Problem is a lack of caring, not a lack of experts

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

OUR problem is not that the government does not have enough people who know how to get things done — it is that it does not have enough who know how to deal with other people.

It only takes a day of load shedding to prompt a wave of claims that public services are run by incompetents. Inevitably, complaints about "affirmative action" are not far behind: "the wrong people" are said to be in charge and it takes no great imagination to guess what colour those people are.

But this ignores the real problem: the failure of much of the government to take seriously the public service’s own slogan, Batho Pele — put people first. Repeatedly, it is the failure to respect people, not the lack of technical skills, that angers citizens. As even many bigots don’t claim that light-skinned people are better at relating to others (they are meant to be better at getting things done), it is reasonable to conclude that the problem is not people in the government who lack skills, but a mind-set that relegates people, who should be a priority for public servants, to an inconvenience.

Load shedding — and power outages — are an excellent example. Despite much sniggering last week, the reason we have a power problem is not that Eskom management is so dim that it doesn’t know how to keep coal out of the rain (it isn’t possible to do that without placing a tarpaulin over all of Mpumalanga). It is that building power stations was delayed because an attempt at privatisation in the 1990s flopped when the government failed to treat unions with respect. We also don’t have enough because Medupi has been delayed by labour unrest. In both cases, it was how people were handled, not technical ignorance, that created the mess.

At the local level, outages are frequent not because councils lack technicians who can fix a power station. Rather, equipment is ageing because not enough has been invested in it — the result of decisions by clever people who know how to do things (such as shrink budgets unwisely).

None of these problems will be fixed soon. Given that, public authorities should serve citizens by promptly giving people accurate information about power outages — which they do not do.

Eskom publishes a load-shedding schedule on its website but this means nothing since, as it did in 2008, it told municipalities how much power to cut and left it to them to decide how to do it. If Johannesburg is a guide, councils are not eager to get the schedules to citizens — or to communicate with them.

In Johannesburg, a call centre is meant to deal with power outages. In theory, residents use it to report failures and to find out how the problem is being addressed. In fact, the centre is a cruel joke. The phone seems to be answered only for half an hour in the morning. Even then, it is possible only to report a fault, not to learn what is being done about it. For the other 23 hours and 30 minutes, residents who experience outages have no way of knowing whether the council knows about them, let alone whether it is fixing them.

Plan B is thus to contact senior municipal officials — an option available only to a few. But even that does not help much — officials are more likely to respond than the call centre, but they also mostly ignore queries.

And so residents live in a limbo while their power is out. Maybe the council knows, maybe it is fixing it, maybe not. And that causes far more stress than the outage.

It surely takes no great skill or resources for officials to respond to a message or to get people at a call centre to answer the phone. Neither is done not because the council is filled with "affirmative action" appointments, but because senior officials appear to hold residents in contempt and so prefer not to talk to them. If this is how people in the suburbs are treated, people in townships and shack settlements, who lack the resources or contacts to insist on answers from the council, are surely treated much worse.

That this is a result of a mind-set is confirmed by the council’s most recent annual report: it is filled with Joburg’s technical achievements but contains little about how it deals with people. (Besides which, a stress on ambitious technical plans from a council that won’t get a call centre to work speaks volumes about what it cares about.)

Johannesburg’s concern for projects over people is not isolated — it is the way the government generally approaches its task. That is why the state of the nation address and African National Congress election manifesto are filled with boasts about how much has been provided for people but say virtually nothing about how to heal the breach in trust between citizens and the government.

The solution does not lie in getting more clever people in the government to build more things. It lies in a respect for citizens that turns Batho Pele from something the government says to something it does.

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

By Steven Friedman