A bed of thorns

2012-05-11 00:00

IT wasn’t that long ago, just after the 1994 elections to be precise, when it seemed almost every other South African wanted to become a public servant. For the majority, this was not because there was a job on offer but because there was a real sense that becoming part of the newly democratic public service was the right thing to do. It was not about the self-interested or political party-centred occupation of positions of power or about using those positions to accumulate personal and family wealth.

Rather, there was the chance to replace an unrepresentative public sector by practically recasting what it means to be a public servant: to place the common good over and above private interest in both collective work and individual action; to serve with the kind of humility and purpose that comes by being entrusted with working for and/or representing the public interest; and to imbibe the foundational ethical principles and work values of the democratic mandate that gives the public sector its legitimacy. Cumulatively, to be one of those metaphorical flowers that would sprout up on historically stony ground and overwhelm the existing and potential thorns of selfishness, arrogance, indolence, greed and corruption.

For a while it looked like those flowers were growing. Thousands of honest and hard-working people flooded into the public sector, embracing the Herculean task of revolutionising the public service. But just as had been the case with so many democratic revolutions before, there was the simultaneous growth of powerful thorns, whose old and new roots were quickly sunk into the body politic.

Even if most of us did not want to believe it was happening, it was public servants at the highest levels who incubated and covered over South Africa’s most expensive “public’ project at the time, the arms deal. As it turned out, the arms deal was a thorn-lover’s paradise, characterised by an attitude that militated against everything that the new public sector was supposed to be about. No matter all the post hoc rationalisations and excuses, a green light had been given. In direct proportion, a bed of thorns began to grow across the depth and breadth of the public sector, while the flowers gradually wilted.

Two early examples are representative. In an attempt to defend rising corruption within Mpumalanga, newly appointed (in 1999) premier of Mpumalanga Ndaweni Mahlangu unashamedly stated that it was okay for politicians to lie. While this set off a firestorm of outrage, the fact is that Mahlangu and associates got away with it precisely because he was simply giving verbal affirmation to the reality. Similarly, in 2006 when the ANC’s head of the Presidency Smuts Ngonyama declared, in response to rising criticism of his own enrichment from the partial (BEE) privatisation of Telkom, that “we did not struggle to be poor”, he was merely confirming that it was now acceptable for public servants to sell off public sector property for personal gain.

By the late 2000s, the bed had turned into a fully fledged forest. Not content with what were already very decent wage packages, high-ranking politicians and public sector officialdom at every level were awarding themselves super salaries and a huge range of benefit sweeteners. Indeed, South Africa has to be one of the only countries in the world where the majority of this public sector cadre are made millionaires every year. Even in small towns like Knysna, the annual salary of the municipal manager now comes in at a cool R1,3 million, while his counterpart in the neighbouring Bitou Municipality has to make do with a measly R1,2 million. Meanwhile, the top management of parastatals — yes, the ones that are now driving the “people-centred” infrastructural programme — are making in one year what it would take an ordinary public sector worker a lifetime to earn.

Things are now so bad in departments like Public Works that its minister feels it necessary to inform the public that “we have people looting and even saying ‘it’s our time to eat’ … they act as if they own the department”. Even in the military, some commanders “spend more time running their personal businesses” than they spend on the job, while “critical health services have been outsourced to private hospitals which are run by current and former generals …”

When the public asks too many questions, the arrogance surfaces with a vengeance. We are thus told by the likes of Defence Ministerial spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabya that “we do not have to explain to anyone the decisions which we take”. Throw in security/intelligence officials running amok behind the smoke screens of “national interest” and “classified information”, transport authorities giving the middle finger to actual public transport or the police brass making a mockery of their own code of conduct to “act with integrity in rendering an effective service of a high standard which is accessible to everybody”, and it isn’t hard to figure out that there is precious little of the “public” left in our public service.

At the end of his Freedom Day address, President Jacob Zuma implored South Africans to “put the country first …” Besides the fact that he should have said “the people”, who after all are the ones who make up “the country”, he would do well to listen to his own advice. Better yet, the president and those who are supposed to serve the public should ask themselves the questions posed in Pete Seeger’s famous sixties’ anti-war song:

“Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing

“Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago

“… When will we ever learn?”

 McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and analyst. His article was first published on the South African Civil Society Information Service website.

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