A few things, which may or may not be related, made me think this week of what it means to serve the public. These include the death of former ANC MP Rhoda Joemat; the senseless murder of Rashid Halday, the manager of a dental practice in Khayelitsha; the hospitalisation of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for a “persistent infection”; and, the shenanigans at our troubled national airline and in the Johannesburg and Tshwane metros.
All of these things involve people who, in some way or other, are meant to serve the public, but the definition of what this means is wide and vague.
Public service is often associated with formal employment in government, as in the case of people who we sometimes call “public servants”. These could include elected officials and government bureaucrats.
Often the real public servants are those who are not in the employ of government, but in non-governmental or non-profit organisations. Sometimes, they end up using their own resources to help make a difference to their society. Many times, the difference they make is not inspired by political parties or political philosophy. Often, their contribution is inspired only by a desire to improve the lives of people who are less fortunate than them.
Joemat, who is being buried today, served her community in several capacities over the years, especially during the years of the Struggle when she was active in many organisations, including the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee, the United Democratic Front and the United Women’s Congress, and, later, the ANC, which she served as provincial treasurer and a Member of Parliament. Joemat decided to make her contribution through the formal structures of the liberation movement, including the ANC. She was 72 at the time of her death last Sunday.
Others, like Halday, decided to make their contribution in different ways. He ran a dental practice in under-privileged Khayelitsha and contributed to many social upliftment projects in the area. He was killed on Monday night, presumably by people who he had set out to help, in an armed robbery attempt at the dental practice of his wife, Dr Camillah Bayat. He was 56 years old.
Tutu has served humanity, in a much broader sense than many others, based on his religious and spiritual beliefs. But underpinning his public service is a true commitment to uplifting people irrespective of their religious belief, assigned racial definition, sexual preference or other identity markers.
One of the most decent human beings that I have had the honour to interact with, we pray that he will overcome his current health set-back and will be around for much longer than his 88 years.
This, of course, brings us to people who are supposed to serve the public but merely serve their own interests. These include the people who have run South African Airways and some of our other state-owned entities into the ground – literally and figuratively – and the councillors in Gauteng’s two major metros who appear to be using their positions mainly to benefit themselves at the expense of the people they are supposed to be serving.
Like so many things in South Africa, public service needs to be redefined so that it prioritises the needs and well-being of those who are most vulnerable. It should not matter how you do it, but what you do.
* Fisher is CEO of Ikusasa Lethu Media. Follow him on Twitter @rylandfisher
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.