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Building Trust in the Public Sector – A Call for Accountability

Building Trust in the Public Sector – A Call for Accountability

Building Trust in the Public Sector – A Call for Accountability 

Emotional labour. Described by many as a “need to be nicer than might be considered natural,” it’s the work we do to manage our emotions for the benefit of others. 

Think of a flight attendant, for example, who must be friendly and happy with passengers regardless of their personal feelings. Or a server in a restaurant who feels compelled to be polite and accommodating even when diners behave rudely. 

In the context of work, people become skilled at emotional labour because they fear the loss of their jobs. 

But I think the concept also translates very well to the way in which South Africans deal with the numerous challenges put before them through a lack of accountability, integrity, and transparency from the public sector. 

We’ve adopted a manner of behaving that, instead of using it to keep our jobs, we use to help us keep a sense of sanity when our immediate world goes crazy.  

As a result, we’ve become dangerously desensitised to the many failings of numerous government institutions and state-owned enterprises. Instead of raging against the injustice we develop workarounds and “make a plan.”  

This may be a short-term coping mechanism, but what we’re actually doing is saying that while we might have a complete lack of trust and faith in the public sector, we find it easier to adapt than force change. 

As Christopher Palm, Chief Risk advisor for the Institute of Risk Management South Africa says, “It seems as if we have become desensitised to the breakdown of ethical and legal principles, institutions, and their mechanisms to hold people accountable.  

“Key is weak visionary and ethical leadership right across the public and private sector and it seems South Africans have become more willing than other nations to tolerate breaches of ethical standards by their leaders.” 

All of which compels me to ask one burning question: 

How have we let things go so badly wrong?  

Quraysha Ismail Sooliman seems to feel the same, He writes in the Mail & Guardian, “Conscious leaders are guided by a strong moral compass, prioritising the well-being of all. They recognise that their actions have an effect and are committed to using their influence to promote social cohesion and peacebuilding.  

“But the reality is that such conscious leaders are non-existent in our international system of states and in many aspects of local governance, both in the public and private sector.  

“How is it that we collectively lack the ability to do what we know is right?” 

The Challenges Facing South Africa’s Public Sector 

The problems with our public sector are numerous and destructive. Not only do they hobble any progress we try to make towards economic and social prosperity, but they also erode public trust. 

Corruption is at the heart of the rot, making life miserable for millions of South Africans and diverting precious resources away from infrastructure development and essential services.  

Our government loses billions every year directly because a lack of accountability within the public sector means there’s little, if any, consideration for the consequences of their actions. Systemic failures, wasteful expenditure, and a chronic lack of skills impact our municipalities’ abilities to deliver the services we, the people, pay for.  

Couple that with almost non-existent financial management and a blatant mismanagement of public funds and you have all the ingredients for a repeat of the catastrophic scenes we witnessed in July 2021.  

If we don’t act now, there will be an increase in the lack of service delivery which will have significant negative consequences for the people of South Africa. Expect to see: 

  • Reduced access to quality healthcare, education, and basic facilities such as clean water and electricity.
  • Stagnating economic growth and development.
  • Lack of investment.
  • Social unrest.

South Africa’s Auditor-General, Tsakani Maluleke said recently, “We call upon all role players in the accountability ecosystem to participate actively in building a culture of performance, integrity, and accountability in the public sector. If we all hold each other accountable, the result will be a system that delivers services effectively, safeguarding public funds and ultimately improving the living conditions of the people of South Africa.” 

It’s an admirable ask, but is it too big for the average South African? 

At the Mail & Guardian’s Conscious Leadership and Ethics Summit 2023, Paul Polman, one of the speakers, said his company’s research revealed that only 17% of South Africans believe our leaders tell the truth, often using euphemisms to mask the realities of governance failures and incompetence, corporate exploitation, and individual greed. 

The summit served to highlight some of the dominant trends in South Africa at present.  

On top of the list was hypocrisy, followed closely by the ease at which people in the public sector generate lies, put spins on the truth, and do no more than make a passing nod to values such as ethics, accountability and transparency. 

We need a framework for the future – what is the government doing? 

In his most recent State of the Nation address, President Ramaphosa said, “The task of building a better South Africa is enabled by the diligence, care, ethical conduct and innovation of the country’s 1.2 million public servants.” 

He added, “Public servants sign up to codes of conduct when they enter employment, whether they are in national departments or provincial and local government. [They] must uphold the standards expected of them, especially at points of service. They are expected to advance social and economic development through the services that they provide to citizens.” 

He goes on to talk about public servants being expected to observe the Batho Pele principles. This is an approach aimed at inspiring public servants to not only serve people but to find new ways of improving service delivery – including involving the public to hold the public service accountable.  

A key element of their approach is, “Instead of looking for reasons why government cannot do something, they have to find better ways to deliver what people need.” 

It is true, of course, that there are many thousands of public sector employees who do exactly this. But, as with anything, it only takes a few rotten apples to make the entire barrel inedible. 

In his address, President Ramaphosa went on to say that he is committed to building a public service that is professional, ethical and driven by merit.  

“The framework will help to ensure that only qualified and competent individuals are appointed to the ranks of the public service,” he said. “The Presidency and National Treasury will also work together to rationalise government departments, entities and programmes over the next three years.” 

As always, it all sounds good on paper, but when or if we’ll see any actual delivery on this latest set of promises remains to be seen. 

The people fight back 

Thankfully, there are organisations within South Africa who work tirelessly to ensure, as far as they are able, that the government remains accountable to its mandate. 

One of the most valuable is OUTA, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse. Describing themselves as a trusted vehicle for advocacy and positive change, OUTA’s mission is to: 

“Bring local communities together, organise them, and help them coordinate their efforts to drive meaningful change in their local municipalities through a collective voice. We believe that every community has the potential to make a difference, and we’re here to provide the tools and support they need to do just that. By working together, we can make a positive impact not only in our own communities but also beyond them.” 

Their track record is impressive: 

In March 2017, OUTA and the South African Airways Pilots’ Association brought an application in the Pretoria High Court for an order to declare Dudu Myeni a Delinquent Director, based on her conduct and actions during her five-year term as chairperson of the South African Airways board. 

Three years later, Pretoria High Court Judge Ronel Tolmay declared Myeni a delinquent director and banned her from holding any directorship position for life. 

OUTA also provided insights and proof of state capture and corruption to Parliament by releasing its ‘No Room to Hide: A President Caught in the Act’ report, which implicated former President Jacob Zuma. 

Based on the evidence in this report, OUTA laid treason charges against Public Enterprises director-general Mogokare Richard Seleke and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, fraud and theft charges against Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, and corruption and fraud charges against Malusi Gigaba as the former Minister of Home Affairs.  

More recently, they’ve called on the City of Johannesburg to strengthen a draft by-law to ensure that the City’s Ombudsman’s Office has sufficient power to enforce decisions. Their concern is that despite the Office of the Ombudsman having been in existence since 2015 it has not publicly achieved much, even with an annual budget in the region of R46 million. 

They also have additional ongoing projects in the water, energy, transportation, education and public governance domains. 

There is, as always, hope 

South Africa is, of course, not the only country in the world battling with public office failings. Other countries have overcome similar issues thanks to the robust application of good governance policies. 

Singapore, for example, was once plagued with rampant corruption fuelled by inadequate laws, wide pay gaps between the private and public sectors, a lack of interest and commitment by law enforcement, and insufficient manpower in its anti-corruption agencies.  

But when Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister in 1959, he made it a priority to tackle and stamp out systemic corruption using simple, but effective methods:   

  1. Zero-tolerance approach to corruption.
  2. Every civil servant and politician was subjected to scrutiny and made to declare their income and assets -no one was above investigation.
  3. Salaries of the civil service were significantly raised to quell the temptation to indulge in corrupt activities. 

The penalty for corruption and other crimes in Singapore was, and still is, severe – long prison sentences, total confiscation of all family-owned assets that are traceable to the crime, and mandatory death sentences for drug trafficking. Today, Singapore consistently ranks as the least corrupt country in the whole of Asia, and the 4th least corrupt country in the world. 

Topping the list of countries with the least corruption is Denmark. One of their biggest secrets of success is that Danish citizens are actively invested in the integrity of their nation and contribute to a culture where corruption is the exception rather than the rule.  

There’s no doubt that fixing our broken public sector will definitely not be easy, but it has to be done. 

It seems fitting to conclude with another insight from Christopher Palm, whom I quoted earlier:  

“While corruption remains a major challenge it is not insurmountable. We must recognise that tackling corruption requires a sustained effort over the long term, and that progress will not be achieved overnight. 

“Nevertheless, with determination and perseverance, we can create a more transparent, accountable, and just society. At this point in our low growth trajectory journey, we simply have no choice.”