Two days ago, the world marked the International Labour Day to celebrate the worth and dignity of labour. These are attributes of work that have been known for a long time.
In ancient times, many years before the birth of Christ, the Greek dramatist, Sophocles, noted: “Without labour nothing prospers”. In the last century, Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader, observed that “all labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with excellence”.
In between, workers struggled and earned respect for what they do and rights that go with it.
Our very own President Paul Kagame has said: “Development is not a gift; it is hard work”.
It is all these we celebrate on Labour Day. The key words are worth, dignity and excellence.
But not all people, especially in the public service, see it this way particularly here in East Africa. President Kagame never ceases to exhort public servants – and even those in the private sector – to put more effort and heart in their work, and firing those who don’t measure up. In neighbouring Tanzania, President John Magufuli has been more dramatic in showing his displeasure with public servants who do less but reap a lot by the number he has sacked and the speed with which he has done it.
These two leaders have come up against certain entrenched attitudes to work.
One is that work is toil, a hard task that should be avoided, or if not, done with as little effort as possible. It is a sort of punishment. And if you believe in what the Good Book says, toil is just reward for our disobedience.
This is only partially true. The same book says in order to live, you will have to work. Work is, therefore, inescapable and by definition involves both physical and mental exertion. Equally true is that the quality of life we lead depends on the quality of work we put in.
Two, there are unrealistic expectations often resulting from a reversal of the relationship between work and benefits. The normal order is that work precedes reward. But some people want their reward before they start work.
Three, some people in the public service, and also in the private sector, think that in doing what they are hired to do they are doing the rest of us a favour and we ought to be very grateful.
Now Rwandans are very hard working people and so no one should be complaining. See how we have literally raised this country from the graveyard and lifted it to where it is today.
Neighbouring countries can also attest to the exemplary work by Rwandans, from colonial times to recent times.
You might say that that was because in all these cases we were faced with a stark choice: work and survive or don’t and perish. That may be true. But existential concerns should not be about mere survival but also about the quality of our existence. And so we must grapple with these attitudes. But, first, we must understand what causes them.
I think one of the reasons for this attitude to work can be traced to the colonial state. The state as we have it today was imposed on African societies and was always seen as an alien institution. Everything it did, from agriculture to public works like roads, or raising taxes was seen as an imposition. The methods used to enforce these, which were often force or directives which had to be obeyed at the pain of punishment, did not help matters. This was certainly the case in Rwanda.
Work was linked with force and other form of exactions. Its necessity and worth were overshadowed by this fact. Inevitably the reaction was resentment and avoidance where possible.
The state took up all right and responsibilities and the subjects expected it to provide everything. And so there developed an attitude of dependence on the state as the provider for all that was needed.
The earlier post-colonial governments in Rwanda entrenched this dependence on the state and progressively transferred the responsibility to foreign benefactors (abagiraneza). In effect, the governments removed the necessity to work for their livelihood from citizens and directed their expectations to outsiders.
Finally, because the top civil servants of the colonial state were from the mother country, working far from home in unfamiliar conditions, it established comfortable working conditions for them. They included housing, home leave, servants, transport and many others. The comforts they enjoyed became very attractive to Africans who found the civil service to be the ideal place to work. With time, these comforts, originally put in place for a specific purpose, became entitlements.
This is the model of the state we inherited at independence. The state as the provider of everything and citizens as recipients. The state as an alien institution that could be robbed without any feeling of guilt.
It is now more than 50 years after independence. One would expect that the state should have been domesticated, so to speak, and new attitudes and relationships developed. Instead they have been perpetuated.
To be fair, in Rwanda we have had to rebuild the country and the state in the last 22 years and have had the opportunity to create new attitudes and realign our relationships with it. Still, some of these attitudes linger. Clearly, more needs to be done.