Quote of the week

This is a book of desire denied, of what the pain of that impotence drives people to do, and how it makes them unwilling contortionists and even co-conspirators in their oppression. From ‘The Transformation of Harry’: “And there we all were; in an uncertain country, ourselves uncertain. A land with a sly heart; and ourselves ready to be deceived.” For if colonialism was any one thing it was denial: denial of land, denial of African culture, denial of any form of psychic nourishment—including hope—denial of black existence itself. And neocolonialism is the denial that any of that is still happening. First published in 1978, The House of Hunger speaks, or rather shouts, forward from its own time to 2017. Perhaps the most painful parts of the book to read are those that show how little has changed in thirty-nine years. For if colonialism was any one thing it was denial: denial of land, denial of African culture, denial of any form of psychic nourishment—including hope—denial of black existence itself. And neocolonialism is the denial that any of that is still happening.

Efemia Chela
On The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera
4 October 2010

Time for a tea break comrades, but where did that building disappear to?

I must confess that I can be a bit absent-minded. Yes, let me admit that I cannot always remember where I had left my car keys, house keys or cell phone. The cell phone is easy: I just phone the cell number from the land line and follow the sound. Keys can be a bit more tricky to find, but after a few minutes I usually manage to locate them, usually under the newspapers scattered on the coffee table or next to my toothbrush in the bathroom. This is not because I am particularly diligent or fastidious, but because I need those keys to get out of the house and I therefore have no other option but to look for them until I find them

It is a good thing I do not work for the Department of Public Works, as I would have spent most of my day worrying about stuff – you know, like doing my work – while sulkily watching my colleagues going on tea breaks, playing solitaire on their computers and phoning Roux Shabangu or the Police Commissioner to talk about a new property deal that their cousin or wife or uncle is putting together. 

I am obviously far too diligent and practical to ever get a job in that Department. Let’s face it, from the good old days when Stella Sigcau was the Minister of Public Works, that Department has done everything but work. (Remember, Bantu Hlomisa was expelled from the ANC because he pointed out that during her tenure as “Prime Minister” of Bapitikosweti –  just joking, the “Homeland” was called “Transkei” – Sigcau had been, well, corrupt.) This is the same department who took six months just to buy a bed for Communication’s Minister Siphiwe Nyanda, forcing him to stay at the Mount Nelson instead (the poor, poor man). 

But a report that the Department of Public Works has received another qualified audit report because it does not know what immovable assets are owned by the state, sort of takes the cake. I was much relieved to hear that the Department has promised an accurate assets register by 2014. So, they just need another four years to find all the properties that belong to the state. Great work guys, but please do not over-extend yourselves – remember we all have the right to take tea breaks and to do only that bit of work which we can fit in between the breaks (it’s not in the Constitution, but I am sure its in a civil service handbook somewhere).

It is a bit puzzling though that after 16 years of democracy the Department has no clue just what land and other fixed properties are owned by state departments, provinces and former homeland governments.

Losing one’s keys or a wallet might be careless (but understandable) but losing fixed property seems rather criminal. Maybe it is just me, but I was thinking that if I had been in charge of that department I would have been rather anxious to know exactly what immovable assets – land and buildings – were held by the state. Surely, without accurate knowledge of all those immovable assets held by the state one cannot really do one’s job at the (ironically named) Department of Public Works. (It’s a bit like me losing my house keys: I need them to leave the house and go and do my job, so I will find them every time.)

According to the Constitution, the officials at the Department of Public Works should really have done a bit better. After 16 years they should have managed to find all those pieces of land and all the buildings owned by the state and should have made – just a suggestion comrades – a list of the bloody things to ensure that they do not lose them again.

If one reads section 195(1) of the Constitution, it really reads like it was written to mock officials like those who work at the Department of Public Works (or perhaps to mock the rest of us who pay their salaries). This section reads as follows:

Public administration must be governed by the democratic values and principles enshrined in the Constitution, including the following principles:

  1. A high standard of professional ethics must be promoted and maintained.
  2. Efficient, economic and effective use of resources must be promoted.
  3. Public administration must be development-oriented.
  4. Services must be provided impartially, fairly, equitably and without bias.
  5. People’s needs must be responded to, and the public must be encouraged to participate in policy-making.
  6. Public administration must be accountable.
  7. Transparency must be fostered by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information.
  8. Good human-resource management and career-development practices, to maximise human potential, must be cultivated.
  9. Public administration must be broadly representative of the South African people, with employment and personnel management practices based on ability, objectivity, fairness, and the need to redress the imbalances of the past to achieve broad representation.

Well, if after 16 years those suckers have not been able to find all the buildings belonging to the state and if it is true that they will need four more years to find all the properties owned by the state, it means that they are not efficient, not ethical (otherwise they would have worked harder), not accountable and not capable of providing accurate information to the public.

Of course the problem is far broader than the one highlighted above. Governments across the world are not always the most efficient – all those forms to be filled in in triplicate, all the processes and meetings, all the politics and the temptations of corrupt tenderpreneurs – but ours must be one of the most expensive and incompetent civil services in any democratic country in the world.

The sad fact is that members of the Public Service  – whether they “work” for the Department of Public Works or not – will not adhere to the provisions of section 195(1) for as long as the public service is a political employment agency to which various members of the ANC (with various “skills-sets” – as they say in those circles) are deployed.  During the apartheid years there was not a culture of an independent and impartial civil service and when the ANC took over the government in 1994 they were faced largely with a pro-National Party civil service who was less than thrilled by having to work for people they had been told were “terrorists”.

It was therefore understandable that the new ANC government wanted to get rid of the white men in grey shoes who populated the apartheid era civil service and wanted to replace them with people they could trust. But in “transforming” the civil service, the ANC actually did nothing of the sort. Instead of the ANC government transforming the civil service, the civil service remained the often heartless, bureaucratic and incompetent monolith that it was during the apartheid years – only with a different racial aesthetic. 

Instead of transforming this service into the one envisaged by the Constitution, the ANC left the basic culture of the civil service in tact (or maybe there was not much of a choice involved) and merely replaced the retiring old racists with incoming party hacks. And because the new hacks are mostly members of the ANC (or at least pretend to be members of the party – civil servants are good at giving the impression of being servile) and thus protected, they can take 20 years to find all the properties owned by the state and no one will fire them or ask any questions about what the hell they have been doing for the past twenty years.

As long as such civil servants do not fight with the responsible Minister (by questioning his order to award tenders to a friend, say) and as long as they do not back the wrong leader in any internal election campaign or get caught stealing money from the state, most of them can play their solitaire and go on lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng tea breaks until they retire and no one will bat an eyelid.  This is not what is envisaged by the Constitution, of course. But I guess if it was good enough for the Nats then it’s good enough for post-apartheid governent too.

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