Ubuntu in the pub­lic service

Pub­lic service fail­ure is a fail­ure to in­sti­tu­tion­alise the val­ues we al­ready have

CityPress - - Voices - Thuli Madonsela voices@city­press.co.za

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 queue­jumper’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.

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 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.

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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

PHOTO: GALLO IMAGES / THE TIMES / MAR­I­ANNE SCHWANKHART

NO JUS­TICE 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

PHOTO: MUNTU VILAKAZI

Ajay and Atul Gupta

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

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