JZ: you’re ignoring the real problems

The president’s letter to public servants glosses over the dysfunctional state of government departments

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“A country’s success is determined by many things. Key among these is a patriotic, effective and efficient cadre of public servants that translates government policies and programmes into tangible benefits. Already, a lot of work has been done to speed up the delivery of services and such work is continuing. But we have to work harder to improve people’s experience of government services.”

Thus speaks President Jacob Zuma in a recent open letter to public servants. It’s difficult to disagree with his general sentiments: efficient public servants are essential to a country’s progress. Unfortunately, Zuma fails to follow up these general remarks with some real criticism where it is needed. In fact, he goes the other way, commending successes and ignoring blatant failures.

For example, he singles out the improvement in life expectancy, a lowering of infant and under-five mortality rates, and the decline in mother-to-child HIV transmission. (All fine achievements, incidentally, and deserving of praise.) But where is his criticism of lack of service delivery, corruption, nepotism and all the other ills that plague government departments?

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Where is the stinging rebuke of hospital staffers who care more for their holidays than the lives of babies? Of teachers absent for weeks from school? Of thuggish police officers? Most of us who have experienced the attitude of the average public servant could have helped the president write this part of his speech.

Farmers compromised
Farmers – both small-scale and commercial – have suffered particularly from gross government incompetence. Indeed, had public servants from the various departments of agriculture been doing their job properly, the land reform issue could well have been finalised by now. Some time ago, farmers in North West called on Premier Thandi Modise to intervene after receiving rude treatment from the provincial departments of agriculture and rural development and land reform.

And in Limpopo, highly productive farms have collapsed since the land reform and restitution processes began, yet there is little progress on resolving the land issues there. Smallholder farmers complain that they are unable to get access to land, while commercial farmers cannot invest in their farms because of unresolved land claims.

Zuma ended his letter with: “We thank all our hard-working public servants. Keep up the good work and let us continue building a responsive, effective and caring government.” Right now, this description is largely an unfulfilled dream. And it will remain so until officials are made to realise that they are mandated to deliver services to the people. But while there are cadres who can get away with corruption, incompetence or simply failing to do the basics of their jobs, the government will fail to deliver.

And speaking in a woolly way about the need for officials to “further improve the way we work and get better results” and “work even harder to build a caring and efficient public service” will not compel them to do so, or inspire the rest of us to have confidence in the Zuma administration.