This is how we fix South Africa

A voter casts their vote in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape. File Picture: Independent Newspapers

A voter casts their vote in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape. File Picture: Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 25, 2024


I used to work for an innovations awards trust many years ago, where social projects were rewarded with a cash injection if they had shown proven success measured against set criteria.

The beauty of this reward was that the bulk of the money granted was to be used on disseminating information about their success in a bid to replicate it elsewhere.

We rewarded community-based projects like feeding schemes, education and skills programmes, to massive civil infrastructure projects and interventions; one year, we even awarded a government hospital our platinum prize because the new manager had put in place measures that significantly reduced the waiting times to see a doctor, and saw a significant improvement in health outcomes.

It got me thinking at the time: what if we could replicate this success at a local, regional, provincial and national government level?

What if we ran wards, and municipalities, and metros, and provinces, and the country like a business?

See, my juvenile thinking at the time was that if this hospital in the middle of Nêrensiewersfonteinspruit could achieve such success by behaving like a business, surely treating government like a business should work too, right?

Being a government hospital meant having to be constrained by government hospital hamstrings - tight budgets, short staff, ailing infrastructure, the works - so the new hospital manager implemented a number of carrot and stick methods of motivation.

Strict adherence to time sheets and an almost school headmistress approach to late-coming and tardiness was adopted. Doctors were rewarded for the number of patients they consulted in a day. Nurses were rewarded for reducing the waiting times in triage. Birthdays and special achievements were highlighted and praised on noticeboards, newsletters and staff gatherings. It worked. By all accounts, the hospital turned the corner from failing to a sought-after success.

So why can’t we run the government like we run a business?

Well, the bottom line is... there is no bottom line. As much as businesses claim they are customer-centric, they are primarily focused on their bottom line. Profits above all else.

In a government, or rather, civil service, you don’t have customers or clients; you have citizens. You have people you are duty-bound to care for, above all else.

And that’s where adopting capitalist productivity-based execution of service delivery falls short of the mandate.

As a business, I need to ensure there is enough demand for my goods and services in order for me to make a profit. As a civil servant, I need to ensure my constituents are happy, have running water, effective and healthy refuse collection, the provision of electricity, and the means to feed themselves and their families in an environment free of crime.

It took me a while to realise you can’t run a country like a business, but there are business principles that can be applied to state structures outside of profit margins.

We don’t need Eskom to be profitable; we need it to provide electricity consistently. Privatisation is not the answer. While the provision of laws to allow for independent power providers may be a solution, you simply then end up creating a widening gap between the haves and have-nots — look to the healthcare sector for an example of this, and the growing gap between private and public healthcare services.

We don’t need water boards to be profitable; we need them to collect enough revenue to maintain their infrastructure and provide clean, potable water to South Africans without major interruptions.

We don’t need Sanral to be profitable; we need them to maintain our land transport infrastructure so there are no potholes or any disruptions to the goods chain.

But we can insist on accountability.

If it is your responsibility to provide electricity, or water, or smooth roads, or refuse collection, then do so.

Your primary objective is to ensure a satisfied populace through effective service delivery, not turn a profit.

Spend the money you’ve been given by Treasury. Effectively collect the monies owed to you. Improve productivity among your staff to ensure effective service delivery.

If government were a business, we, the clients or customers, could simply take our business elsewhere. We could vote with our wallets.

But this is our government; they work for us. We can vote with our literal votes.

So how do we fix South Africa?

Demand accountability.

Demand service delivery.

Demand public service.

Demand your human rights.

We are the many, and together, we can make a difference.

* Lance Witten is the Editor of IOL.