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Who knows, maybe I haven’t returned


OPINION: Could effective training of staff possibly make a difference in how our country’s institutions are run? asks Lance Fredericks

Picture: Agus Dietrich on Unsplash

YOU KNOW how it is when you’re young and cute and cuddly and everyone wants to pinch your cheeks and ruffle your hair? That time when you start saying cute things and your parents call you in to say cute stuff to the gathered family members to show off your wisdom or your lack thereof?

Then when you say it – that one profound or stupid thing – there’s either an outpouring of “Awwww, how cute,” followed by a cupcake or similar treat, or they fall off their chairs laughing at you, and you eventually walk away because you no longer feel needed. The laughter was the indication that there’d be no cupcake.

Anyway, my cute ‘thing’ was, apparently, meteorology.

I was called in to join the adult company on numerous occasions when I was around four, and I was asked: “Do you think it will rain today?”

I am told that my response always was, “No. The clouds is too high.”

I would walk away without a cupcake of course, after sharing my weather prediction.

However, this past Sunday I was vindicated. After a 20-hour flight, I was relieved when the captain’s voice was piped into the cabin. “Ladies and gentlemen, we will begin our descent into OR Tambo airport in a few minutes. It is overcast and the temperature on the ground is 22 degrees.”

I looked out of the plane’s window and there was a blanket of cloud below me. I had heard how it had been raining in Gauteng and I imagined that more rain was imminent.

However, as we began our descent, the aircraft passed through a thin layer of cirrus clouds and quite a distance below I noticed the heavier puffy clouds. But these clouds were not densely packed together. On the contrary they were sparsely scattered around the Gauteng heavens with large open spaces between.

I looked upwards through the window again and that’s when it struck me … I had been right all those years ago. The clouds were, in fact, too high. From the ground, if you looked up, all you would see would be an overcast sky. But because I had seen this scene from above, I knew that, because the so-called rain clouds were so widely spaced, there was absolutely no chance of rain.

I was tempted to call my uncles and aunts to demand all those cupcakes I had missed seeing as they had laughed at me instead of rewarding my genius. They would probably tell me that they were laughing because I used “is” instead of “are”.

Anyway, as the aircraft rolled to a halt at the terminal and I disembarked along with the other passengers, I – having been to the sparkling megacity of Hong Kong – was feeling a bit snooty and arrogant. I wondered how South Africa would compare to the efficiency, class and cleanliness of one of the jewels of the Far East.

My jaw dropped as I entered the arrivals hall in Johannesburg.

It was spotless, neat and very, very impressive. I felt ashamed that a few weeks away had made me so conceited, so judgemental. I quickly berated myself; South Africa was not at all as bad as I had imagined.

Then, however, the “wide spaces between the clouds” showed up.

You see, when I had arrived at Passport Control at Hong Kong airport, the officer on duty had greeted me and asked for my passport. He accepted it, looked at it intently and then looked up at me. He asked me to remove my facemask so that he could see whether I was the same person in the photograph. Then, handing back the travel document after carefully stamping it, he sent me on my way.

At OR Tambo on Sunday, things were slightly different. As slight as 100 percent.

The official at the passport counter was having a conversation with a colleague who was standing next to her booth. When I got to the counter, while still engaged in conversation with her colleague, she put out her hand.

I assumed she wanted my passport and handed it to her.

Still looking at her colleague, she skilfully flipped through my passport’s pages. Locating the smooth, plastic page inside just by touch, she slipped that page into the scanner and the machine beeped. She then flipped through the pages again and looked down quickly, before hurriedly stamping the correct page and handing the passport back to me.

There had been no interaction. In fact, I grinned as I offered an enthusiastic, yet sarcastic “thank you” thinking, “Based on this vigilance, can the South African government be sure that I am actually back in the country?”

But it didn’t end there. Another unpleasant surprise awaited me just a short while later.

After collecting my checked baggage at the carousel, I headed to the arrivals lounge. But on the way there, one has to pass by the customs officials.

As I headed by, one customs officer approached a man who was walking next to me, apparently wanting to ask him a few questions.

However, in her professional capacity and whilst on duty, she was chewing gum and when I say ‘chewing’ it was an open-mouth chew with the familiar, repulsive snapping sound that such chewing generates.

My thoughts floated upward … far above the airport’s ceiling, up to around 35,000 feet where a blanket of cirrus cloud was blocking out the African sun.

I thought, “Yes, just like those clouds can fool us into thinking that there is a possibility of rain, so a clean arrivals hall at an airport can fool one into thinking that the people working there are efficient and on the ball.”

But this little ‘cloudy metaphor’ is not limited to one airport in our country. I think this applies on a much, much wider front, wherever services are being offered or business being done.

I wondered whether effective training could possibly make a difference. I mean, here were people who were the first contact for visitors coming into the country, and the impression they were making was – in my opinion – pretty bad.

I did some research, asking “how could a little bit of training make a difference, not only at the airport, but in other institutions in our country?”

Here’s a summary of the answer I received; see if you agree with it.

“Investing in staff training can lead to improved employee performance, increased employee satisfaction and retention, enhanced innovation, compliance with regulations and industry standards, improved safety, and a competitive advantage for the company.”

And, add to that, “Confidence that the correct people have arrived in your country”.

Just saying.

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