MASERU — Hundreds of government workers celebrated the annual Public Service Day at Setsoto Stadium last week.
Held under the theme “Strengthen leadership management for improved public service delivery in Africa” the occasion was hailed as a success.
The civil servants looked delighted.
Yet it is hard to imagine that the general public, the people they serve, are as happy with the services they get from government officials.
Many say the government workers are not only inept but also corrupt.
It’s either the service at government offices is painfully slow or public servants demand bribes to speed up delivery.
These cries are not without justification.
Last month the Court of Appeal said a former National Assembly clerk, Matlamukele Matete, should be jailed for corruption.
This was after Matete had appealed against the High Court ruling convicting him of corruption and fraud where he was sentenced to five years or a fine of M10 000 for trying to buy a photocopying machine for parliament at an inflated price from Itec Lesotho in 2005.
Matete had connived with the supplier to inflate the price of the photocopier so they could share the spoils.
Other popular corruption cases were that of three top Lesotho Highlands Water Commission officials who were convicted for taking bribes.
Former chief executive of the LHWP, Masupha Sole, is serving a 15-year jail term after he was found guilty of accepting a US$6 million bribe from international firms in 2002.
The former chief delegate to the commission, Reatile Mochebelele, is a fugitive from justice from Lesotho where he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for receiving bribes to award contracts to a German firm during the construction of Katse Dam.
Letlafuoa Molapo, who was Mochebeblele’s deputy in the project, is currently doing time at Maseru Central Prison after he was also found guilty of taking bribes from the same company.
Sixtus Tohlang who had replaced Mochebelele was also accused of using fraudulent tax documents to register a vehicle he bought in SA in 2003.
Corruption, it would seem, permeates the whole government system.
It is the treasure trough from which senior government officials and juniors are feeding at will.
If you want to escape a traffic fine you pay the police officer.
If you want to get a passport quickly you pay the passport officer.
For plum government tenders you pay the Tender Board members.
For a few hundred maloti officials at the traffic department can get you a driver’s licence without you taking a road test.
For a lenient sentence you pay the prosecutor to molest the evidence against you.
“Blue Cards” used to register vehicles are sold like cookies in illegal offices operated by syndicates that have government officials in their ranks.
The same goes for other important documents like permits for public transport vehicles and tax clearances.
These are not long tales of the old woman but the reality that Basotho live with every day.
Desperate for quick services many innocent citizens have become willing participants in these nefarious activities.
The general public, the very people who are supposed to report corrupt government workers, are partaking in the corrupt activities.
Transparency International’s corruption perception index for 2010 shows that Lesotho is less corrupt than other African countries.
But not much comfort should be drawn from that because the regional countries with strong economic ties to the Kingdom have better rankings.
Compared to its peers in the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu) Lesotho is the second most corrupt country after Swaziland, another kingdom.
The widely respected index gives Lesotho a 3.5 score on a 10-point scale.
South Africa is at 4.5, Namibia at 4.4 and Botswana with 5.8.
At 3.2 only Swaziland is worse than Lesotho among the Sacu member countries.
According to the Mo Ibrahim foundation Lesotho is ranked at 3.5 where six is the best.
Accountability of public officials is at 33.33 where 100 is the worst while corruption in government and public officials is ranked at 20 where 100 is the worst and where one is the best in corruption and bureaucracy Lesotho is rated at 0.63.
Mo Ibrahim foundation’s index shows Lesotho in more favourable light but its own people, including senior government officials, say corruption is rampant in the public services.
Public Service Minister Semano Sekatle said the government through his ministry is working on preventing and eliminating corruption in civil service.
Sekatle told the Lesotho Times in an exclusive interview that corruption is “a serious problem”.
“It does not matter how small it might be because it can be infectious. It may begin with stealing things as small as a pen or a roll of toilet paper. The next day it would be a bigger thing. We have to deal with it,” Sekatle said.
He said the fight against corruption in the public service must include the private sector which, in most cases, is the one that gives the bribes. Co-ordination between the public service ministry, anti-corruption unit, police and the media included is important in the battle against the scourge of corruption.
“Prevention does not stop with the servants but should include the public. It takes two to tango,” Sekatle said.
“They (public) out of desperation bribe the servants by inflating the normal charges of the services. It happens once, twice and the next thing you know it is endemic.”
Civil servants justify their corrupt activities by pointing to their meagre salaries.
Corruption is a necessity because we have to feed our families, so goes the general excuse.
“We are paid little money for salaries. In this economic crisis where the cost of everything is up you have got to have another way of getting money,” said one middle manager in the government who refused to be named.
“Unfortunately because of our situation people end up accepting bribes,” he added.
“When your bank account is empty a few days after you are paid then you have to find other means to make money. Government should start paying people better salaries. Until then there is no way they are going to win in their fight against corruption.”
But Sekatle said there is nothing that can justify a government employee taking bribes.
“In as much as low salaries do not justify corruption more money would not necessarily stop the practice. Otherwise we would not have highly paid people like the Lesotho Highlands big fishes prosecuted and sentenced for corruption.”