The Calling Of Professional Public Servants

by | Aug 30, 2010 | Public Service | 0 comments

An extract from the address of the Reverend Professor Peter Storey on Sunday 22nd August, preaching at a service commemorating the life of his late brother-in-law the Reverend Paul Welsh:

Frederich Beuchner says, ‘The vocation for you is the one in which your deepest gladness and the world’s deep need meet – something that not only makes you happy, but that the world needs to have done.’

If that’s what call is, then every life is called and what a joy it is to meet called people in every walk of life!

I have a friend who works all day with steel. His hands are calloused and scarred from cutting and welding, his language is picturesque, and he is never happier than when he is making something that comes out right, that fits, that pleases his client and is going to work. That’s call!

I recently met a young man called Lungisa Kala, a finisher and polisher in a bronze factory, but his real calling is to be a sculptor. I’ve watched him fashion a remarkable likeness of the late Rev Seth Mokitimi for our new Seminary and asked him if he enjoyed what he was doing. ‘Too much,’ he said, ‘too much!’ That’s call.

Who of us will forget the teacher who helped us fall in love with Shakespeare, or maths, and gave time and devotion in doing so? Called people are special.

Would I be wrong in suggesting that the element of call is in very short supply right now in our society?

  • Whatever the justices of their cause, when health workers perform grinning toyi-toyis for the TV cameras after deserting helpless premature babies in their incubators, where is call?
  • When teachers do as little as they can and act insulted if asked to stay a few minutes after school, where is call?
  • When public servants care not if the documents they mislay are life and death to an immigrant worker, what has happened to call?
  • When transport officials let a railway track rot until it has to be closed for safety reasons, where is call?

Vocation doesn’t happen because we’re better paid, or better educated, or given more power. However important these things are, they don’t make a called person. Duty, honour, responsibility, a sense of stewardship and accountability are virtues, and virtues come from within. They are the quiet-growing fruits of inner transformation and they are learned in places like this where faithful mentors introduce us to the notion that our lives are not our own;

  • That we are created to be called;
  • That it makes enormous sense to put others before self;
  • That we are bought with a price;
  • That it truly does profit us nothing to gain the whole world and lose our souls;

And, at the end, there is no better place to learn these things than in the life of the Jewish Carpenter. That is where Paul learned them and that is why he gave the rest of his life to telling the Carpenter’s story – in word and deed. There are many here today, and countless more in other places, who rise up and call him blessed because that story changed them, and saved them from the waste of an uncalled life.

These thoughts can be juxtaposed with the more secular values and principles which govern the public administration of the new South Africa and are set out in section 195 of the Constitution. They require that a high standard of professional ethics “must be promoted and maintained” so that the nation attains an efficient, economic and effective use of resources, including human resources. “Services must be provided impartially, fairly, equitably and without bias.” Crucially, at this time of total shut down, “People’s needs must be responded to…” and accountability is required of the public service.

Embarking on a legally recognised strike is a hard won right which workers with unresolved pay or other claims have been given in the Bill of Rights. It is a right which ought to be used sparingly, wisely, responsibly and when all else fails. Striking workers can not flout the law: they are not entitled to resort to violence, destructiveness and intimidation of non-strikers and the public at large. Essential services workers are not, in the absence of minimum service level agreements, allowed to strike, and if they do so they do not enjoy the protection of the law and run the risk of being dismissed. When wage negotiations deadlock, it is possible to refer the issues in dispute to arbitration by an objective outsider instead of going on strike. The resort to arbitration is always available to those in essential services who are not allowed to strike. Yet not a word is spoken about resolving the differences between the government and its employees by way of arbitrations in the various sectors in which strikes, both legal and illegal, are paralysing the delivery of services in the country. Do strikers have no confidence that their demands are just? Does government not feel comfortable exposing its stance to objective scrutiny?

The Constitution also requires that “Good human resource management and career development practices, to maximize human potential, must be cultivated.” It is in this field that the gravest problems have manifested themselves. The core of the structural organization of the public administration, with its under-funded and dysfunctional “occupational specific dispensations” for professionals, is not set up to cultivate good human resource management. Professionals have been herded into “production units” such as hospitals, schools and police stations. They are lumped together with menial workers in bargaining units in which they are vastly outnumbered. They are obliged to take orders from the illegally deployed cadres of the “senior management service” who, in their political connectedness, lord it over them without regard to their career development.

Gwede Mantashe, a senior politician in both the SACP, which he chairs and the ANC, where he is secretary general, justifiably calls the methods used to employ Directors General “a recipe for disaster” and the new Minister of Health has express his disquiet at the standards of performance in the management of his department. It is no co-incidence that the Director General of Labour, Jimmy Manyi, is suspended awaiting disciplinary proceedings at this time. President Zuma’s decision to press on with his visit to China in the face of the events unfolding in the strike does not instil any sense of engagement or evidence a willingness to lead from the front.

Corrective action way beyond the immediate issues of the current pay dispute is required urgently. The political will, the human resource management skill and the legal acumen needed to improve the public administration and align it with the principles of the Constitution as well as the values so eloquently expressed in the address quoted from above have to be found soon if a greater disaster is to be averted. The greater disaster threatening to befall the country is that the national and provincial administrations will follow so many of our municipalities into a state of collapse. With the appropriate will, skill and capacity building this can still be averted. Focused leadership is needed.

Paul Hoffman SC
30th August 2010

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