The good news is that a politician finally resigned as a sign of taking responsibility for wrongdoing, even if it was just hours after she was implicated in one of the most damning reports since we became a democracy. The bad news is that it is probably a case of too little, too late.
Soon after the news of the resignation of Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu became known this week, there were already people who lauded her for being “selfless” and “heroic”. There was even one headline that described her as a “victim” after her resignation.
How heroic must you be to have, directly or indirectly (this is for the courts to decide), caused the deaths of 94 mentally-ill patients who you removed from reasonably safe care facilities to private, unlicensed non-governmental organisations?
How heroic must you be to have lied to the health ombudsman during his investigation into the matter? Mahlangu apparently downplayed the number of people who died when she was interviewed by the ombudsman.
No, Mahlangu was not heroic nor selfless. She was forced to resign when she realised that her misdemeanours were being made public.
Calling her a “victim” is an insult to all the real victims, the patients who died and their families who have to deal with their grief.
But resigning does not mean that she can suddenly be absolved of her involvement in one of the most sickening incidents of our democracy. It also does not mean that she should be “rewarded” with another comfortable job in the public service. Already, some people on social media were suggesting that she become an ambassador. I sincerely hope that they were only joking.
She should be facing the full brunt of the law, because this case must go to court if the families are going to get real justice after what happened.
Overall, according to health ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, an estimated 1 317 patients were removed from care homes to 27 unlicensed NGOs. The reasons for the move are not clear but the outcome was disastrous.
Makgoba described the decision to move the patients as “reckless, unwise and flawed with inadequate planning”.
One can only hope that Mahlangu will not be the only one who will resign. There are several senior government officials who helped her to implement her foolish decision and they should suffer the same fate.
Maybe there is a lesson in here for government officials who blindly follow the instructions of their political principals.
Public servants need to be guided by the Constitution of South Africa and by what is morally and ethically correct. They should not be guided by the whims of their political masters. They should have the guts to tell ministers and MECs that what they want done is wrong.
The problem is that most public servants just comply with the wishes of the people to whom they report. These are also often the people who placed them in their positions, so they feel some kind of loyalty and gratitude to these individuals.
If anything good is to come out of the Mahlangu incident – apart from the fact that this should never happen again – it is that we should once again review the decision to link public servant positions so closely to political parties and politicians.
I am not making a comment on the ANC’s cadre deployment policies, because there have been many so-called deployed cadres who have excelled in their public service positions. And, in any case, the DA does the same in the province and metros that they control.
What I am asking for is for us to realise the value of career public servants as opposed to those employed by and on behalf of politicians.
If someone is a career public servant, without an allegiance to the politician that she is meant to serve, it is more likely that she would be honest in her interactions with this person.
We do not know whether Mahlangu ignored the advice of people around her, but I suspect – based on my experience of working with government – that she gave an instruction and the public servants looked at ways of implementing without wanting to challenge her authority.
Normally, if a minister says the sky is pink, then everyone around her says ‘what a lovely shade of pink’.
This is a good example where authority should have been challenged, even if it meant risking your job as a public servant, because lives were at stake.
It is 27 years this week since Nelson Mandela’s release was announced and the ANC and other organisations were unbanned. How could an ANC MEC for Health, of all things, be so callous and uncaring? This is a good time for all of us to reflect on where we went wrong and why; and then find ways of getting us back to the human values that drove us during the years of struggle. South Africa deserves better than this.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 4 February 2017)