14 January 2014

South Africa: Fixing the Civil Service Is Vital


Civil servants are failing poor people like Cassiem Mahommed and many others. The decline of our civil service is one of the most important political problems facing South Africa.

In November we reported how Mahommed and dozens of other workers at the old Athlone power plant had remained uncompensated for years for asbestos-poisoning claims. Mahommed was diagnosed with asbestosis in the 1990s. He retired in 2007 and has been waiting for his claim to be paid out since at least then. We wrote, "Mahommed is currently on a monthly pension of R5,000. He has to pay for his medical costs himself, which amount to R4,000 to R5,000 every three to four months."

The GroundUp article was run in the Cape Times so Mahommed's story has gone beyond our website. It has not languished in obscurity.

Today we published a follow-up article. Despite a staff member of the Department of Labour contacting the journalist who wrote the article and promising to sort out Mahommed's claim, nothing has been done since November. No one has contacted Mahommed. Given that Mahommed's story has the highest profile in the media of workers needing compensation, it would be surprising if any of the others have been compensated since November.

Our attempts to contact the Department of Labour have been in vain. The department appeared to shut down in late December, which is absurd. All government departments should be open and functional every weekday of the year, except public holidays. Phones need to be answered. Messages need to be returned.

Are the people staffing and leading the Department of Labour callous, uncaring and incompetent? Or are they paralysed by an ineffective bureaucracy and poor political leadership? Or is it some combination of all this?

Sadly, there is nothing unusual about Mahommed's story. It is increasingly the norm as can be seen by the endless stream of news reports on government failures as well as the personal experiences most of us endure when dealing with government. The South African civil service is increasingly dysfunctional.

For many South Africans, a job in the civil service is the only path to leading a comfortable middle-class life. That people clamour to be employed in government and will use family and political connections to do so is understandable. Nevertheless it is vital to the welfare of the vast majority of people that the civil service be staffed mostly by competent, caring people able to carry out their jobs honestly.

Under apartheid the civil service was notorious for carrying out government policies that demeaned and harmed people.

In the post-1994 period, the civil service's focus was turned to massively increasing its capacity to provide houses, grants and health. It was never a bastion of great competence and clean governance, but during the mid-90s and much of the 2000s many important parts of the civil service appeared to work reasonably.

About two million RDP houses have been built. More than 15 million people receive social grants and over 2 million people receive antiretroviral treatment. These, amongst others, are incredible achievements that have benefited millions of people. But these achievements are at risk. To maintain them we need a modestly competent civil service.

GroundUp is a left-leaning publication. Our editorial line promotes social welfare and a state that helps develop our country's people.

But it is not sufficient to simply call for more expenditure and greater social welfare when the civil service is becoming a grotesque sponge of public resources that is increasingly incapable of serving poor people.

Identifying and fixing the underlying causes of the rot in the civil service must be a priority of social movements as well as anyone concerned about developing South Africa.

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