Time is Money. Or is it?

Time is money.

We’ve all said it. It’s a universal truth. But is it really?

After I wrote a recent blog post about bad customer service here in South Africa, and how it’s so much better elsewhere, I got to thinking. What is the root cause for such bad service? Years of isolation from the outside world during the apartheid years, leaving South Africa behind in a fast-paced and competitive world?

I think not. It’s been over 15 years. Plenty of time to realize that in other places people actually do call back when they promise to call you “just now.” Plus, there was no apartheid (although one could argue other forms of oppression) in the rest of Africa, where the service is often just as bad (or worse, prompting us to practically kiss the South African ground at OR Tambo upon our return from Mozambique).

The problem, in my mind, is that the old adage “time is money” is, in fact, not a universal truth. It is true in most Western countries, where people work themselves into a frenetic pace and overschedule their kids, but time does not seem to come at a premium in South Africa. It is something everybody seems to have plenty of. You just have to drive through the African countryside to see that. People waiting patiently for their taxi to arrive. People crossing the road at snail’s pace. People sitting at the side of the road doing nothing. Yes, I”m speaking of the country’s poor, and perhaps it is unfair to claim they have plenty of time when indeed they must be struggling. But also in less-impoverished circles will you find that in general, South Africans don’t ever seem to be in much of a rush.

This is a fact that I’ve generally been very happy with. People will spend an entire morning with you over coffee, you feel less rushed, there is always someone willing to help you when in need, and the kids have much less homework and more free time than ever before. Basically, living here has taught me that most things are not THAT important, no matter how it seems at first. And, as a writer, I”m generally grateful for the constant supply of stories that make you shake your head in disbelief.

And yet. I DO miss Western-style efficiency. Is it possible to have that, IN ADDITION to our relaxed lifestyle here? Or are the two mutually exclusive and South Africa today is already the best compromise we can hope to find? Will more efficiency and better service come at a huge cost, is the price we pay for them that we’ll someday sit around, nostalgically longing for those “good ole days” in South Africa when the pace was still so nice and slow?

I honestly don’t know. It seems like this is a question almost going to the core of  the human condition, coming up again and again as we search for the meaning of life.

There you have it. I’ve managed to get to philosophy from plaintiveness.

What do you think?

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