Have a little empathy

2009-11-24 00:00

LAST week, President Jacob Zuma paid a surprise visit to Madelakufa informal settlement at Tembisa on the East Rand. This follows a similar visit to Balfour in Mpumalanga several weeks ago. Maybe he will visit KwaZulu-Natal next. Something is different about these visits. We are accustomed to the government arranging izimbizo, which we know about well in advance. This means that both the competent and inept get time to prepare to present a picture to ministers and the president. Now Zuma pops in without warning, catching officials and politicians with their pants down.

These visits have the potential to cause a change in the culture of service in this country. Public servants and public office bearers do not know when they will receive the president, so they have to be continually on their toes. Those who continue to be reckless will be caught in awkward positions in the full glare of the media and thus embarrass themselves publicly, besides whatever other action will be taken against them.

The visits also help the nation focus its attention on pertinent issues of incompetence in the government at a local level and difficulties faced by the poor on the ground. Both of Zuma’s visits brought to the fore many challenges still experienced on the ground, many of which are easily solvable, but which have not been acted upon. So this is not just about incompetence. It is, in most cases, about dereliction of duty by public officials. When officials fail to do what they are employed to do, it is not only their employment contracts that are at stake. Their conduct leads to a breakdown in the social contract between the government and the people. This is a contract that ensures that the government translates promises into reality and that citizens partner with their government to bring about development on the ground.

There is another novelty about these visits by the president. Like the content and the tone of his interaction with stakeholders, such as school principals, police station commanders and so forth, Zuma’s visits suggest his willingness to give citizens a voice. Zuma has displayed in these interactions a very keen eagerness to hear what people have to say. His demeanour is one of humility and sincerity.

The challenges that we face as a country, especially with respect to the living and working conditions of the poor, are dire. They will not be resolved during the current term of government. This is because they derive from deep structural distortions inherited from colonialism and apartheid, including a spatial structure which creates islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty. Three hundred years of neglect of the majority of the people in this country will take generations to resolve.

The challenges are also about social fabric and public cultures. This refers to lack of accountability on the part of officials and lack of responsibility on the part of citizens. This can be resolved in the current term of government. This is the legacy that Zuma’s government can leave behind for this country. Of course, instilling the correct values (as far as possible) will assist in ensuring that the long-term task of undoing the legacy of apartheid and colonialism happens effectively.

Democracy is essentially about continuous engagement between the elected and the electorate on ways of improving conditions of life in society. This is what will distinguish procedural and substantive democracy. The former refers to the ritual of holding elections every now and then, and the setting up of institutions and rules. Substantive democracy goes deeper, suggesting the transformation of the political culture to encourage a social contract between citizens and their government on the basis of accountability and responsibility. By accountability, I mean the willingness of the elected to be accountable to the citizens with regard to what they do and do not do to improve the citizens’ lot. Responsibility refers to the culture of proactive action by both the government and citizens to advance society, providing solutions to society’s problems.

Of course, South Africa prides itself with having established an exemplary democracy with the best constitution in the world. Ours institutions of democracy are generally working, and they can improve if the Asmal Report on Chapter Nine institutions presented­ to Parliament a few years ago is anything to go by. We hold free and fair elections every five years. We propagate human rights. We respect the separation of power between the executive and other organs of state like the judiciary, Parliament and bureaucracy­.

This means South Africa has a set of rules, systems, institutions and procedures that are democratic in nature. But, as elsewhere, these are insufficient for the legitimation of authority without a social contract between the elected and electorate. This is a legitimation derived from constant dialogue between the government and citizens about the nature of the society being pursued.

This means that the challenge for South Africa’s democracy is how it allows space for citizens to express their aspirations and concerns alike. Citizens have a choice in the form of votes, but need a voice in order for them to take a full part in the building of our democracy. In this regard, the responsibility of the government is both to provide the services needed and to show a willingness to listen. This is not just about senior people. Even the home affairs officials at Mshwathi, clinic staff at Pholela, hospital staff at KwaMagwaza Hospital and the notorious officials at the Education Department in Pietermaritzburg need to show as much empathy and humility as Zuma and KZN Premier Zweli Mkhize do.

Theirs is not just about time sheets showing the amount of work done, but it is about the manner in which their work is done. It is our collective duty to ensure that what we do does not only meet the material need at hand (an identity document, a house, a certificate, etc.), but also brings back the dignity of those we serve. If individuals employed at government service points fail to do this, then these stations lose their potential to heal the rift between the government and citizens because citizens leave with even deeper scars than they had before.

Khabazela, [Zweli Mkhize] your government and the municipalities should translate the unspoken message of the Zuma administration, which is humility and sincere respect (isizotha), into practice. But if people who have employment contracts to do this do not, you will have failed Zuma in his efforts to make the government show more empathy, even as it improves its competence.


• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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