Costly inaction

2014-08-19 00:00

THE number of public servants who draw their full salaries while on precautionary suspension for long periods is a cause for concern.

It is a concern because their continued suspensions come at a great cost to the taxpayer, who parts with hard-earned money to pay for officials to sit at home and do nothing.

The suspensions are also a burden on those officials who have to perform the duties of their suspended colleagues, and this undermines the standard of the service that ought to be delivered by those in the employment of the state.

Until recently, Public Service and Administration Minister Collins Chabane was quoted as saying that a massive R50 million was being paid out to about 400 public servants who are on precautionary suspension.

A breakdown of the costs incurred showed that 238 public servants in national departments pocketed about R27 million in salaries, while their counterparts in the provinces smiled all the way to the bank with R20 million — all while sitting at home.

In Gauteng alone, 37 officials were paid a whopping R9 million.

While no amount has been revealed regarding KwaZulu-Natal’s public servants, more than 50 people are on suspension with full pay.

In almost all the affected departments, the suspended officials face charges relating to fraud, sexual harassment, theft, insubordination and corruption, among others.

Although there are guidelines providing for a suspension to be reviewed within 30 days if it is not lifted, it would appear that this has not been the case up to now as inaction by the powers that be has been the order of the day.

However, the authorities have finally taken note of the sorry state of affairs and now want action to be taken.

“I am of the view that the proper legislative and regulatory frameworks do exist to deal speedily with disciplinary process within the public service,” Chabane told a seminar of senior managers in Durban last month.

However, it is rather curious as to why it took this long for the government to take note of the entrenched problem in the public service.

Had action been taken on this issue timeously, the government could have saved millions of rands and used it on numerous projects that are faced with limited funding, instead of throwing the money down a bottomless pit.

What is disturbing is that the disciplinary hearings against the offending civil servants are postponed for a variety of reasons.

Chief among these is the reluctance of officials trained by the government to preside over the disciplinary hearings of their colleagues.

The consequence for this unacceptable conduct comes at a great cost to the state, which in all probability has to use outsiders, such as a labour lawyer from the private sector, to handle disciplinary hearings.

The use of private lawyers results in unnecessary expenditure as the state has qualified people who have the requisite skills to preside over the disciplinary hearings.

This all happens at the expense of the public purse which is bled dry by some lawyers prone to charging exorbitant rates for services rendered to the state.

In this instance, the state not only pays an official for sitting at home, as well as the person acting in his or her position, but also pays the private lawyers for a matter that should have been avoided.

It was on the grounds set above that I fully agreed with Premier Senzo Mchunu when he rejected a proposal that his office establish a pool of presiding officers for disciplinary hearings as a way to address the precautionary suspensions.

In fact, he was more than correct when he stated that action needs to be taken against those managers of the reluctant presiding officers for not carrying out their duties.

If the long suspensions are to be eradicated, senior managers should play their role in creating a new culture within the public service where discipline comes from the top.

That culture can only exist if managers are not afraid to manage and provide leadership in their areas of responsibility in their respective departments in so far as their subordinates are concerned.

It can also flourish if the political heads of departments are prepared to lend support to the senior managers, especially when they encounter problems.

The question is whether there is a will among the political and administrative leaders to do away with the long periods of precautionary suspensions.

But, time will tell if the commitments made will be delivered on.

• Mayibongwe Maqhina is a senior political correspondent at The Witness.

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