In the know: Eskom’s then CEO André de Ruyter (left) briefs Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe (second left), President Cyril Ramaphosa (centre) and others about corruption and the sabotage at the Tutuka power plant.
When the Minister for Administration and Public Services, Zola Skweyiya, launched the white paper on public service transformation in October 1997, he said he wanted the needs of South Africans “to come first”.
He added that he also wanted SA citizens, especially those who had experienced the harsher machinery of apartheid, to see and experience public service in a whole new way. Therefore, the Nelson Mandela government called the Batho Pele policy: people first.
More than 25 years later, there is no doubt that Skweyiya’s dream has been defeated.
Now something else comes first. That is clear from the way the government has responded to the request to force Eskom to ensure that there is no power outage at public health facilities, public schools and police stations.
The government’s decision to appeal the ruling adds weight to the argument that people no longer come first.
The high court request, which was led by the United Democratic Movement, went to the heart of the matter, which is simply that access to health care and education are rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution.
Shutting off electricity to facilities that provide health and education cuts off access to public services for the people who depend on them the most.
Among the applicants were two doctors who, according to the court ruling, laid out in stark terms the impact of power outages on health facilities.
“Pediatric and neonatal units literally require the ‘lights to be on’; critical organs and medical supplies must be kept at optimal temperatures; operating rooms need uninterruptible power supplies; Life support and monitoring equipment need electricity to function effectively and accurately, and the list goes on.”
The fact that the president and his ministers went to court to deny that they had direct responsibility for ensuring the uninterrupted supply of electricity to citizens and the facilities on which they depend says a lot about where their hearts and minds are.
In a well-functioning democracy, where people come first, officials would not have gone to court to wash their hands of the electricity crisis, but rather to present to the court a way to comply with what the officials were seeking. applicants.
That demanded the spirit and the letter of “Batho Pele”. Such an approach would have shown South Africans that the president and his ministers were motivated by the best interests of the citizens, more specifically the poorest, who are heavily dependent on public health and education.
The responses from the ministers of public companies, energy, and the president can best be characterized as the equivalent of the Biblical Pontius Pilate “washing his hands before the crowd, saying: I am innocent of the blood of this just man.”
And so, all three said they had no direct responsibility for the relief the applicants were seeking.
Pilate’s approach betrays the spirit and letter of what Skweyiya described in October 1997: “When I was elected to office, I knew that one of the most important tasks of government is to build a public service capable of meeting the challenge of improving the provision of public services. services to the citizens of South Africa.
“Access to decent public services is no longer a privilege of a few; now it is the legitimate expectation of all citizens, especially those who were previously at a disadvantage”.
This, as Skweyiya said, is why the guiding principle of the transformation and reform of the public service that he was presenting was “service to the people”. That is no longer the case.
And what’s worse is that the government has become so callous that it is not ashamed to go to court to oppose an application that protects the poor, the very people whose interests it was elected to serve.
As I have pointed out, the government’s strategy in response to the request was not to seek alternatives to what the applicants were looking for. The strategy was to deny responsibility.
That is not what one would expect from people who sit in government as ex-liberation fighters, people who often remind South Africans of the difficulties they went through during the fight against apartheid, a fight whose main motivation was to ensure that the most disadvantaged in our country had rescued from poverty work, income and opportunities for advancement in all endeavors of life.
It is true that, as Ismail Justice Mahomed reminded us in 1996, the country will never reach a point where it has all the money and human capacity to meet all the needs of its citizens and specifically to completely remove the shadow of apartheid.
However, as rightly argued, what was required were “many years of strong commitment, sensitivity and work to ‘rebuild our society’ to make the legitimate dreams of the new generations exposed to real opportunities for self-improvement come true”.
“State resources must be deployed imaginatively, wisely, efficiently, and equitably to facilitate the reconstruction process in the manner that best provides relief and hope to the broadest sectors of the community, developing for the benefit of the entire nation the latent human potential and resources of every person who has directly or indirectly been saddled with the legacy of shame and pain from our racist past.
That’s my case: The government’s response to the electricity case should have sought to redistribute the country’s limited resources “with imagination, wisdom, efficiency and equity,” not Pilate-style handwashing.
Hlengani Mathebula is a professor at the Turfloop Graduate School of Leadership, the business school of the University of Limpopo. He writes in a personal capacity.