Given all the Zuma-pessimism of late, it was good to have a flash of optimism last week. I went to a Constitution Week talk where one of the speakers was Dr Bongani Ngqulunga who works in the Office of the Presidency and, as I understand it, is in Zuma’s inner circle. To my surprise, he was open to engagement on tough issues and was refreshingly critical of the government.
Particularly, he acknowledged that a large part of the problem with public service delivery is a lack of accountability for officials rather than a lack of capacity. This makes a stark change from Mbeki’s stubborn protests that all problems of delivery come down to a lack of capacity – not enough manpower, too few skilled employees etc. By contrast, Dr Ngqulunga admitted that in many instances public officials are just unwilling or too lazy to help the people that come to them, and know that they can get away with it.
The reason he gave for this is that the middle class sends its children to private or high performing public schools, pays its utility bills online rather than at municipal offices and uses private rather than public health care. On the other hand, the lower classes and the indigent don’t have that option so have to interact with and rely on government officials. Government officials know that this group of people probably aren’t aware of their rights and don’t have the means to get legal advice – so when an official tells someone that has been waiting in line for 5 hours to come back tomorrow because he’s too busy, that person will probably do so without asking questions.
This may all seem like pretty obvious reasoning. Granted, it’s not profound, but the fact that the Presidency is acknowledging it is. The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging that it exists. Optimism seems a fitting response after years of Mbeki waving off responsibility with his magic capacity wand.