OPINION | Competence is no good without conscience

With election fever in full swing this week, few might have paid attention to the revealing testimony of the chairman of the Transnet Board, Popo Molefe, at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into state capture.
Reported in TimesSelect, Molefe gives an eye-opening account of the precise mechanisms by which competent people in Transnet were taken out of key decision-making positions.
They would then be replaced with “cronies” who had no idea of how to do the actual job but were more than willing to compromise the procurement processes to the benefit of corrupt operators inside and outside the company.
So, for example, an engineer with two decades of experience in Transnet operations came to be replaced by a teacher.
“This election is about competence,” proclaimed the leader of the official opposition in the hours leading up to the election.
There is no question that competence is a critical factor if the new president is to stand any chance whatsoever of turning around the fortunes of the public sector from state-owned companies to government departments such as education and health.
But this current government has scant regard for competence given the ruling party’s cadre deployment policy.
There are no doubt competent cadres serving in public life but the overwhelming majority are in their positions as a consequence of politics.
A cadre must be rewarded; a faction must be placated; a promise must be kept; an ethnic slight must be avoided; a perception must be rectified; a balance must be maintained.
Political calculations are inevitable in making political appointments such as deciding on cabinet members or chairs of parliamentary committees.
However, when political thinking is extended to critical jobs where technical skills matter – such as a Transnet engineer or the manager of a large hospital or the senior curriculum advisor of an education department – then favouring cadres over competence can have devastating consequences for millions of children, patients, pensioners and commuters on our trains.
We have witnessed this over and over again, from the tragedy of Life Esidemeni to the scandal of the pit latrine toilets in public schools. In such contexts where technical competence is critical for delivery, the only question that should matter is: can you do the job?But competence without conscience is an equal danger. Take a simple example:There are only about 3,000 schools (out of more than 27,000) with holes in the ground for children to relieve themselves.In our kind of economy, this problem can be easily eliminated within a month.You need competent engineers appointed through a transparent procurement process with clear specifications and timelines and the job gets done.It would be the easiest thing in the world for an astute political leader to establish a public private partnership (PPP) that commits the resources to sort out this eyesore.But beside competence, you need conscience – by which I mean a genuine concern about and care for the welfare of the children of the poor and their safety when going to the toilet.Not in South Africa.I know of a recent case where a private company committed the resources and the plans to installing toilets in those rural schools located in areas where their employees worked.One half of the schools had decent toilets in no time.But the other half of the schools refused the gift because the officials wanted the money given directly to them rather than managed by the company with the schools and the contractors in partnership.There are no prizes for guessing why these officials wanted the money channelled through their own sources.And so here is one clear example of how a lack of conscience about the safety of children keeps things exactly as they are, even when competence comes knocking on the front door.I do not for one moment believe that things will be different on the day after the election, despite the tons of promises made to the electorate.That is one of the reasons why six million young people did not even bother to register to vote, and why of the 26.76 million citizens who did register, a sizeable chunk will not have even shown up at the polls.This is the sixth national democratic election – by now we can vote on track record and not only hype.And the future looks bleak until a new generation of political leaders emerge committed to establishing a government where competence and conscience come together in the service of the people.We are not there yet but we must insist on such a commitment from those who govern us...

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