Second Take: The cure for public servant ills

2012-05-12 10:02

After an inept encounter with a ­government department or any service provider, unconsciously or otherwise, one Pat Rogers would mutter in his distinctive bravado radio voice: “There are three words that make America work: You Are Fired.”

Among many other lessons I picked up from working under this broadcasting icon, this phrase has been echoing loudly in my head after my recent visit to a certain third-biggest hospital in the world, which happens to be in South Africa.

A few weeks ago at about midnight on Friday, I was dragged out of bed by a desperate call from an ailing friend. He asked me to drive him to hospital.

Cognisant of where we would end up, I invoked the heavens to strengthen me as I was about to enter the notorious territory of a state hospital.

Driving there I pictured an irritated nurse who is on night duty and is no mood for one more patient on a busy Friday night.

I once came across a concept of self-fulfilling prophecy during my student days and little did I anticipate that the concept would come to lifematerialise on that fateful Friday evening.

A nurse behind the counter at casualty was exactly what my thoughts had imagined her to be, at least in attitude.

As I approached with a potential ­patient who couldn’t explain a sudden chest pain, the nurse confronted us and questioned in isiZulu: Nifunani? (What do you want?)

While I was answering her question, she overlooked my tiny structure, turned to the security guard nearby and sarcastically mumbled in isiZulu again, loosely saying that she doesn’t understand why people who speak English don’t go to private hospitals! I ignored that.

To cut the dramatic episode short – it went on for about five hours, not to mention snaking queues – my friend was taken to a ward where someone took blood samples.

We learnt later that the person who took samples is not an employee of the hospital, let alone a medical practitioner.

Without any apology, the nurse handed my friend his blood samples telling him to wait for a doctor again. We left the hospital just after 6am without receiving the doctor’s help.

Following this, I guess the easiest thing to do is to blame the hospital and hurl insults at the government.

But the truth is, central to incompetence is an individual who is happy to receive a salary and, on one hand, is armed with infinite excuses why they have grown to hate their job.

I’m not suggesting that the government should be exonerated from improper service delivery by its ­– not all of them – grumpy and abhorrent public servants.

They don’t only give their departments a nasty name, but poison the atmosphere of diligence and misrepresent their fellow colleagues who are genuinely dedicated.

Whether it makes America work or not, the “You Are Fired” culture may be a much-needed antidote for some civil servants who provide shoddy service when in state employ but excel when moonlighting in the private sector.

They carry a disturbing mentality that seems to suggest that they will never be fired while in the public sector.

The government concept of Batho Pele (People First) for some of these civil servants belongs in promotional documents and public speeches.

The nauseating thing about this drag-your-feet attitude is that this ilk of a nurse makes a taxpayer feel as though professional service at a state ­institution is a favour and not a right.

To some point, as recipients of substandard treatment – be it at a police station, clinic, municipal office or any bureaucratic administration – we have come to accept this.

We have lowered our levels of expectation and become complacent.

Our government needs to make an example of a few hundred slack employees by showing them the door.

» Shole-Mashao is political editor at KayaFM

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