Guest Column

Ubuntu in the public service

2017-06-25 06:03
Public servants have to contend with the frustrations of ordinary citizens who have to wait in endless queues while the politically connected receive preferential treatment. Picture: Gallo Images / The Times / Marianne Schwankhart

Public servants have to contend with the frustrations of ordinary citizens who have to wait in endless queues while the politically connected receive preferential treatment. Picture: Gallo Images / The Times / Marianne Schwankhart

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Thuli Madonsela

There are very few things that bring out the worst in others more than perceived queue-jumping or line-cutting, as Arlie Hochschild calls it in her book Strangers in Their Own Land.

I still vividly recall witnessing the ugly side of my favourite primary and Sabbath school teacher, Mr Mbanjwa, who was otherwise a nice person, the quintessential gentleman.

I must have been about eight or so when the incident occurred. He was driving with a group of us pupils in his car when a rude driver deliberately sped past him to take a parking spot when it was obvious that Mr Mbanjwa was in the process of parking in the same spot.

Our lovely teacher and great mentor just lost it. He screamed at the fellow and ended up embarrassed at our befuddled faces and apologised to us.

I get a sense that it is not simply a time disadvantage issue that fuels the resentment and toxicity that comes with queue-jumping.

The phenomenon seems to invoke deep feelings of unfairness fuelled by the feeling that the queue-jumper’s act implies that their lives are worthier than those of people that must patiently queue.

There’s also a sense that the rules that hold others in line do not apply to the queue-jumpers, who in most circumstances are the rich and/or politically connected elite.

Value of Ubuntu

The recent allegation that the Gupta family, who are said to have close ties to President Jacob Zuma, had jumped the queue and had the rules bent in their favour to get citizenship seems to have provoked similar sentiments as those I witnessed when my Sabbath school teacher reacted as a victim of queue-jumping and rule-busting.

Those concerned include not only members of the public but also public servants who take pride in anchoring their work in fairness and equality and resent being directed to deviate from same in favour of the powerful or favoured.

This and other values that inform public office and service as a career of choice were the subject of my second talk at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government on Tuesday.

Do we need a new set of values to attract and retain the best and brightest in the public service? was the central question.

The talk resonated with my first, delivered a day earlier, on bridging the gap in public accountability.

The principle of equal application of the law and rules, in that case regarding answerability for one’s wrongs and making amends, loomed large in the ensuing conversation.

While the time-tested requirement that any functional democracy requires the election and appointment of the most competent, trustworthy and selfless among its citizens to serve based on accountability, integrity and responsiveness, anecdotal evidence shows that those in the public sector, or those who would like to join, principally consider lack or violations of social justice or equality, integrity and human dignity by the powers that be as key deal breakers.

I believe we don’t necessarily need new values in the public sector, at least in South Africa.

What we need is to dust, implement and respect old values, particularly those that informed the audacious dreams of Pixley ka Seme and others who, during colonialism and apartheid, believed there had to be a better way of human coexistence than that where the fortunes of some are built on the misery of others.

Among those is the value of ubuntu, which holds that my humanity finds meaning in yours and my survival is intertwined with yours. Embedded in the value of ubuntu is the principle of fairness or social justice.

The challenge of public service failure is not, in my view, due to a lack of values, but rather a failure to institutionalise and incorporate in public sector decision making the values we already have.

Those are the values that drew me and my contemporaries, including Thandeka Gqubule, to the struggle in response to the unfair excesses of apartheid, including the massacre of protesting children on June 16 1976.

I’m also convinced that, should the values dissonance continue, the South Africa of our dreams remains a pipe dream.

The architects of South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy appreciated the state’s centrality in stewarding the transformation of South Africa into a democracy that works for all.

To facilitate this, they developed a Constitution that incorporates founding values that seek to foster a break with the past.

The state was to break with justice as “just us” for those in power and people close to them.

The new society was to be an inclusive one where everyone’s potential was freed and life improved.

It would be anchored on core values that include the achievement of equality, human dignity, freedom, the rule of law and supremacy of the Constitution, as well as openness and transparency – all of which seek to bury the ills of the old order.

My experience as Public Protector points to the inability to uphold the societal foundational values in the Constitution as a key culprit regarding public service failure.

This particularly hinders attracting, developing and retaining some of the best and brightest to serve as public office bearers and officials at all levels of the public sector, including parastatals.

Key values

Key values that appear to be cherished by all and whose violation tends to be deal breakers for state or would-be state employees are social justice, integrity and human dignity.

It irks many public servants to witness favouritism while being overlooked. I recall police officers who said:

“We increasingly find ourselves saluting the rank and not the person as many promoted to lead us are hopelessly less qualified academically, have less skills, less experience and have inferior track records than us.

"The only reason we are overlooked in their favour is political favouritism and nepotism.”

Affirmative action can’t explain the appointment of people way beyond their competence while more qualified people are overlooked, particularly from the same historically disadvantaged group.

These were black officers with work experience ranging between 10 and 30 years.

Even when historically advantaged persons are the ones overlooked, affirmative action or employment equity, as I understand it, dictates that preferential treatment only be used as a tie-breaker between two equally competent persons when one is from a historically advantaged group and the preferred one from a historically disadvantaged group to compensate for historical underrepresentation of the latter.

I’d be surprised if their perception of injustice did not impact on their morale while having implications for both their retention and informal ambassadorship to attract others to the police service.

Apart from demoralising the overlooked, there’s also the risk of the appointee’s inferiority complex expressing itself through harassment of the competent to make them feel small and look less threatening.

This is the impression I got, for example, from the professionals at the SABC during the investigation that resulted in the report titled When Governance and Ethics Fail and the subsequent one I left incomplete.

Witnessing preferential treatment or being forced to favour some in service delivery seems to be another factor regarding leaving or shunning the public sector.

A public functionary who raised concerns with me on the Guptas’ citizenship queue-jumping during our Youth Day Democracy Dialogue appeared quite irked by the fact that as state functionaries they suffer daily when they witness the pain of the “Gogo Dlaminis” who are endlessly waiting for service or are sent back for the slightest non-compliance while those with money and/or powerful connections seem to not only jump to the front of the queue but also have the rules relaxed for them.

More frustrating is being made the instrument of such unfairness.

In such cases, those that are committed to serving honestly and responsively, which in my experience is most state functionaries, feel that their sense of agency and, consequently, human dignity is undermined.

To this extent the value of human dignity is essential for attracting and retaining the best and brightest to ensure public service excellence.

Integrity is another value that seems to be a factor in people joining or staying in the public sector.

One young person at the Youth Day Democracy Dialogue boldly stated: “If forced to choose between ethics and your job, chose ethics as you can always find another job.”

But with official unemployment at close to 30% and youth unemployment at 54%, how many are free to walk away and hope to walk into another opportunity?

A compounding factor is that even those who stay may be used as scapegoats when a superior or different authority discovers the impropriety, or they may be weeded out as whistle-blowers while the politically connected or powerful survive and continue to poison the system.

This was alleged in the landing of a Gupta private jet at Airforce Base Waterkloof.

The state plays an important role in shaping the destiny of a society.

If the state doesn’t work, nothing does.

For an optimally functioning democracy anywhere the public sector must attract and retain the best and brightest characterised by competence, trustworthiness and selflessness and ensure that they are all treated and required to act in terms of the values of ubuntu, social justice and human dignity and principles of integrity, accountability and responsiveness.

Madonsela is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow, former Public Protector, and founder and chief patron of the Thuma Foundation


Have you ever experienced ubuntu from a public servant?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword UBUNTU and tell us what you think. Include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    jacob zuma


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