do to improve things. But that’s not entirely true.

Bringing representatives of the world’s plumbing industry to Cape Town, the World Plumbing Conference (WPC) shows that there may still be some light on the horizon. Let’s remember that the way to keep people happy and economies running is to provide the basic infrastructure on which they depend. Fortunately, a growing recognition exists in many countries that a useful way to address some of our economic and social problems would be to invest in public infrastructure, such as water supplies.


“Bringing representatives of the world’s plumbing industry to Cape Town, the WPC shows that there may still be some light on the horizon.”


Plumbing and plumbers will form an essential part of any such process. But some basics will need to be in place if they are to be successful. We need to know what we are doing. Education and training remain vital — particularly the practical bits, like which materials to use in what circumstances and how to work with them.

To do the work that’s needed, we must have effective teams. Those teams must include everyone from the manufacturers and the suppliers of the materials we use, to the architects and the builders who specify and install them. And we forget — at our peril — the system operators who may be municipal officials or maintenance technicians in large systems or just ordinary (or large) schemes who are often also the users (in households).

For those teams to be able to work effectively, they will need to include people who work in competent, honest organisations. South Africa has some good municipalities and national government departments — but also too many where corruption and incompetence have been allowed to take root.

That comes back to the big problem of how to eat an elephant. The suggestion that you take one bite at a time is not helpful unless you have a very big refrigerator. A more traditional, African, approach would be to call friends and family and eat it together. I hope that the WPC will show that together, we can at least make a small contribution to improving the state of the world.

 

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