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Analysis: SA needs to start firing bad employees if it’s to survive

Analysis: SA needs to start firing bad employees if it’s to survive

We have become used to moans and groans about corrupt cops, emergency service bosses, and your average government worker. There is also a mountain of costs that comes with them. To the economy, to society, corruption is, literally, a tax on the hopes and dreams of young people. Solving it is an issue of political will, again. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Just this week Justice Malala wrote about young women he knew, university-educated, who paid bribes to get driver’s licences, just because that’s what you have to do. There are many reasons why this happens, protected employment being one of the worst. But already there are signs it could start costing us less. Really.

Societies swing back and forth on most issues. And one of the biggest is individual rights. Sometimes there are too many rights for individuals, sometimes too few. Think of the US before 9/11 and after. Think of Britain before Tony Blair and after. Here in South Africa, we went from a militarised tough ministry of “law and order” to the far more cuddly “safety and security”. Same thing, only different name. We are now swinging back to militarisation. This is also happening with our employment laws, and this will have a dramatic impact on corruption levels.

During apartheid, workers would dream of a world in which they could take their employer to court, in which they could make sure their conditions of service were properly legislated, in which their rights were seen as more important than those of their employer. After 1994, that’s exactly what they got. Of course, if you were the ANC, in the early days of an “alliance” with a union federation, you would also make sure the workers had what they wanted. Hell, they deserved it, and they voted them in power.

But in real life, the result has been police officers, council workers,  even the odd judge, who have used all the rights they legally have, which means they are suspended for days, months, years on end. On full pay, of course. Which has two big consequences. One, our money is just wasted. Surely the framers of our Constitution could not have had in mind that Dali Mpofu, an advocate, former acting Labour Court Judge, who could use literally every single right ever dreamt up, should get R11 million to finally leave the SABC. (That’s 200 RDP houses’ worth.)

But the second, sometimes worse consequence, is that the organisation does not move on. Remember the old joke, we have so many “acting” officials that the whole nation is worthy of an Oscar. And because government officials are so hard to get rid of, they just don’t work. It’s well known that many people in this country consider a government job a job for life. They know they cannot get fired. If you were working for the City of Joburg, would you help a little old lady with her hugely complicated bill, or would you sit on your bum and watch re-runs of Isidingo on the waiting room telly, as they do these days. This extends to the highest levels, perhaps Jimmy Manyi wouldn’t have been moved to the “high profile” job he now occupies if it wasn’t so difficult and expensive to fire people in government.

But the pendulum seems to be swinging back. Slowly, but surely, if you listen closely, you can hear it.

One of the bigger pushers could turn out to be of all people, Cosatu. Last week, during the Cosatu central committee meeting, it was Zwelinzima Vavi himself, who said he’d had it with government officials who stay suspended on full pay for months. It was in the middle of a very angry statement about workers who’d ruined the Eastern Cape education department. Vavi want this culture to change, even though he admits that Cosatu played a role in the creation of that culture.

Essentially, in the middle of a big union/workers fest, supposed to celebrate the struggle of the workers, to celebrate the rights they have enshrined in law, you had their secretary general saying they were using too many of those hard-won rights.

People on the ground agree with him. For many, these officials simply ruin their lives. They take their money and don’t give services. To them, they are simply thieves. Imagine being a parent in Soweto where teachers bunk school to support a union official accused of hitting a kid. There are very few options to get rid of them.

The question now is what will change, how will it change, and how long will it take. Generally speaking, in our politics, you would expect change to happen very slowly indeed. But Bheki Cele’s remilitarisation of the police force is an indication of how quickly things can move, when there’s real political will behind it.

But giving police officers guns and telling them to shoot is a relatively simple thing, no matter how controversial. An argument about what aspects of labour law should change is far more complicated. You have to examine the law, look at what needs to change, and then, in time-honoured South African fashion, have a big old fight about it. But with Vavi in government’s corner, this could be a little easier. It would give ministers room to move.

Governance is hard. We know this, we’ve said it many times, and generally speaking, up until now, the unions have made it harder. Now both the unions and the general population could be running out of patience and moving to make governance easier. The ANC should move, and it should move now. It needs to grab the moment, before it disappears. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: People live in a slum in the outskirts of Johannesburg June 7, 2010. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz


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