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What lies at the heart of our terrible inhumanity?

- WSG Visiting Adjunct Professor Michael Sachs

This speech was delivered at a Commerce, Law and Management Faculty graduation ceremony.

Congratulations to all of you who elevated yourselves by acquiring an academic degree.

As public servants, it is critical that we constantly renew the links between theory and practice. Marx was surely right to point out that the philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it. But we should not take his logic too far. In these times there are so many demanding change without any serious attempt to analyse the world first.

As public sector professionals, we are committed to getting our hands dirty in the everyday matter of new and changing circumstances. And there is no shortage of calls for change. Each expression of sentiment on social media, each strongly held opinion on talk radio, each political statement at the conclusion of party political meetings makes some new demand for action.

No doubt, part of our role is reactionary. In some way we must stand against change; after all public administration exists to impose a manageable order on social life. But – hopefully – we do this not as an end-in-itself. Rather it is a means to define the levers that can sustain development and make progress permanent. The bigger the challenge of transformation or redistribution that society must confront, the stronger public administration must be. As conscious public servants, we are all Brazilians, in that we embrace motto emblazoned on that county’s national flag – “order and progress!”

We must continuously take time to reflect on our experiences and to learn new skills that improve our ability to interpret and analyse the world. But abstract reflection cannot give us all the answers. In the university, we have the space to play poker with matchsticks. Without putting any actual fortune on the line, we can analyse the patterns and contours of the game with a cool heads and calm demeanour. This is important.

But this extravagance disappears as soon as we step back into a position of bureaucratic authority. At stake now is something far more important than ideas. In this role, there are consequences for every action. Every appointment, every choice to allocate funds or cut a budget, every award of a contract, every process design, every decision, every procedure attended to or overlooked has a result. And the stakes are very, very high.

Recently, bureaucratic action led to the death of 143 people. In Judge Mosekene’s words:

“This is a harrowing account of the death, torture and disappearance of utterly vulnerable mental health care users in the care of an admittedly delinquent provincial government … The damning point is this… [The leadership of the health department] devised the plan for the mass displacement of mental health care users from Life Esidemeni. This they did, without prior and proper notice to and the consent of the patients or their families. On their instructions, the patients were loaded on busses or open trucks and driven to non-governmental organisations unknown to the patients or their families. Patients tightly held their meagre personal belongings. The evidence suggest that the patients were visibly harassed or anxious and some were conveyed with their hands or feed or both tied. On all accounts the conveyance was cruel, inhuman and in a degrading manner. All this without prior and continuous clinical assessment of the patients; without useful or any medical records; without access to clinical and other medical care and without access o appropriate and prescribed medication. Many of the destinations… were treacherous. The evidence suggest that they may properly be dubbed death traps or sites of torture.”

What lies at the heart of this terrible inhumanity?

What theory might explain how some amongst us - public servants, just like ourselves - found themselves party to actions that have echoes of the slave trade, or the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. How could it happen in a democracy that cherishes constitutional rights?

Part of the answer, in my view, is a collapse of the order that public administration is supposed to impose on the process of change. The health system in Gauteng employs nearly 70 000 people. It spends more than R40 billion a year. It provides a lifeline to millions of people who have no other option. How could we have allowed a situation in which the opinions of a politician could subvert the basic procedures of public administration?

Unfortunately, the truth is that this is not an isolated incident. It is pervasive. Everywhere we look, politicians have taken operational control of public administration. The seeds of this rot were sown in the early years of the transition to democracy, and for very good reason. The state needed to be transformed, and political leadership needs to the power to enact this change.

But, twenty years later, we have a pervasive culture of the domination of public administration by elected politicians. Some are of good character. Others are skelms. Some are educated and others are not. Some have good ideas about public administration, others have terrible ideas.

But none of them are professional public managers. When it comes to public administration they are all amateurs. And being placed in positions of operational authority, they are consistently eroding the quality of the public managemnet. Life Esidemeni is the most glaring example of mistakes that are repeated day in and day out. We need to correct this imbalance.

The constitution clearly sets out a manifesto for the type public service we should build. Chapter 10 states that public administration must be guided by principles including:

  • A high standard of professional ethics
  • Efficient, economic and effective use of resources
  • A developmental oriented
  • Services must be provided impartially, fairly, equitably and without bias
  • Responsiveness, accountability and transparency
  • Public participation in policymaking.
  • A public administration that is representative of citizens, with human resource management that are based on ability, objectivity, fairness and the need to redress the imbalances of the past.

You are the professionals that can make this constitutional vision a reality. You are committed to serving South Africa. You are committed to serving the vision of the Constitution.

You have shown that you are committed to improving your own capabilities. You have demonstrated an ability to rise above the particulars of everyday life and grasp the enduring ideas that can guide our action.

You must now place your chips on the table, and the stakes are very high. You cannot afford to blindly follow instructions. You must impost order on change. You must stand for the law and the constitution. You must stand for the whole people – all citizens, not the members of one party or another. You must work together with other professionals to build a state we can all be proud of.

Congratulations and good luck.