Recently I walked into a public hospital and experienced first-hand rudeness and disdain from the staff when enquiring about the whereabouts of an ill friend.
I ask for directions to the emergency ward. I am given a half-hearted answer at the reception. The person’s directions are unhelpful. They are just waves and wild gestures, as if I were a nuisance who arrived at an inconvenient moment. It is as if I never should have asked.
Eventually, I come to a ward.
I ask a nurse standing at a window with her back to me if I’m in the right place. She ignores me at first. I call on her again. She ignores me once more. After some persistence, she responds, not without a growl and hiss and with her back still facing me, “I am on tea break what is it that you want?” I say I was sent there.
With great reluctance she sends me off to another corner of the hospital, as if I had just shouldered upon her a great burden.
I spend fifteen minutes looking for the ward. I find it only after I encounter a doctor willing to assist. He was most friendly and helpful. I am relieved but not without some resentment stemming from my earlier experience at the hands of his colleagues.
This is a temporary reprieve from my disturbed frame of mind.
Going further into the innards of the hospital I find a place over-crowded, the lighting dim and the building slowly showing signs of disrepair. There is the acrid smell of chemicals, people are on top of each other and corridors are occupied by a cacophony of things, such as oxygen tanks, tables and beds, blocking the passageways.
I find my friend. But another incident adds to my growing distaste for the place. A patient is ill treated by a nurse when she asks for assistance.
At that point, my only thoughts are that I never want to fall ill and end up in a public hospital. Fortunately I can avoid it because I have private health insurance. But I fear for those who can’t.
Rude and unhelpful public servants are at odds with everything the new South Africa proudly claims under the banner of human rights and democracy.
They cast doubt over government’s plans and further imperil already poor confidence in public service.
The most acute places where citizens’ encounters can be frustrating and sometimes harrowing are municipal offices, schools, clinics, hospitals, police stations and immigration offices.
All kinds of people suffer varying levels of humiliation at the hands of so-called public servants on a daily basis in South Africa, but the sad reality of the situation is that things can go terribly wrong, as they already have, when there is no will to enforce compliance and accountability.
Take the recent deaths of 29 babies in the Cecilia Makiwane hospital in the Eastern Cape. Last year, similar reports emerged of babies’ deaths at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.
Babies having been dying from infections due to poor management and a lack of equipment and essentials like soaps and towels and other items that are needed to keep a hospital hygienic.
These reports come at the height of a furious debate about the National Health Insurance Scheme, in which certain voices are taking the liberty to be unyielding in their criticisms because weakness in public service delivery enables such boldness.
In this light, one must ask, whatever happened to Batho Pele?
Batho Pele is a government initiative, launched in 1997, to improve service delivery, which translates literally to “People First.”
The philosophical underpinnings of Batho Pele would resonate with anybody. Good and responsive public service fosters respect and reciprocity between public servant and citizen. As one helps the other, the other only reinforces positive engagement and a defence of public service and the role of the State.
Batho Pele was formulated around eight key principles, some of which include, consulting with customers (you and I); setting service standards; ensuring higher levels of courtesy; and my last pick: giving the best possible value for money.
Batho Pele is not beyond the bounds of what is possible. It is needed now more than ever, if not as a functioning government programme, then at least in spirit. The cries against poor public service have been persistent and in some places hoarse voices have taken to the courts to claim their rights against unresponsive officials.
When public work is not seen as a duty of welcome engagement but rather as a burden, people see the state as a last resort - not first preference - and only use state services because they have no other option.
And those who can opt out of the state system will do so.
The irony speaks for itself. The top echelon of public servants - whose salaries are nothing to sneeze at - only use those public services that they can’t do without and rely on private services for the rest, which they can well afford to pay for.
This pattern of use is evolving two strata of society: the first class citizen versus the second-class citizen.
Affluent towns and clients tend to demand and receive better treatment and services. The poor are more likely to receive substandard services while being treated unprofessionally or downright abusively in some cases.
The privilege of money tends to foster different conditions for the delivery of public services. It only reinforces the growing bad faith in public service and public administration.
What are needed are measures to shift the behaviour of public servants.
Clearly government reports, which monitor public servant attitudes and those of their customers, are not adequately painting an accurate picture of the national situation. The Auditor General, when scrutinising public finances, could request assessments of the experience of public service.
Unions also have a role to play in improving public service culture. Most of their members deliver these services in schools, hospitals, the post office, metro trains and so on. It is their members that are in the frontline of helping the general public and especially the poor.
Their silence against the behaviour of their members has to be broken just as they are presently doing with corruption.
Finally, there are clearly some success stories. There are places that work well. The experience of public service is not always negative. Places where I have renewed my car license, requested a new passport and filed my taxes have been efficient and friendly. I enjoy going to these places and have a positive view of the public servants there. Staff in these places are happy and deliver public service with enthusiasm.
All is not entirely amiss. How can we learn from these positive examples? And, how do we spread the good practices to other places where public experiences of public servants are less than satisfactory?
In a downward spiral of relations and negative experiences of public service, a cycle of antagonism between public servant and citizen only deepens regression.
Citizens feel at home with their democracy when they encounter encouraging experiences with public servants and it also builds enthusiasm for a responsible government.