Opinion: Paint Your Fence, Even If You’re Sitting On It

December 26, 2020

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It’s that time of the year when we are asked to consider the past 12 months, and then look towards the next. It is never easy to do so, but this year, given its complexity, presents us with challenges that we could not have imagined. With all our knowledge and new-found expertise, we are still in a position of relative ignorance when it comes to the first and second quarter of 2021.

Which made the question I was recently posed, particularly challenging “List three things that we should do to make 2021 a better year.” The forum was a panel discussion where a number of people were approached to consider the near future. Although I was asked this in relation to South Africa specifically, the same answer would apply elsewhere.

  • Paint your fence!
  • Be a human “Panado” (paracetamol)
  • Read the room!

Some years ago, I recall chatting to friends who were living in South Africa, but were uncertain of their commitment to the future in the country. They had, along with many others, been debating whether it was worth their while to renovate their house. The discussion was circular and torturous. It hardly seemed worth spending the money if they were leaving, but on the other hand, their fence needed painting and they were desperate to re-do their floors. They debated this for years and when last I checked, they were still living in Johannesburg. I have it on good authority that their fence is in disrepair and their third child has terrible asthma from dust on the old carpets. They continue to live as temporary residents refusing to commit to a place, even for now. The alternative is to commit to living and to employ people who will benefit from your doing so.

Jake Shepherd, founder of Synthesis, strongly believes that we each need to be “a human Panado”. The metaphor is not complicated: we need to be the reason for people to “feel better”. Whether at home with our families, at work or in relation to the country as a whole, one of our responsibilities is to take the headache away. If we can do that and consider it one of our responsibilities, then 2021 will be an improvement on the year past.

As someone who follows politics and social media closely, I am constantly amazed at how so many politicians in particular seem unable to “read the room”. If they were able to, they would see that South Africans are concerned about employment, education and healthcare and that most of us want the same thing for ourselves, for our families and each other. We want to live in a united country. What we don’t want is racial division and to be told that we hate each other. We also don’t want to pretend that corruption is being dealt with while the plundering goes on. In essence, we want transparency, accountability and honesty. It is not only politicians, but each of us who needs to “read the room”, because sometimes the obvious is in front of us.

The past year has shaken our confidence in the future. It has made us question the fundamentals and robbed many of the freedom that was so valued. We can’t change the circumstances of the pandemic, but we can make the next year better than the past one. To do so, I recommend that we invest in the present and in society by painting the fence rather than sitting on it, by being the tonic that is needed and by reading and understanding what others really want. And who knows, perhaps we will enjoy those new floors more than we thought possible.


Howard Feldman is Head of Marketing & People at Synthesis.

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