Maverick Citizen

TUESDAY EDITORIAL

A public service is only as strong as the people who work in it – recognise the Integrity Icons to squeeze out the bad

A public service is only as strong as the people who work in it – recognise the Integrity Icons to squeeze out the bad
The Integrity Icons are shining examples of the lives of the best of our public servants. (Photo: iStock)

Maverick Citizen has been a firm promoter of the Integrity Icons campaign. We have done so because without a committed and effective public service we cannot achieve social justice, and because in our day-to-day reporting we frequently come across public servants who work tirelessly and make great sacrifices in the public interest.

On Friday evening last week, Accountability Lab South Africa announced the five winners of its 2022 Integrity Icon awards.

This was the fifth year of the awards, established in 2018, which according to Sekoetlane Phamodi, the country director of Accountability Lab, aim “to name and fame some of the many civil servants in South Africa who demonstrate integrity, accountability, and going beyond the call of duty both at work and in their communities”. 

The award winners, nominated by their peers, are public servants who were “caught doing the right thing and are making government work for our people”, says Phamodi. In 2022, 109 nominations were received and nearly 2,000 people voted for the People’s Choice winner, Bongani Eric Siyona, a police officer working for the SAPS in Gqeberha, Nelson Mandela Bay.

Watch videos about the five winners:

Read Zukiswa Pikoli’s report on the awards here.

In a keynote address, Salomon Hoogenraad-Vermaak, head of the Public Administration Ethics, Integrity and Disciplinary Technical Assistance Unit at the Department of Public Service and Administration, congratulated the Icons and invited them to address the department’s National Ethics Officers Forum in 2023 (there are now 340 designated ethics officers across national and provincial government departments, according to Hoogenraad-Vermaak).

Hoogenraad-Vermaak said there is a need to challenge “the general narrative that all public servants are corrupt”. He emphasised that progress is being made in rooting out corruption in the public service, and strengthening systems that promote ethics and accountability, claiming that:

  • 27 national and 49 provincial government departments are now conducting lifestyle audits;
  • 98% of senior managers are now disclosing their finances using an electronic financial disclosure system for public servants; and that
  • “While it is true that R140-million has been spent on 304 suspended public servants who are “sitting at home”, three years ago this figure was over R2-billion.”

Maverick Citizen has been a firm promoter of the Integrity Icons campaign. We have done so because without a committed and effective public service we cannot realise human rights and achieve social justice. We have done so because in our day-to-day reporting we frequently come across public servants who work tirelessly and make great sacrifices in the public interest. 

We need only think of the health workers who fought on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic, saving tens of thousands of lives, with more than 1,500 of them losing their own; we think of the police who are killed in the line of duty; teachers who teach under trees; judges and magistrates; social workers. We think of whistle-blowers like Babita Deokoran and other public servants who have honoured the Constitution and refused to be corrupted.

Without them South African society would have failed long ago. If we did more to recognise the good public servants we would create a stronger force to isolate the bad. 

A capable state needs a motivated and mobilised workforce

South Africa has more than 1.7 million (1767784) 1.3 million public servants serving 60 million people: 

  • 395,267 are employed by national government departments;
  • 912,856 are working for the nine provincial administrations;
  • In addition there are 342,042 in local government and 117,619 in SOEs.

Tarring them all with the same brush of corruption and incompetence hides the truth; it also demoralises honest public servants. 

Lazy reporting and blaming public servants also deters young people from seeking to work with the government. 

We have an ageing public service: the average age of teachers, for example, is 53 to 55; and more than 70% of registered nurses are older than 40. The need to attract thousands of graduates and young people into a career in the public service is a matter of life and death for a capable South African state.

But that’s not happening.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Inhumane and unconstitutional economic policy ‘takes food from the mouths of children’

The Integrity Icons awards and the process that underlies them is important, because it recognises that without a capable, committed and honest public service – a strong state – it is impossible to deliver any of the rights that are contained in the Constitution, or to achieve its vision of equality and social justice.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Social justice needs a capable state – so what is civil society doing about it? 

But ultimately a civil society campaign recognising honest public servants will not be enough to reinvigorate our public service. 

As has been pointed out by the Budget Justice Coalition, Saftu, Cosatu and others, the greatest threat to the public sector is probably not corruption but so-called fiscal consolidation (budget austerity, for want of a better word). The ANC government’s imposition of a de facto wage freeze that ignores the cost-of-living crisis, together with cuts to health, education and social spending, is making the work of public servants more and more demanding, depressing and impossible. 

Ask any doctor, nurse or teacher about the conditions they work under.


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A recent report titled Public Services, Government Employment and the Budget, by the Public Economy Project (PEP), part of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at Wits University, is required reading. It analyses a decade worth of “available data on budgets, audited spending outcomes, and government plans for future expenditure.” Its findings should sober up those most intoxicated on fiscal consolidation and bust some of the convenient myths that underlie it. 

For example, after studying the evidence, it states: 

“Within the core public services, the balance between professional and administrative staff appears stable and sensible.” 

Warrant officer Bongani Siyona from Gqeberha is the winner of the 2022 Integrity Icon People’s Choice award. (Photo: Denvor de Wee)

Although health, education and criminal justice are getting the worst cuts, the report says: “Bloating”, if it exists, is concentrated in political and executive offices, economic regulation, infrastructure services, and public administration – particularly finance and cooperative government, which have seen substantial increases in employment in recent years.” 

From their analysis the PEP deduced that “there is little evidence that government employment structure is deficient – a widely held view in public discourse. The implication of this is that fiscal consolidation will lead to a further withdrawal of core services, rather than an improvement in efficiency. Even if government could find efficiencies, reduce unnecessarily ‘bloated’ bureaucracies, or overcome wasteful spending and corruption (and it has tabled no clear plans to do this), the currently planned path of fiscal consolidation would still largely depend on reducing the real value of core public services.”

They also point out how it will increase income and service inequality and fuel the brain drain and consequent “operational collapse” in the public service. 

Their conclusion is stark: “These choices are at odds with the Constitution and will certainly lead to a retrogression in socioeconomic rights.” 

Sekoetlane Phamodi, country director Accountability Lab, at the Integrity Icon Awards held at the Anew Hotel in Johannesburg, (Photo: Denvor de Wee)

Dr Salomon Hoogenraad-Vermaak, from the Department of Public Service and Administration, at the Integrity Icon Awards. (Photo: Denvor de Wee)

As a public sector strike looms these issues become crucial, and uniformed debate in the media and public about straw men is counterproductive. However, as they pursue just wage demands we appeal to the unions to conduct their protests with integrity, to educate the public on the issues revealed by the PEP report and the conditions faced by public-sector workers. Avoid actions that harm the poor.  

Read in Daily Maverick: “You can’t eat political will to fight hunger but it’s vital to ensure everyone’s right to nutritious food

The government’s logic is perverse. For good reason, three-quarters of the government’s wage bill, and one half of spending on procurement, is on rights to basic education, healthcare and criminal justice. So, by cutting salaries, jobs and services, the government is creating more disease, more social fragmentation and more murder which then has to be managed by fewer public servants at less expense. 

A vicious circle indeed.

The Integrity Icons are shining examples of the lives of the best of our public servants. Visionary managers like Salomon Hoogenraad-Vermaak tempt us with the potential for servant leadership across the public service if systems and ethics are promoted and respected. But unless this recognition is also translated into reasonable conditions of employment, “naming and faming” alone will not be sufficient to stop the rot. DM/MC

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