Sometimes, in this fractured and fractious society of ours, things actually work. When they do, I often pause to think: Why? How? What is it that makes some things work, all too infrequently, it should be said? Why can’t we make more things work, and other things work better? For now, I have no conclusions, recommendations, and no prescriptions — just observations. Let me share something, here; the story about the electrician and his apprentice, and place no restrictions on what may be discussed — the way that identity brokers in our country may insist.

Yesterday I had an electrical fault at my home repaired. The electrician and his apprentice arrived on time, they did the repairs swiftly, professionally and (for now, it seems) reliably. I was impressed, but I was also quite moved. Yes, it may seem odd being “moved” by watching people work. You see, I come from a long line of artisans, carpenters, bricklayers, tailors, cabinet makers and painters, among other.

So, when the electrician arrived I was mightily impressed, at the outset, that he had with him, an apprentice, and that the apprentice did not object to taking instructions or doing menial tasks; like wiping surfaces, or picking up scraps and clearing cobwebs and insects from fittings. It reminded me of when I was 14 or 15 years old, when my father took me to a construction site where I learned to lay bricks, mix cement and push a wheelbarrow — without complaining. For many years before, say, 17, I also helped my mother with sewing. She was a widely respected maker of wedding and ballroom gowns in the townships of south western Johannesburg. One of my frequent tasks was stitching long rows of sequins onto ballroom gowns, then going to the “town halls” of Soweto on Saturday night for massive ballroom events. By the time I was 17 I could cook, lay bricks, wash dishes, build a fire in the old cast iron stove, sew and knit! Besides the fact that my father was a tyrant, I knew, at a young age, that I was learning and doing something meaningful. We were all responsible for chores around the “matchbox” house and in the yard. That’s not the whole story, but the reader would have to wait for something more substantive that I am trying to put together for publication around the end of the year.

Anyway. One of the most surprising things about yesterday, was that while the work was being done at my home I was not told how difficult life was, how hot it was and how thirsty the electrician was. I was not told about oppressive forces in the world, and did not receive a doleful look, no scraping or bowing — I was not hustled, nor was I extorted for cash on the side. Quite different an experience from the Telkom dude who, last year, told me his pitiful life story of working at the same job for 28 years, and who wished for nothing more than a job in government. He emptied out my fridge when I left the kitchen, then left me to clean up after he had lunch!

Nonetheless, after the work was done, yesterday, a professional invoice was handed over (which I was asked to pass on to the landlord), we shook hands, the electrician and his apprentice said goodbye, and this morning I received an SMS asking whether I was satisfied with the service.

Watching the electrician and his apprentice work was a moving experience. It was reminiscent of a childhood watching and working with my mother, father, aunts, brothers, cousins and uncles, many of whom worked in factories or at home as dressmakers, seamstresses or tailors, upholsterers, carpenters — and (piano) cabinet makers and polishers! Plumbers, bricklayers and electricians build things — it’s trite even to say that. But in the three years that I have been back in South Africa I have seen so much destruction, laziness, avoidance, greed and entitlement that it was refreshing to see someone simply go about doing their job, doing it well, and taking pride in what they have done.

Trades people — artisans — are amazing and important members of any society. One of the regrets I have is that, unlike almost all my family members, I can’t work with my hands, or build things. I doff my cap to those who do — and do so without manipulation, extortion, expediency and hustle!

I said I had no recommendations. I lied. We really need to (re)build things in South Africa. All of us. And work like the electrician and his apprentice, jointly, professionally and thoroughly — without manipulation, extortion, expediency and hustle.

Note: I banged this out in a rush. I may revise it an place it on my own website at a later stage.


  • I am a political economist. In earlier incarnations, I worked as a journalist and photojournalist, as a professor of political economy and an international and national public servant. I rarely get time to write for this space as often as I would like to.... I don't read the comments section


I Lagardien

I am a political economist. In earlier incarnations, I worked as a journalist and photojournalist, as a professor of political economy and an international and national public servant. I rarely get time...

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