Once lost, good reputations are not easily regained

June 23rd was Africa Public Service Day, when we were urged to give thanks for our public servants and the work they do. There were no street marches of banner-waving civil servants to mark the occasion, but there was a special media release issued by the Public Servants Association (PSA).
But for this, even fewer may have noticed. Certainly, the association’s comments deserve a wider audience than they received for they bewailed the public treatment of its members; namely, that they were, “… demoralised and unable to produce their best work amidst negative pressures, including being denied fairly negotiated wage increases, being overworked and overburdened as vacancies are not filled, and being made scapegoats for political corruption.
“Amidst crumbling infrastructure, public servants are exposed to public anger and violence for service-delivery failures that are beyond their control”.
In other words, the public has failed to give the respect due to civil servants.
It is a curious way to explain away the long queues at Home Affairs and wherever one has to renew a driving licence. Nor will it wash among the tax- and rate-paying public.
It cannot explain giant potholes, poor water quality, the blocked drains, or collapsing sewers. Nor does it excuse the R500 000 motor cars newly-elected mayors buy the day after elections, nor why dozens of municipalities owe fortunes to Eskom and cannot pay for anything except their officials’ salaries.
The PSA press release does justify – and then some –the spin doctor’s salary. Only a genius could offer such an exculpatory explanation for the dire state of affairs in our public service.
Open any newspaper and one can read of another aspect of failing government. Everywhere one looks there is the dead hand of over-paid, self-indulgent, Teflon-coated servants of the public who in their minds can do no wrong.
These happy taxpayer employees cannot be fired, demand annual salary hikes regardless of the state of the economy, and when found up to the armpits in the cookie jar, get nothing more than a holiday on full pay.
Once upon a time civil services were small in size and dedicated to service. The reward was cast iron pensions, medical aid, and other perks in place of cash in the bank. To become a civil servant was a calling, not an invitation to compete for perks with captains of industry – those who grow the economy and are dedicated to making money, not simply spending it.
If it was still the case, there would be sympathy for public servants. But as things stand, everyone except the self-appointed aristocrats in the higher echelons of government is feeling the pinch.
And, as our political leaders appear to have ascended to a higher plane of existence and are beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, civil servants are the face of government. Consequently, they get to receive the bulk of citizen discontent.
Ask any home-owning, vehicle-driving, small business owner what he/she thinks of government services. Ask if they are happy with what they get for paying taxes. Be prepared for a typhoon of discontent.
Ask the same question of anyone recently compelled to interact with Home Affairs or the local police force, or indeed with any of those public servants responsible for the virtual collapse of 90% of the municipalities in the country.
What do they think of the State health services, the hospitals, or most of the vehicle licencing departments? The answers are always the same. And often unprintable.
So one must ask, what planet do some civil servants live on? Can they be so ignorant of the red tape that entangles small businesses? Don’t they or their bosses know the amount of unproductive time spent wading through government compliance documents?  It is especially true of those that echo apartheid that intend to benefit black South Africans but don’t. Instead, they are a tax on businesses to the detriment of job creation.
Contrary to the ignorant belief that business makes profits by stealing from those they employ, business in South Africa is desperate for skilled workers and could not care less what colour they are.
Not so in the case of employment law, as expressed by Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe. He too is upset at being held responsible for the shambles Eskom has become. He says it is unfair to blame him or his ministry because without cadre deployment Eskom would still be run by white people.
The last time we heard any government official speaking in such blatant racial terms was when apartheid was in full swing.
Of course, there are honest, hardworking, and decent people in the civil service at all levels, but it is no good whining about their poor reputation. They should know that your reputation depends on the kind of people you associate with and once lost is not easily regained.
No amount of media releases will do it.

Keith Bryer, freelance journalist and communications consultant, is a contributing author for the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

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