Thursday, April 4, 2013

Public Policy as LOVE (?)

I am taking 3 courses this semester: Public policy, Public management and Comparative social policy in Africa.

I am quite enjoying learning about the theoretical underpinnings of public policy and administration. Although I have been asked many times why I have chosen to study HERE, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.  South Africa is a world of things in one country:
  • A relatively new inclusive democracy.
  • A regional superpower.
  • A developing country with highly developed areas.
  • Steeped in history.
  • A huge success story AND facing insurmountable challenges and shortcomings.
  • A dynamic political space bourn out of years of struggle.
  • Much more!

Cape Town boasts a fabulous University to study public policy and administration against this backdrop.

Sitting in class a few weeks ago, our stand-in professor (our regular one was in Kenya monitoring the elections), said something odd. We were debating if the public policy cycle theory can actually be applied to the real world.

The case in point was the South African Government’s response to HIV/AIDS.

The professor took us through the era of AIDS denialism and the shift towards acknowledging and better addressing the issue.

Mangosuthu Buthelez
He told of us his experience working under Prince Mangosuthu Buthelez, the Chairman of the Zululand District House of Traditional Leaders, the traditional Prime Minister of the Zulunation and leader of South Africa’s opposition Inkatha Freedom Party. Mangosuthu Buthelez lost 2 children within a few months of each other to AIDS related illness. Despite incredible stigma, fear and political pressure, he decided to go public with their sero-status in efforts to change government policy.

He even broke with Zulu tradition and allowed himself to be filmed by the BBC walking in the graveyard where his children were buried. He did this in hopes of raising awareness and turning the tide on a critical, unaddressed issue in South Africa at the time when people were dying in droves.

So you see…’ the professor concluded, 'public policy isn’t just about theory, or politics, or the myriad of other things that we so often focus of as students or practitioners'.


I took a sharp breath and suppressed a chuckle.
POLICY and LOVE never go together in the same sentence!

How could he not know that? He has worked extensively in British and South African politics and studied at Oxford.

After a few moments, I become aware of my cynicism.

Over the past year or two, I have found myself becoming increasingly jaded, especially in Malawi where I was surrounded by extreme poverty and suffering in my daily life.

Studying domestic and international politics, reading the news and seeing challenges has oftentimes left me wondering, in the words of my late friend, Joan Anne Nolan, who wrote during the post-apartheid transition:

Do you ever think that the world will be whole? I feel such a loss because of the tattered & ragged edges of our souls. The world is too harsh & I wish for an innocence that really does not feel corrosive pain...’

On my best days I aim to see opportunity in challenge and appreciate the small beautiful gems that life has to offer in hopes that I can affect positive change in my own, small way. My worse days do not need mentioning. 

The teacher’s words help me to situate myself and check my pessimism.

If it’s all bad, why am I working and studying in the field?

Isn’t love the reason why I chose to study policy and administration in the first place?

My underlying belief is that bureaucracies (domestic and international) at their best can be vehicles for supporting and elevating people.
That public policy can be a mechanism towards supporting and upholding humanity.

If that’s not love, then what is?

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