Saturday, 17 March 2012

Not so Liberated

In the latter half of 2011, an official from one of South Africa’s more disfunctional provincial governments, being quizzed on the popular radio station SAfm about a delivery failure, tried to weasel out by claiming that a study was in progress. The interviewer didn’t let him get away with this and wanted to know why this solved the problem when, the last time the issue came up, a study was commissioned, and nothing was subsequently done.

More recently, an academic told me of a story of how a dysfunctional municipal government commissioned a study on service delivery. Once the academic had started the study, it transpired that some consultants had already written a lengthy report covering exactly the same ground. The academic took this report to the town council, and asked whether this report could simply be used, rather than wastefully duplicate the work. “No,” was the response, “we want you to do this.” Naturally, both reports are now sitting gathering dust. The methodology it appears is to produce reports as a substitute for taking action. That way, each new set of incumbents can appear to take action without having to do any hard work.

This attitude that I can only characterise as stealing your salary is rampant in the (now not so) new South Africa. It is perfectly understandable that someone who starts out with nothing and who lands a well-paid job, after casting off the shackles of an oppressive system, should feel that they have arrived and do not need to do anything else. Like work. But that attitude is totally wrong. In a poor country, only a small minority have that option open to them. Not only is the majority denied the government services they are entitled to expect, but the money spent on high salaries for won’t work officials and politicians could be spent more effectively where the job actually would be done. What is ultimately behind this is a lack of leadership. The ruling party has no prospect of losing an election, and has become lazy in office.

I have a couple of examples of what can be done. The local hospital in Grahamstown was very poorly run, and a private operator offered to take over management in exchange for using a wing for private services. The staff expected to be fired but instead, with effective management, they are now doing the job they were being paid to do all along. In another hospital elsewhere in the country, a lawyer visited a family member who was in a ward that was filthy and where the nurses were failing to pay attention to the patients. He told a senior nurse exactly what remedies were open to a person savvy about the law and the next day, the ward was utterly transformed. The thing that struck him though was that the staff seemed a lot happier actually doing their jobs.

What has happened? How has South Africa’s liberation gone so far  wrong?

It’s as if those fortunate enough to land a government job, liberated from an ugly and unpleasant prison where they were unjustly incarcerated with no hope of escape, have placed themselves under house arrest in a mansion with all the facilities. They remain imprisoned in a mentality that says Black people are useless and unable to do a competent job. In that sense, apartheid has won. Steve Biko was right: liberation is not only about political change but also about psychological liberation.

What’s to be done? I fear the ANC is past redemption, and the overall situation can only improve in a big way if their political power is undone, something that is unlikely to happen in less than 20 years since liberation, roughly the time it takes for a majority of voters to be too young to remember the previous regime. In the meantime, people of goodwill who want change should focus on working with community members who want things to be better, and stop trying to work with government. Working with a government that is unwilling or unable to deliver beyond deploying cardres to plum jobs is not only a waste of time, but an exercise in frustration.