Getting servants to serve

2013-03-10 10:00

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Lindiwe Sisulu speaks to Carien du Plessis about her unprecedented civil service shake-up.

It is a securocrat who talks about measures to shake up the civil service. And also a little bit of a mother.

Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, a former soldier decorated by the former Soviet Union and the SA National Defence Force, uses ANC military-speak when talking about the 2.2?million civil servants she commands.

“We want a civil servant who is conscientious and committed, a cadre of the country,” she says. One who is non-political, who comes to work on time and is dressed “like they are going to work and not to a party”.

There’s a clean, homely feel to her 13th-floor office in the parliamentary precinct of 120?Plein Street, Cape Town.

It’s adorned with crisp, white flower arrangements featuring sweet-smelling lilies and soft tuberoses matching the tasteful, off-white office furniture upholstery with flower print.

To her, comfortable surrounds mean better business, much like her designer clothes, which have elicited whispered adoration from males on parliamentary benches and in the press gallery.

She says: “I am of the firm belief that if you feel comfortable, you have better results. I feel comfortable when I’m looking good and looking the part.”

In 10 days, she will be presenting civil servants with a public service charter to declare commitment to their jobs.

Those that are not skilled adequately will either be sent to a governance school to upgrade their skills or be retrained for other positions.

She has already conducted a skills audit, which showed many weren’t up to the job.

Her measures to deal with departmental corruption are nothing new and commentators have already asked what good a new set of measures would do.

An anti-corruption unit that has been in the department has, to date, not chipped away sufficiently at perceptions of corruption.

Also, DA member of Parliament David Maynier says Sisulu has been tall on promises and short on delivery in defence, and it remains to be seen how this will be different in public service.

According to Sisulu, it’s not worth giving up the anti-corruption fight just because it appears to be a losing battle.

She says: “If we sit back and say we have tried fighting corruption before and it’s not working, that is not good. We want to create an environment that is as corrupt- free as possible.

“We need to sanitise the environment so that we can protect public servants from corruption. For example, when you have a child that is crawling around, you remove all the dangers out of the way. We’ll also be dealing with double-dipping and grey areas by banning public servants from doing business with government departments.”

The anti-corruption bureau will have some legal muscle to investigate fraud, corruption and other disciplinary measures, and work with other anti-corruption agencies in government to fast-track ongoing cases.

This could prove to be the simple part.

There have already been murmurs from public servants about the business issue.

Sisulu says this was to be expected, but her “baptism of fire”, which occurred when she was reshuffled to her current position last year in the middle of hostile wage negotiations with public-sector trade unions, will help her.

She says: “We hit the ground at top speed, so that was our learning curve. We learnt a lot from our interactions with the labour movement because we wanted to ensure a win-win for all of us. We needed to establish a working relationship as opposed to an almost permanent antagonistic one.”

Critics might say the minister only managed to soothe the unions because she gave in to their demands. Still, the multiyear wage agreement bought government three years to re-evaluate public servants’ salaries, starting with teachers.

President Jacob Zuma is setting up a remuneration commission to do so.

Sisulu hopes the teachers part will be done in eight months so that the commission can move on to nurses and perhaps even the police.

The commission will look at whether the government is getting value for money and it will review salaries upwards or downwards.

Her hard work and efforts to sell the new measures belie her dislike for the bureaucracy required in the job.

“I am not a bureaucrat by nature, I am a securocrat. If there is a problem that needs to be sorted out, that has given me fulfilment. But it is not something I would have woken up to say ‘isn’t it good to be minister of public service’. It is the ultimate bureaucrat’s job,” she says.

But the 58-year-old daughter of struggle stalwarts Walter and Albertina Sisulu admits that, although she really liked the housing ministry portfolio, she has never had the luxury of a “dream job”.

She says: “I have a responsibility to commit to that which we have fought for to be achieved.

“It will be a betrayal of the people who fought for the revolution if its gains are reversed. No revolution is irreversible.”

»? Sisulu’s office paid for City Press’ travel expenses to Cape Town for the interview

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