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BUSANI NGCAWENI: The public sector must unlearn complacency

OPINION

A strange weather forecast of between six and 26 degrees was a sign: a portent of things to come. How do you dress for such a wide margin? So were the several failed online check-in attempts the night before, which seldom happens. I figured I should just get to the airport on time.

Few things are as torturous as the early morning flights such as the Mthatha-bound SA Express from OR Tambo International Airport. You have to divorce linen just before 4am, make a quick acquaintance with an overhead sprinkler, skip some routines and break the limits of velocity to make it on time for the check-in at the ungodly hour of 5am.

The sparkling smile of the lady at the counter did little to temper my mood when she told me the flight had been cancelled and that she wasn’t sure why. I was directed to the AirLink counter where I was swiftly transferred - and without much thought, I proceeded to the lounge to join my traveling companions.

We exchanged morning pleasantries with the directors general (DGs) of Finance, Human Settlements and Employment and Labour (he was off to a different destination) and joked about the previous night’s economic cluster meeting that ended at 8pm. I’d had the added misfortune of a flat tyre that forced me to resort to the faithful, tax-dodging Uber to get home.

My companions were sent rushing helter-skelter when I told them the SA Express flight had been cancelled. They had checked in much earlier and had to rush back to the check-in counters to be transferred. By the time the AirLink boarding procedures were completed, it was too late, and thus the DGs of Treasury and Human Settlements missed the Mthatha flight. Their only option was to be routed via East London and drive to Mthatha to join us.

We were all heading to Mthatha at the behest of the president, who had instructed that we move apace to get the long-awaited uMzimvubu water scheme up and running. But now we would have to wait four hours for the leaders of the delegation to arrive at the proposed dam wall site before we could seriously engage on financing and engineering options.

What an inconvenience!

Thankfully, a minibus had been procured and was waiting for us when we landed. We proceeded to the briefing venue together with several government engineers and senior officials who had made it onto the AirLink flight.

A trip between the airport and town in Mthatha is overwhelmingly inconvenient. It is a monument to a lack of town planning; there is dirt everywhere, and the roads are in appalling condition and congested.

It is difficult to reconcile the town’s brand - The Home of Legends - with the reality of a municipality that does not provide a basic service such as refuse removal - or “legend” citizens who don’t seem to care too much either.

How do you call yourself local government when you preside over local filth and untidiness?

The Department of Environmental Affairs is not enforcing basic waste management regulations that should protect the children from exposure to such levels of health hazards.

This mission is doomed, I found myself thinking.

Besides the inconvenience of time and cost, how, I wondered, were we going to have a fruitful engagement on what needed to be done without the DGs of National Treasury and Human Settlements (on this mission trading as DG of Water and Sanitation) on hand to give direction?

Look at me, I thought. How typical of us in the public service with our middle-class existential preoccupations, including the fear of inconvenience. We frown at the sight of dirt. We think about the weather, the pain of waking up at the crack of dawn, and the trouble of GPS coordinates.

Yet we inconvenience our people every day. They cohabit with dirt and walk long distances to access water and sometimes, schools and clinics.

And what about the over 300,000 villagers who have been waiting for the uMzimvubu Water Scheme for decades. How much more can the poor be inconvenienced?

But that is who we are. Inconvenience is our middle name.

The airline that failed us on our Friday trip is a sad story of years of inconvenience and indifference.

Despite receiving billions in bailouts and the ongoing musical chairs at Airways Park, it remains idling on the corporate governance runway, unable to secure clearance for take-off.

Inconvenience is their middle name.

They allow people to board and cancel the flight. Imagine this: they inconvenienced the DG of Treasury who skipped a vital meeting where departments make budget bids, to travel to the Eastern Cape to explore ways of unblocking the national priority of building uMzimvubu Dam.

It is only a matter of time before we sing amagugu for SA Express, and it will no doubt be interesting if in future they were to sit before that same DG of Treasury to ask for guarantees and bailouts.

Back to the uMzimvubu Dam mission: here we were, the mandarins (an advanced thinking class in the public service as we sometimes imagine ourselves), gathered in a desolate village trying to make head and tail of how we could remove barriers to building the project.

The project has been planned with few assumptions; one being that there is money somewhere to build it. But where though, considering that the fiscus is under pressure?

Yet there is no turning back. There will be a water scheme in uMzimvubu. Our task is to find technical and financial solutions to the problem and get the scheme going.

This requires deep thinking, as if we were in Mesopotamia or the Catharge, where water catchment solutions were found with limited resources.

Today, technology is our biggest resource. Therein lies scenarios for water catchment at a rate and pace that the fiscus can absorb, not an unviable R20 billion (excluding ‘hidden’ costs like operations and maintenance fees) water scheme.

We are at a crunch point in the history of the country where we can no longer liberally make decisions that inconvenience the rest of society. Public policy choices must be prudent and responsive, even if some of the tough choices we have to make may be inconvenient.

If SA Express is unable to service the Mthatha route, it must close it down. If the original design of uMzimvubu is unaffordable, the scheme must be rationalised to balance the urgent need for the supply of water to the households within the means available to the state.

That is the approach we will follow as we explore options for consideration by authorities.

True to form, the return flight was also cancelled - forcing people to find emergency accommodation. Good for tourism, inconvenient for those concerned.

We tell this story of inconvenience not so much as an exposé on the fragility of the governance system - but more so as a reminder that it is time for serious soul-searching, deep thinking and innovation from senior officials in the public sector.

A state of affairs where service delivery proceeds with lethargy and at a snail’s pace is no longer viable.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has indicated his increasing intolerance of excuses and unscientific explanations for delays in delivery.

If a flight can’t take off, travelers must be informed on time. If the original design of the dam is not affordable, alternatives must immediately be presented so that the water access challenge can be addressed. And refuse should be removed - by a municipality or citizens - to keep the environment clean and safe for children.

It is time the leadership of state departments and SOEs rethink their ways of rationalising and doing. The 25 years of democratic experience must count for something: we must learn to unlearn complacency; we must learn to act diligently and faster in order not to inconvenience the people who need to access clean water, the children who must play in safer environments and airline travelers who require reliability. We must learn to respect the limitations of the fiscus and not commit government to programmes that aren't viable.

Learning to unlearn the counter-productive lessons we have seen over the years is no longer an option. We have to honour our words and deliver on the promises. Lest inconvenience remain our middle name.

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni

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