Between Democratic Indifference and Revolutionary Morality: A Challenge to Public Servants

On the eve of Freedom Day, BUSANI NGCAWENI challenges senior public servants to cleanse themselves of their democratic indifference and think more of those less fortunate  

There is a man called Njinji (clan name for Magwaza) who used to rent a room at my grandparents’ home rural in a village of Ndwedwe, 40 kilometres from Durban. A teacher by training and a drunk by vocation. A disgrace par excellence to the profession, his family, the school that employed him and black people in general. 

I was at university in the mid-90s with Njinji; at least he claims so. I have no recollection of him.
Few thing stood out in my encounter with Njinji on my infrequent visit to the village.
He had been drinking a whole weekend, sleeping on a cold floor of a veranda for two nights.

Drunk from umqombothi and an assortment of other cheap consumables, he had sang and cried (because he could not lift himself up to visit the toilet) and for a missing empty wallet – it had been taken by his drinking mates; the school boys he teaches. 

When I engaged him, he admitted that he made no contribution to national development because the Arts & Culture and Technology subjects he taught were just as ineffective for rural learners as himself because even if he went to class, what he taught didn’t enhance learners post-school training and employment opportunities. 

My aunt, his landlord, always complained that this man was stealing from the children because he never went to school. It appeared that he had had a violent clash with the house of the crocodile hence he never bathed. 

His domicile had become a driving hole with his learners whilst the seventy year old helplessly looked on. He claims Arts & Culture and Technology that he taught didn’t necessarily need him in class. He admitted to me that he was functionally computer illiterate, yet he must have taught poor rural kids. One couldn’t help but think: what the hell was this drunk doing in our classrooms? 

Who was accountable for this tragedy, this social injustice? Where were the parents and the school governing body? Why couldn’t they lead a march to get this man out of the school in the same way they had marched against the local municipal councillor?  Where were the district officials and why had they failed to pick up the rot at the consistently underperforming Ngungwini Secondary School? 

I wondered too about Njinji’s parents, their whereabouts and silence. Maybe they were content with the knowledge that Njinji was stealing oxygen far away from their premises. Three things I am certain about: the poor rural children Njinji taught faced a bleak future for his subjects weren’t in demand in the labour market – and he never really taught. 

Second, his tenure at my grandparents’ home had to unceremoniously end. The weekend of my visit was his last days there.  Third: poverty is the only victor in this Njinji tragedy. This is no pathway out of inter inter-generational poverty. 

Like the children he taught, Njinji was always going to end up a poor man. His own children also faced negative future prospects. Chances of a doctor or an engineer coming out of Ngungwini Secondary were very slim during his time and I suspect such remains. Already those kids were two subjects down. Tragedy unfolding before our eyes. 

And everybody remained silent! 

By the end of the weekend I took my boys and returned to Jozi knowing fully well that those boys I left behind were in a dead end! My only achievement was to evict a drunk from my granny’s home, all my social capital notwithstanding. 

It is two years since I last saw Njinji. Attending a funeral near his home village last weekend I enquired about his whereabouts and wellbeing. Nobody really knew what happened to him save for pointing out that he had moved around few other high schools. He had been seen spending days on end in local drinking holes and moving from house to house scavenging for leftover meat after weekend traditional ceremonies. In fact, some suspect he may have made the final trek to meet his ancestors. 

But this story is not about Njinji. It is rather about myself and many others who have the political capital to hold Njinjis accountable. By expelling him from my granny’s home I dealt with a personal inconvenience but not a national tragedy as he continued to “teach” at the same school before being moved around to few others. 

By taking my little boys away whilst leaving the rest in the village to be tormented by Njinji I actively took part in the injustice. By failing to take up the issue with school management team, provincial and national education authorities I became Njinji’s cheerleader. After all I work in the Presidency and access to these authorities up to ministerial level is not an obstacle.

Perhaps this is not about me neither but the class I have come to represent – the class of people who have divorced revolutionary morality and embraced what I call democratic indifference. 

By democratic indifference I am referring to those who want to enjoy all fruits of freedom for as long as we don’t have to take any responsibility and irrespective of what happens to others. We celebrate and embrace the post-apartheid dividend for as long as the benefits accrue to us and those around us. We become indifferent to the plight of others, especially those who lack social and political capital. 

This perverse behaviour has gained root in our polity. We pretend as if we don’t see nor hear the voices of young people crying for help. We defer problems to the state – “government must deal with this” – when in fact relief could be offered through personal sacrifices before the state gets involved. 

Maybe I could have prevailed on Njinji to go to rehab seeing that he saw me as some celebrity of sort. But I walked away from him. Evicting him from the premises was a job well done when in fact I was merely displacing the problem, not solving it. 

Maybe I should have called his principal who is coincidentally my parents neighbour in Inanda. But I didn’t. I packed my slaughtered free range chicken and returned to ‘civilization’.
By doing so I showed my tolerance for ineptitude and indifference. I overlooked a dilapidating phenomenon of drunk public officials who undermine our democratic gains and cause confusion. 

If we do act, we limit our action to social media deluding ourselves that it may take 140 characters to achieve change. We narcissistically check in and check out of social media looking for who “liked” our status or sent a friend invitation. We trend not for dedication, selflessness, professionalism, ethical conduct and a passion for transformation. We trend for conspicuous consumption and proximity to power. 

We seek more that which maximise our benefits, especially as senior public servants, without giving too much in return. 

We should use a different lens to look at what constitutes the democratic dividend – that which accrues to us as a result of the demise of apartheid, and embrace the idea that the dividend will grow exponentially if it is broad-based than if narrowly distributed among the elites on persal (government public employees’ payroll system). 

Cleansing ourselves of democratic indifference will require bold action and courage. It is not a call for romanticising about the past but a plea to become revolutionary in outlook – in a sense that revolution is regarded as recognition of necessity. In this case necessity is the fight against poverty, inequality and unemployment. That is a challenge for the mandarins who must lead the renaissance of the public service. 

*Ngcaweni is a public servant writing in his personal capacity

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