When it all went rotten

2009-04-22 00:00

A MONTH ago a short, but significant letter was published in The Witness. Written by retired civil servant Ted Kellaway, it listed the qualities he could offer to an employer. There were three — diligence, loyalty and integrity — but he noted that nowadays paper qualifications, even suspect ones, are regarded as more important. Then, in a powerful lament, he asked: “Where would one find an employer who warranted those qualities?” He deserves an answer.

Kellaway’s vision of public service and the traditional status of the conscientious worker was killed off during the eighties and replaced by an age of creeping distrust between employer and employee.

There have always been good and bad employers, good and bad workers, but a fundamental shift in the relationship between the two was introduced by the radical right in European and American politics. Promoted as ideological, in truth the new orthodoxy amounted to little more than a few rigid beliefs about the nature of human society. It was attributed to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but had much wider origins than the prejudices of the grocer’s daughter with the shrill voice and awful hairdo.

Thatcherism represented the triumph of cynicism, which was a reflection of a mean-spirited society that had lost its humanity and replaced it with greed. Human relations were reduced to power and money; or, to put it another way, authority and financial reward. Colleagues became labour units, whose major incentive was assumed to be a wage, to be hired and fired at the fluctuation of the market. Less reflective employers loved it: no need to worry about human beings because all that counted was profit. Thatcher pretended it was a reversion to Victorian values, but this was a lie: the Victorians had something of a social conscience.

The major damage was inflicted on the professions in the broadest sense. Professional ethics, consensuality, dedication and considered judgment were belittled. Services were now to be delivered to paying customers. Management triumphed over administration and good governance, and mindless bureaucracy replaced initiative and imagination. Anything that moved was outsourced. Ability, character and aptitude were downgraded and a form of patronage took their place: ideological conviction was all. Local government and community institutions have never really recovered, although the business gurus later discovered that human beings are an institution’s main asset.

Poisonous from the outset, this brand of politics can be described as authoritarian populism. Sound familiar? It should — it has had a profound influence on South Africa. In the eighties any trendy person with aspirations to activism poured scorn on professional practice. Like Thatcherites they knew all the answers and believed that political conviction was more important than Kellaway’s workplace virtues.

This was just a beginning. After 1994 entitlement ruled, stoked by what Xolela Mangcu terms racial nativism. If you are African with the correct liberation struggle credentials, then the world of South African public service has been your oyster. Conviction is all and accounts for some extraordinarily inappropriate appointments that have led to a general meltdown.

Corruption and fraud, fixing of tenders, mismanagement, and lack of planning and maintenance: most people experience these at the level of local government and call it poor service delivery. Focus is placed on the deployment of party loyalists in jobs with which they cannot cope and about which they care too little. But there is a more disastrous aspect to this situation: the number of dedicated and competent workers who have been forced out by the frustrations of a workplace driven by social engineering.

Thatcher despised the African National Congress, which in her contorted thinking was a terrorist organisation. Ideologues hate irony, but if she were still compos mentis she might reflect wryly that the ANC enthusiastically took on board her other prejudices and its supporters profited splendidly. As in Britain, the nation has suffered. But we should not be surprised. In the autobiographical account of his return home in the mid-nineties, the current vice chancellor of the local university twice holds up Thatcher as his role model.

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