Civil service in black?&?white: 'We had to prove ourselves every time'

2014-05-04 15:00

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After 1994, change swept SA – and that extended to the country’s civilservice, 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

Four years into SA’s fledgling democracy, Joseph Lebone Pooe started his new job at the public service and administration department and was appalled to find black and white civil servants still using separate toilets.

He resisted the urge to quit and 20 years after his return from exile, the former ANC Youth League chairperson in Tanzania still works in government.

Pooe was exiled between 1983 and 1994 and considers himself fortunate to have travelled the world, learning about the civilservice in other countries like Russia, China and Israel.

He left the country with his pregnant girlfriend on a motorbike in 1983 after a fellow activist warned him that he had a target on his back. Pooe had just started teaching history and geography in Brits, North West.

In Lusaka, Zambia, Pooe joined ANC military wing Umkhonto weSizwe. On returning to SA in 1994, he was thrust into a position requiring “humility and diplomacy”: military police spokesperson.

Pooe was the first black person to join the military police after democracy. Transforming an institution dominated by whites, he quickly found, was not going to be easy.

“Our white counterparts told us we were useless. They did not recognise our training in exile and we had to prove ourselves every time.

“Another big problem was the lack of trust among those who joined the SA National Defence Force [SANDF] from homeland forces and Apla [the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress].

“People would only group themselves during lunch with those people they knew.”

Pooe arrived as a lieutenant and found that cynical white counterparts made the transformation and integration of at least eight armed forces into the SANDF a “nightmare”.

After four frustrating years, Pooe left the force and was redeployed to the public service and administration department, where he is currently responsible for preserving and protecting sensitive information held by the state.

Things at the public service and administration, he found, were not much different.

“Even in the public service, we had those groupings. We didn’t trust each other. There was also racism from the whites,” said Pooe, remembering how he fought for the suspension of a white colleague who called him a “stupid k****r”.

“Apartheid was brutal but when I came here in 1998, there were still these racial challenges.

“Our cleaners and security guards were programmed during apartheid in such a way that they would go to these blacks-only toilets, even when there was a majority black government in place.

“There were those who still called the white bosses, ‘Baas’ and ‘Mrs’. Imagine this, four years after democracy!”

One of the main reasons Pooe stuck it out was that he could see the positive effect of public service and administration department policies on citizens.

“Everybody knows that SA has some of the best policies in the world. Our problem lies in the implementation.”

He has no time for civil servants who are not focused and committed to service.

“That’s why I’ve got a problem with directors-general [DGs] who have businesses – they lack dedication.

“You have DGs who come in and within a year, they want to become businesspeople.

“We must have a means of inducting them properly enough for them to say ‘We love SA’.”

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