Despite the fact that it has become one of the more
ubiquitous terms of post apartheid South African society, the word
"empowerment" is understood in many different and often
contradictory ways. Much like it's older cousin "democracy",
the term empowerment has come to mean anything from giving people
the vote through to providing capital to establish enterprises and
taking the cane out of the teachers hand. The implication that this
ideological confusion has had on the rule of law alone suggests
that this idea deserves further scrutiny and more precise definition.
In most cases, however, people will recognise that empowerment
means the proverbial difference between giving a person a fish or
enabling them to fish. On further investigation of this idea of
"enabling a person to fish", most people that I have worked
with would raise two categories of things.
Firstly, they would argue that enabling someone to fish would
require giving them the means to do what is required of them.
By means I mean anything that this not associated with skill
or knowledge. This would include things like the line, the bait,
the license to fish and so on. In organisational terms these means
would relate to things such as giving a person the tools, the resources,
the standards, the authority and the time to do what is required
The second category that people raise very often is a category
that I have come to refer to as ability. Ability refers to
the skill or knowledge required to be able to fish. This category
refers both to how and why the task should be done.
Again, in organisational terms would require people to be enabled
both in terms of the skill and the understanding of how to do the
task that is required of them, and also to understanding the meaning
or the significance of what they are doing.
What is interesting about this why is that the more benevolent
it is seen to be the more inspiring it is to people. If people can
see that what they do really does significantly contribute to others
or the world that they live in, they are generally more willing
to go the extra mile in terms of doing it.
Unfortunately, if the requirement is that the person who is being
empowered to fish will actually feed themselves with the fish that
they catch, these two criteria of means and ability
are not good enough to guarantee that the person will actually catch
the fish which they are required to. The reason for this is that
the criteria of means and ability are necessary but
not sufficient conditions for the person taking charge of their
For example, assume that I have attempted to empower a person
to fish by giving them all the means and ability to
do what is required of them. However, I indicate to the person that,
should they not feel like fishing it would be perfectly all right
because I have a big chest freezer full of fish and I would give
them some should they not catch any. The question I have here is,
just how willing is this person going to be to fish? This clearly
indicates that unless I bring something quite tough to the party,
which is my refusal to give him fish, I have still not empowered
the person to fish.
This suggests that empowerment means three things. It means to
give people the means, ability and accountability
to do what is required of them. Means and ability
are not good enough unless you hold people accountable. This
indicates that the fruit of the empowerment process is to deliver
accountable people at the end of it, that empowerment is therefore,
more than anything else, concerned with cultivating accountable
In an organisational sense accountability
means that consistent rewards and punishments are applied to peoples
performance. It means that people would be rewarded if they went
the extra mile, would be recognised for doing what was required
of them, would be censured if they did not do what was require of
them because of carelessness, and punished for deliberately acting
below standard. In short, empowering people means to require them
to do what is required of them, to make the contributions expected
of them. Empowering people means to require them to give.
Furthermore, empowering people means that the three aspects of
means, ability and accountability are dealt
with in correct order. It is unjust to hold people accountable who
have not been given the means and the ability to do
what is required of them. However, it is equally incorrect not to
hold a person accountable for not doing what was required
of them if you have given them the means and ability
to do so.
This indicates that the musical piece of empowerment has three
instruments, namely means, ability and accountability. Not to play
any one of these instruments is to disable people. Further, the
instrument of accountability has four strings, namely recognise,
reward, censure and punish. Not to play the correct string at the
appropriate time is equally disabling.
This connection between empowerment and requiring people to make
the contributions expected of them relates to the existential requirements
of power. If you want something from someone else, that persons
capacity to withhold what you want makes you manipulable. This suggests
that being here to get something from the other creates the conditions
where the other has power over the self and the self therefore becomes
weak and powerless.
However, if you are in the relationship to give something to someone,
and that giving is completely unconditional, the other has no power
over you. In this case the self is powerful. You have no power over
what you get because what you get is not in you power. What you
get is in the power of the other. This might concern you greatly
but in essence you actually have no power over it. You only have
power over what you give, what leaves you. Therefore, to be empowered
means that you are focussed on what you should be giving or contributing,
rather than being focused on what you want to get.
Weakness is connected with being here to get and strength is connected
with being here to give. Empowering people therefore means to focus
them on what they should be contributing or giving, and not on their
expectations and what they are getting. This is why holding people
accountable for what they should be contributing plays such a vital
role in the empowerment process.
The sad reality is that the understanding of empowerment that
is current our country at the moment seems to confirm the issue
of expectation rather that that of contribution. As a result it
is probably one of the key factors behind the disablement of our