Got a corruption tip? S. Africa's hotline is listening.
Launched this week, it has been overloaded with calls targeting undelivered pensions, lack of running water, and spotty electricity.
Welcome to South Africa's anticorruption hotline. If you would like to report an act of corruption by a South African government official, press 1. If you would like a piece of the action, press 2.
OK, so that last line is a joke.
But the launching of an anticorruption hotline, run out of the very offices of President Jacob Zuma himself, is perhaps the best sign that Mr. Zuma is taking the issue of corruption, and the growing public anger over poor delivery of services by government agencies, seriously.
And the incredible volume of calls – 7,261 in the first three hours of the first day, Monday, and 12,000 on the following day, according to the South Africa Press Association – is an indication that corruption and good governance are not laughing matters, at least to South African citizens.
"The biggest obstacle for effective government in South Africa is the substantial gap between government and citizens," says Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, an initiative of Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.
People have said this is simply for public relations, he adds. "There's nothing wrong with a PR gesture, with government trying to see what citizens feel. But if government doesn't act on what the citizens tell them, then people will get cynical. It could cause problems for government."
Already there have been protests in more than a dozen townships across the country over the past year, with citizens taking to the streets, shutting down markets, and blocking traffic in protest over government failure to fulfil promises of delivering basic services, such as running water, electricity, and toilets.
Last spring, public anger over the government's inability to control illegal immigration spilled over into a month of xenophobic riots that killed 60 people and forced tens of thousands of immigrants from their homes.
President Zuma made clear that this hotline is important to him on its first day, when he manned the phones himself and took a few calls. The first was from a woman in Eastern Cape Province, who had been trying for years to access the pension for her dead husband, but was repeatedly sent home by unfriendly civil servants demanding more paperwork. The second was from a man south of Johannesburg, complaining of sewage leaks. Both callers seemed surprised they were speaking with Zuma.
Afterward, Zuma – himself accused of accepting bribes in an arms-scandal case that was later dropped – gave the hotline staff a pep talk.
"We want people to be able to tell us what their problems are with service delivery, so that we can assist directly," he told them Monday. "This means that you have a challenging job. You may receive calls from very angry people, who would have been provoked by your colleagues from other departments."
The hotline has had its technical hiccups. Of the 12,000 calls that came to the hotline on Tuesday, for instance, nearly one-third didn't make it past the automated welcome message. A further 7,500 callers abandoned the effort before even getting through, due to "high call volumes." Only 500 calls were answered by a human "agent."
A South African news weekly, the Mail and Guardian, tried calling the hotline for 30-1/2 hours before getting through to an agent. As the reporter relates a problem with Johannesburg City Power, the agent gives a series of "hmms," and then says, "Thank you for your call. Somebody will give you a call today and give you a reference number. After three days, they will give you a call on your cell to update you. Or you can call back."
Presidential spokesman Vusi Mona told reporters that the president's office would work out some of the kinks in the system over the next few weeks, "with a view to having a fully functional service by the end of the month."