/ 13 May 2023

Load-shedding: our leaders go for the Pontius Pilate approach

De Ruyter Ramaphosa Mantashe
In the know: Then Eskom chief executive André de Ruyter (left) briefs Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe (second left), President Cyril Ramaphosa (centre) and others about corruption and sabotage at Tutuka power station.

When Minister of Public Service and Administration Zola Skweyiya  launched the white paper on the transformation of the public service in October 1997, he said that he wanted the needs of South Africans “to come first”.

He added he also wanted SA citizens, especially those who had experienced the harshest of the apartheid machinery, to view and experience the public service in an entirely new way. Hence, Nelson Mandela’s government named the policy Batho Pele — people first.

More than 25 years later, there is no doubt that Skweyiya’s dream has been defeated. 

Now, something else comes first. That much is clear from how the government has responded to the application to compel it and Eskom to ensure there is no interruption of electricity to public health facilities, public schools and police stations. 

The government’s decision to appeal the ruling adds weight to the argument that people no longer come first.

The high court application, which was led by the United Democratic Movement, went to the heart of the matter, which is simply that access to healthcare and education are rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution. 

Cutting electricity to the facilities that provide health and education cuts access to public services for the people who are most dependent on them.

Among the applicants were two doctors who, according to the court ruling, set out in stark terms the impact of power cuts on health facilities. 

“Paediatric and neonatal units literally require the ‘lights to be on’; critical organs and medical supplies need to be maintained at optimal temperatures; operating theatres need uninterrupted power supplies; life-supporting and monitoring equipment need electricity to run effectively and accurately — and the list goes on.”

The fact that the president and his ministers went to court to deny that they bore any direct responsibility for ensuring the uninterrupted supply of electricity to citizens and the facilities they depend on, speaks volumes about where their minds and hearts are at.

In a well-functioning democracy, where people come first, the office bearers would not have gone to court to wash their hands of the electricity crisis but rather to table for the court’s consideration a way of meeting what the applicants sought. 

That’s what the spirit and letter of “Batho Pele” demanded. That approach would have shown South Africans the president and his ministers were driven by the best interests of citizens, more specifically the poorest, who are the ones who rely heavily on public health and education.

The responses of the ministers of public enterprises, energy and the president can best be characterised as the equivalent of the biblical Pontius Pilate “washing his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person”. 

And so all three said they had no direct responsibility for the relief the applicants sought.

The Pilate approach betrays the spirit and letter of what Skweyiya outlined in October 1997: “When I was elected to office, I knew that one of government’s most important tasks is to build a public service capable of meeting the challenge of improving the delivery of public services to the citizens of South Africa. 

“Access to decent public services is no longer a privilege to be enjoyed by a few; it is now the rightful expectation of all citizens, especially those previously disadvantaged.”

This, as Skweyiya said, is why the guiding principle of the public service transformation and reform he was tabling was “service to the people”. That’s not the case any longer.

And what’s worse is that the government has become so calloused that it feels no shame in going to court to oppose an application that protects the poor, the very same people whose interests it got elected to serve. 

As I have pointed out, the government’s strategy against the application wasn’t about finding alternatives to what the applicants sought. The strategy was to deny responsibility.

That’s not what one would expect from people who sit in government as former liberation fighters, people who often remind South Africans of the hardships they went through during the struggle against apartheid — a struggle whose core motivation was ensuring that the most disadvantaged in our country got rescued from poverty of work, income and opportunities for advancement in all of life’s endeavours.

Admittedly, as Ismail Justice Mahomed reminded us back in 1996, the country will never reach a point where it has all the money and the human capacity to meet all the needs of its citizens and specifically to remove fully the shadow of apartheid. 

However, as he correctly argued, what was called for was “many years of strong commitment, sensitivity and labour to ‘reconstruct our society’ so as to fulfil the legitimate dreams of new generations exposed to real opportunities for advancement”.

“The resources of the state have to be deployed imaginatively, wisely, efficiently and equitably, to facilitate the reconstruction process in a manner which best brings relief and hope to the widest sections of the community, developing for the benefit of the entire nation the latent human potential and resources of every person who has directly or indirectly been burdened with the heritage of the shame and the pain of our racist past.”

That’s my case – the government’s response to the electricity case should have been one that sought to redeploy the country’s limited resources “imaginatively, wisely, efficiently and equitably”, not the washing of hands Pilate-style.

Hlengani Mathebula is a professor at the Turfloop Graduate School of Leadership, the business school of the University of Limpopo. He writes in his personal capacity.