11 October 2013

Namibia: Lazy, Biscuit-Eating Government Officials Need a Knopkierie


IN his 1904 book 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism', sociologist Max Weber records the period when holy rebels took on the Catholic Church in the arena of interpretation of labour and other church postures during a time when the church dominated much of Europe's public life - it owned properties, schools, banks etc - a period when some Catholic clergy and popes owned slaves.

We learn that the church told workers to toil with the promise of salvation as their reward. The clerical authority soon faced holy rebels such as Martin Luther who redefined the understanding of emphasising hard work, frugality and diligence as a display of a person's salvation in the faith as opposed to religious attendance, confession, and ceremonial sacrament in Catholic tradition. Then came the introduction of the state, curtailing the church's grip and monopoly of public affairs. The reward for work done was no longer the promise of salvation but material benefit, money.

Although the state in Africa did not develop organically and was first formed to achieve colonial objectives, Africans later obtained self-government and assumed state power. The conception of work, as it was during the work-for-salvation era, continued to be contested.

Today, labour is more organised than ever. The effectiveness of the independent African state, given corruption and administrative escapades, soon became the central focus in public discourse. I recently asked my students of Politics and Administration at the University of Namibia to discuss the challenges in public administration, particularly focusing on the public-private sector dichotomy in the areas of efficiency, effectiveness and corruption. I didn't realise that their answers, especially their examples, are a mere foreword.

It was not until recently that I made a transition from the theory of government mishap to practical personal experiences. As you read this, imagine your own experiences. It's now clear that government offices are the personal lounges of public officials, hence their shouting at citizens for sitting on government furniture as if sofas are their inherited property. If bad attitude were to be a disease, the attitude of government officials would be kwashiorkor. The way government officials consume biscuits, while talking to you, is as if we had a Ministry of Biscuit Distribution.

They are readily available and appear as if consuming such, during office hours, is part of their job description. Middle management is not left behind; playing the Spider Solitaire game on government computers is the meaning of independence. Of course, the offices also have become hair salons, housing all manner of hairdressing aids.

Research, important in the development of any country, is not held in high regard by biscuit-eating officials. If researchers are to be asked to choose between interviewing a gangster in Katutura and a government official, a gangster will get more researchers, like flies gathering around a by-product which shall not be mentioned here.

If you go to a government institution, as a researcher, and get all the necessary information that you need (without being met with scepticism and a possessive attitude) then Saddam Hussein is still alive!

While it takes 10 minutes to complete an S&T (money for travel) form, it takes three weeks to complete a simple two-page questionnaire. Asking questions about government activities and programs has become like asking someone for their bank card passcode. This depressing state of affairs has scared and tormented students at universities, many of whom are now choosing their research topics outside government.

It has become worse with the recent implementation of the draconian Research, Science and Technology Act, which surrenders all research in this country to the whims of a select few individuals, whose research background is unknown.

The laziness of biscuit-eating government officials is not only known by researchers; ordinary citizens have experienced their incompetence and laziness with some musicians singing about their ordeals at the hands of 'biscuit terrorists'.

Of course there are some who are hardworking, ethical and researcher friendly - we are proud of them. Our concern, though, is about the lazy, biscuit-eaters.

What is the way forward katekulu kaGwaandolo, some may ask for direction! Firstly, let's dismiss the thinking that the Namibia Institute of Public Administration and Management (NIPAM) is a solution. NIPAM itself indicated that few government officials make use of them.

Observations are that they don't go to Windhoek-based NIPAM because it carries no S&T implication. If NIPAM was in Karasburg, it would be full of biscuit officials who would travel in order to accumulate S&T. The few who go there, society concludes, do so only when they earmark promotions to higher offices - NIPAM certificates actualise their opportunistic aspirations.

What is needed in our public service is a 'knopkierie' policy. There is too much job security in the public sector with ethics and servanthood victimised. A 'knopkierie' policy would explore means of introducing performance agreed mechanisms. Indeed, a 'knopkierie' policy would put them on contracts. The public service cannot be left to biscuit-consuming charlatans given our developmental state aspirations and poverty and inequality ignominy. Where are we headed with current depressing state of affairs?

The author is an African youth from Omaalala village in northern Namibia. 

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