Civil service in black?&?white: 'Like the first 3 rounds in a boxing match'

2014-05-04 15:00

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After 1994, change swept SA – and that extended to the country’s civil service, where black and white people had to learn to work together, often for the very first time. It was occasionally rather uncivil, but the business of running a country was most people’s priority, as two civil servants tell City Press

The transition was interesting,” says Henk Serfontein, grinning. He joined the public service in 1990, aged 26, starting in the ­now-defunct education and training department, which dealt with black education in white SA.

He now works in the performance monitoring and evaluation department.

In the beginning, “it was like the first three rounds in a boxing match. Everybody was just feeling each other out,” he recalls.

In 1996, after the merger with the bantustans homelands saw a huge expansion of the civilservice, many of Serfontein’s pre-transition colleagues eagerly accepted voluntary severance packages.

“There were many prophets of doom and a lot of guys took packages. I don’t want to say everybody who left was a racist ... a lot of people who left were the ones with marketable skills.”

He guesses that around 10% of his colleagues left, mostly relatively senior officials.

Most of those who jumped ship were white, but a few black civil servants also took the packages.

For those who stayed, “everyone had their own ideas about what would happen. ‘Will we get fired, will we get redeployed?’”.

Things didn’t turn out like that. On the contrary, the new dispensation brought people like Serfontein fresh opportunities.

“In the old public service, everything was prescribed. There was a rule for absolutely everything. In the old system, you would not have had those opportunities. When I started out, the end-point of my career was perhaps to make director before I retired. I ended up making director at 40.”

At the education and training department, he spent two years doing business management tasks, like finding a supplier of fax machines. He soon moved to the Public Service Commission.

By 1994, Serfontein had made his way to the department dealing with budgeting for state employees’ salary increases. This was a different animal before democracy.

“Back then, there were no unions. The commission would budget for increases and then spread it across the departments,” he says.

When bargaining started after 1997, he was part of the employers’ caucus, doing costing calculations on the union demands. The major conflict was the difference in pay between officials of the old white SA and those from the bantustans. The gaps were ironed out with differential raises while protecting everyone’s pay.?The difference between “before” and “after” was stark.

“Before, it was mostly white guys and Afrikaans was the office language. In those days there were problems with KwaZulu because they spoke English.”

By now, Serfontein’s Afrikaans has become rusty, he admits.

Before 1994, “the hierarchy was very strong. An assistant director was a ‘mister’ with his own secretary. You had to make an appointment to talk to him. Maybe it still works that way in the large departments, maybe it’s because I’m more senior now, but people are a lot more approachable.”

Before 1994, “you had to wear a suit. Later, the rule changed to just a jacket and tie. You had to do it. There were definitely cliques, the old guys and the new. Old guys were very critical of the new guys, focusing on their faults, being very sceptical.”

Still, there wasn’t much overt conflict, he says. “I think we all understood the game. You will always have cliques with guys from different eras. You can’t tinker too much with it as long as there is integration with work.”

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