No more excuses

2009-06-11 00:00

JACOB Zuma’s ascendancy to the presidency has been marked by a stated will to work towards improving the lives of South Africans.

In his State of the Nation address last week, Zuma committed his government to working incessantly to alleviate poverty. Among other things, he said his government will not falter in its attempts to provide clean water, decent shelter, proper sanitation, rural development and access to education. This is to be done, said the president, under the difficult economic conditions brought about by the worldwide economic downturn.

But, the part I like most about Zuma’s address is a call to strengthen skills among public servants, to improve service delivery and to strengthen democratic institutions.

When it comes to criticising the government, most opposition politicians point to policy disagreements, while emerging businesses complain about red tape. Pretty much the rest of the citizenry complains about incompetence among public servants. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the provincial MECs and national ministers have been locked in a series of meetings called to identify the deficiencies in the departments they are going to head.

Unsatisfactory service delivery and unprofessionalism have corroded the various departments and municipalities that are supposed to be working for the citizens of this country.

In some cases, public servants have unashamedly sent citizens with disabilities and those in dire need of help back to where they came from, only for them to return at a later date to once again hear the same excuses. This lack of professionalism and dedication, although attributable in some cases to sheer laziness, must also be the product of a lack of training of public servants.

The behaviour of the “engines” of our society — the police, nurses and teachers — is repeatedly being called into question. Police kill their families and then themselves, instead of protecting communities. Nurses who are supposed to be healing their patients are ignoring their patients. Teachers tasked with moulding the future generation are fornicating with that same generation. They are bunking school and drinking alcohol with them, while crossing their fingers that their pupils will achieve admirable results at the end of the year.

Msholozi has committed himself to meeting with school principals to categorically state what is expected of them. That’s good, but he should also meet with heads of departments and issue a stringent directive to be disseminated by these heads to their respective lower levels.

What should that directive say? That the government has for the past 15 years been mostly slacking off in the areas of professionalism, dedication and service delivery, and that the time for excuses is over. Furthermore, it should remind civil servants that the very people they are rude to are the ones who pay their salaries, not those who have employed them. Premiers and mayors should heed similar calls, lest it be forgotten that they were put in their fancy offices by the very people to whom public servants give a very cold shoulder.

The Department of Health and the Department of Home Affairs are superstars in inefficiency and incompetence. But the Department of Health in particular cannot afford this mantle because its mandate is to be the custodian of people’s lives and physical wellbeing.

Of course, not all public servants are unprofessional and lack dedication. Unfortunately those who are doing their jobs properly are tragically overshadowed by the many who are slackers. Training those slackers to understand what is expected of them, assessing their work and evaluating their skills should be on the cards to ensure that they take their duties seriously.

It wouldn’t hurt any department head, either, to demand that positions are generally occupied by qualified people. Surely, that would speed up service delivery?

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