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Profiles In Service

This week I read media reports on the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Botswana.

I got thoroughly frustrated, but failed miserably to communicate my distress and irritation clearly in a conversation with one of my friends. This is what I meant to say.

 Our society has upheld a dubious culture of holding the representatives of the people up “very important persons” – VIPs. This culture goes hand-in-hand with making extraordinary and often preposterous accommodations for politicians in general, and elected officials in particular. Chris Nyanga’s letter (not dated) that was issued a few days ago on behalf of Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Health and Wellness provides a clear illustration and depravity of this phenomena.

 So, during this time when policymakers are faced with an onerous task of combating a deadly pandemic and rationing a small supply of lifesaving vaccines, being a very important person (VIP) should take on an entirely different meaning. At the very least, those who are considered VIPs should be sensitive to any suggestion, real or imagined, that they are using their political muscle to get to the front of the line for vaccines.

 The representatives of the people should receive their vaccine doses alongside constituents and bagolo ko dikgaolong tsa bone, to combat vaccine apprehension where necessary. They should also be using this opportunity to assure our people that even though there is a short supply of the vaccines, help is on the way. I believe some of our leaders did exactly that.

 However, a significant number of leaders failed to think deeply enough about their roles, and their responsibilities to their constituents.

They fell prey to the hoopla around their VIP status. In this case, they missed an opportunity to do the much-needed vaccine advocacy. Instead, they allowed themselves to be associated with a steady supply of Wi-Fi, finger foods, and a possible case of vaccine nepotism.

 (If I may digress, where is the ARMREADY crowd? And, what is ARMREADY, other than sloganeering and spending obscene amounts of taxpayer money on useless t-shirts instead of the much need PPE)?   Back to the theme of VIPs. When it comes to good governance, the U.S has not always modelled the best behaviour,

and will forever be embarrassingly known as a land of insurrection. However, it offers a commendable example in its designation of elected officials, vis-a-vis their constituents.

 Highly qualified people in the U.S routinely make a choice whether to work in the private sector and make millions of dollars, or to join the public service and make considerably less money. Those who choose the private sector forcefully identify with its mandate and motivation, where CEOs of companies are primarily answerable to their investors and shareholders.

 On the other hand, the label of public service encompasses both the elected representatives of the people, and career government officials. So yes, the President and Vice President of the United States are public servants. So are the leaders and members of the legislative bodies – in both the governing party and the opposition.

 They work in the American government, for the American people; they are paid by the taxpayers. An argument can be made that elected officials in the U.S are a different category of public servants, but the fact remains that they are subjected to the rules, regulations and ethics that govern everyone who draws their salary from public funds. While not perfect, I find this arrangement quite instructive.

 Now, let’s imagine a scenario where the elected representatives of the people of Botswana, who are paid from public coffers, were to be characterised as public servants and be governed by the same code of conduct as the Botswana public service. Of course, they would still command the power and influence that comes with holding a political office.

They would also be subjected to a new set of ethics and accountabilities.

 For one, this would mean that elected officials would be barred from accepting any gifts - of any kind or amount - that come to them as a result of their public position or office.  And maybe, just maybe, the VIP entitlement mentality would be replaced by a new culture of service. If that was the case, the energy and stories out of this week would probably have been of extraordinary profiles in service.

Guest Column

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