Queues for state services are the embodiment of indifference to those who wait, with disrespect and apathy often the only rewards. Consider this incident during our monitoring of the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.
Ms X arrived at the Johannesburg courts to apply for a protection order against her abusive partner. She had earlier been to a hospital, where she'd been stitched and treated for her injuries. She'd then gone to the police to report the assault. They claimed to be unable to assist her and sent her to the court. But it was now a quarter to four and the clerk, who intended leaving at four o'clock, refused to help.
Ms X was distraught at having to return home to her abusive partner without any kind of protective court order. The clerk was unmoved and told her to report her problems to the police. She then steadfastly ignored Ms X until court closing time.
Countless variations on this theme are played out daily in the maintenance courts, pension pay-out points, police stations, clinics and hospitals of South Africa.
Fortunately, all state functionaries are not surly and resentful, while rudeness is hardly unique to state employees either (think of most banks' notions of "customer service").
But the relationship between state employees and the people who use state services is fundamentally an unequal one. Service users are dependent on particular state departments for day-to-day survival and assistance; public servants are in a position to withhold or grant that assistance. Public servants also deal with those who are most marginal: the elderly, the poor, the illiterate and the victimised who, more often than not, are also female. Under these circumstances the potential for abuse or bullying is ever-present.
The department of public service and administration's batho pele (people first) policy could protect the general public from state employees' behavioural excesses. However, many of its good ideas have not been implemented. In Ms X's case at least five of the policy's eight principles – courtesy, acceptable standard of service, information, access to service and redress – were ignored. Ms X knew none of this because none of this information was prominently displayed as the policy suggests it should be.
The other dimension lies within the structuring of state departments. Generally those employees dealing most often with the public are also the lowest-ranking and least powerful in state institutions. Additionally, cuts in state budgets mean that departments are frequently under-staffed, with one person expected to complete the tasks of two. Disgruntlement with management and working conditions is rife. But lacking the power to tackle their grievances constructively, state employees displace their hostility and dissatisfaction on to those whom they do have power over: the public.
This is why strong public sector unions are necessary. If unions are able to improve employees' working conditions and job satisfaction, then the general public may receive better treatment.
The ramifications of state employees' contempt for the public are extremely serious. For Ms X, the clerk's moment of discourtesy may have life-long consequences. She has been left vulnerable to further physical assault and denied the protection guaranteed her by the bill of rights and the Domestic Violence Act.
Meanwhile, the clerk, and others, continue to be paid to wreak havoc in vulnerable people's lives.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 22 October 2000.