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Cabinet shake-up should scare civil servants

One of the most difficult things to do in the public service is to fire non-performers. In fact it seems to me the law, the Labour Relations Act and related legislation are designed to make it near impossible to fire people who do not perform. It was therefore truly heartening to see President Jacob Zuma begin to tackle this scourge from the very top — from whence the fish rots. Firing non-performers and ministerial misfits has to be commended. To be able to fire ANC bigwigs such as Siphiwe Nyanda is really something and hopefully will send a message to other politically arrogant ministers not to sit pretty or ugly for that matter, thinking they are untouchable kings and queens.

Methinks there was little evidence in the first instance that some of these ministers could lift a pen and paper and make things happen. We do know that some of these appointments were benefit-of-the-doubt appointments, the result of a so-called balancing act and over-consultation. This is also a lesson that Cabinet is the last place to exercise rewards for friends and interest groups. It is a place where no incompetence can be hidden. It is a ministry — a call to serve, not a place to prance around and be king. It is my view that ministers might now stop protecting their cronies and tip-toe around civil servants who humiliate our people and treat them like rubbish. You go to your nearest social development pay-point and see old ladies fainting in queues. Why on earth can’t civil servants, who often sit idly behind their desks, man the unacceptable queues. We have come to accept that the public service is not run like a business — where customers can go elsewhere. Why can’t we also have a five-minute queue rule like some of the retailers — are taxpayers less of a customer? I digress.

So these civil servants, whose wrath we saw during the recent strikes and the one back in 2007, know that they will keep their jobs no matter how badly they treat people. Look, I am quite sure that some civil servants will produce some data about how many people were dismissed, but the big ticket items that we can all see don’t paint that picture. There is a dismissal phobia. Even the death of patients during the recent strikes has not — as far as I know — resulted in anyone being dismissed. The loud noises by the minister of defence — did it result in the firing of the soldiers who tried storm the Union Buildings in protest? The death of babies in a Gauteng hospital recently resulted in no one being dismissed. Instead the first reaction of the MEC of health — someone I respect and believe is generally on top of her game — was to rush to the conclusion that it was nobody’s fault … reminds of the old story of nobody, somebody, everybody and anybody. It is nobody’s fault when the rubbish is not collected, it is nobody’s fault when services are not delivered … and so you cannot really fire anybody. Can you now?

So Zuma, like Mbeki and Mandela before him, could have attributed the stillbirth of the ministry of women and youth to “nobody”. He decided to fire the minister. He could have turned a blind eye to Nyanda’s poor image as a cabinet member, his arrogance and petulance. He could have found justification in his profile within the ANC, he could have been deterred by the fact that the fellow is powerful within the youth league circles and attributed all his wrongdoing to … nobody. He fired him. The best message to ensure that nobody takes responsibility, is to fire no one. So those who have been redeployed will consider it a first warning. But then again maybe you are so good that you are required to go fix some mess somewhere else. So it’s always better to try and understand why you are moved sideways.

It might be that firing so many ministers at once will send the necessary chill down the spine of the civil service and truly wake it up. It might result in people being fired for not performing for a change. It might result in these civil servants answering their phones, replying to letters from the public and serving them. I hope the celebrations by some trade unions about the reshuffle means that they will back the ministers when they wish to fire incompetents who always hide behind the unions to do pretty much nothing, at the expense of the taxpayer.

So next time you feel strongly about a minister or a civil servant who does not seem to take you seriously, who exudes too much arrogance, who is not a good steward of the resources you have placed under his or her watch, report this to the hotline and who knows, someone may just listen and put that minister or civil servant in their place before the next election.

Tabane is a media commentator who writes here in his personal capacity.