Art of service ... for a fee


Until upright civil servants stand up, corrupt officials will win the war

A CERTAIN national department known for irregular and controversial multi-billion rand tenders has in its employ a very humble junior civil servant.

So down-to-earth is this fellow that he has consistently refused to be promoted.

Many a time top officials in the department had approached him to take up a higher post. He would listen to them and politely explain how satisfied he was with his job.

In so doing, he would come across as someone not driven by the desire for material gain or status. He was happy to watch others rise.

How one wishes he meant well.

In declining to be promoted, common sense would suggest he had forsaken the tangible and the intangible that come with being higher up the bureaucratic ladder. The tangible being the perks and status being the intangible.

Some civil servants would fight tooth and nail to get to top positions because being senior in government and being close to a minister or director-general means a lot.

It can be the defining line between poverty and wealth. (Just like being an ANC branch chairman in Polokwane or Mthatha). Your material wellbeing is relatively safer.

This explains why in some ministries there is a stampede among officials to carry a minister's hand-bag.

The importance of being elevated lies in what the philosopher Georg Hegel calls "the struggle for recognition" among human beings.

Even as this struggle gripped some of his colleagues who were fighting for positions, Mr Humble, so to call this down-to-earth junior official, remained seemingly unconcerned. He was not going to be part of the "struggle for recognition" through promotions.

This is despite the fact that he is, in the government's bureaucratic hierarchy, an assistant director.

Those familiar with the operations of government will know that above an assistant director, there is a deputy director, followed by a director, then a chief director, thereafter a deputy director-general and finally the director-general.

Mr Humble is not a junior clerk. But he is certainly not senior. Is he really humble? He has been with the department for some time. He sits in its procurement committee - and herein lies the real reason for his refusal to accept a higher position.

He would rather forsake "promotion" than be removed from where real power lies: deciding on tenders, quietly "fixing" them. For him, it's not about fighting for the minister's handbag. For him the real deal is about power to influence tender processes.

Any "promotion" would amount to demotion. And so, he keeps turning away all other offers, preferring to be a permanent assistant director of this very important department.

If Mr Humble was clean, he wouldn't find sitting in the procurement committee a cool thing.

Mr Humble's case illustrates the extent to which corruption has become normal, to the point that having access to state resources that can be appropriated for private benefit is much more prestigious than holding a senior position.

The pride that comes with being a civil servant who took up a post to serve citizens has been replaced with the pride that comes with stealing from citizens.

This is a key ingredient of what George Soros, the well-known financial speculator-turned-philanthropist calls "market fundamentalism", when money has entered areas of human life where it does not belong.

The Auditor-General has raised concerns about the extent to which government employees or their relatives do business with the state through tenders. But it's not only about tenders; it is also about civil servants being in a position to solicit bribes of many kinds.

In one police station on the East Rand, Gauteng, cops fight every Friday and Saturday night over who will man the police station.

There is tough competition to be in the street on those busy days because there is a lot of money to be made from drunken drivers.

Police officers who spend the night taking statements at police stations are poorer than those patrolling the streets.

Recently, a few graduate traffic officers were fired in Mpumalanga for soliciting bribes to squash traffic fines.

In another case in Eastern Cape, a traffic officer went to the extent of giving a motorist his bank account to deposit "colddrink money". This, after the motorists who was caught speeding pleaded for leniency as he didn't have bank notes with him.

I doubt if the cops who were arrested at OR Tambo Airport two weeks ago while soliciting bribes from foreigners would have liked to change jobs.

I wouldn't be surprised if it emerged that the cops charged with soliciting bribes from a "couple" caught literally with their pants down in the bush were specialist hunters always looking to profiteer through people's sexual proclivities.

All this means that there is a big war within the civil service. It's about the clash of values. Those who are loyal to their oath of office and contracts serve with a clean conscience.

On the other hand, there are the dealers like the deceiving Mr Humble and the rotten cops who believe honesty doesn't pay the bills. Mr Humble and his allies are a danger to the government and the whole of society.

He might be doing his deals quietly, but his deeds have echoes in distant horizons.

Even in the midst of a positive view about Africa, aptly captured in the headline "The hopeful continent", The Economist had this to say: "South Africa, which used to be a model for the continent, is tainted with corruption..."

For this accolade we have Mr Humble and his ilk to thank. So far, they seem to be the victors in this clash of values - until the many genuine civil servants rise and fight back.