Distinguished public service


A lot is said about the poor state of our civil service, weighed down by antiquated pre-independence systems and processes that we have simply failed to fashion to our modern post-colonial needs.

Dr Rowley recently commented in an interview that the current civil service system is not working for us, but civil service is not just about working in an arm of government, it is more than that.

If we accept that the civil service comprises civil servants or bureaucrats employed by the government to work in the public sector, as distinct from the public service, in which public servants or individuals appointed by some sector of the State serve the population and perform public duties, I would like to suggest that the best civil servants regard themselves as public servants. Many individuals in the moribund civil service deserve a medal every year for sheer resilience, but too many others deserve our opprobrium for not understanding the notion of public service.

Patricia Robertson, widely known as Patsy and recently deceased, was the exemplar of what public service really means. She went beyond her job description to contribute to change that she considered vital in the service of all people.

She started her life as a civil servant in the diplomat sector of the Jamaica civil service and after working at the High Commission in London was poached to become, from 1983 until 1994, the official spokesperson for the voluntary, intergovernmental Commonwealth of Nations. During that time, fired up by the racism she had witnessed first-hand in the US, where she had studied, she made the destruction of institutionalised racism in the then bete noire of every liberal, South Africa, her focus.

She was the quiet power behind a succession of Commonwealth secretaries general, whose appointments she also influenced, and played a most significant role as the thorn in the side of the UK’s Conservative Thatcher government, helping to bring down apartheid in South Africa. In a tribute to her in the UK press, the distinguished, veteran journalist Victoria Brittain tells of how Patsy achieved it.

For years in the mid-1980s, the UK TV news led with stories of the war between Sir Shridath Ramphal, Commonwealth Secretary General, and Mrs Thatcher. She, determined to prolong the repulsive division between the races; he, to kill it off. They fought, too, over the use of economic and sporting sanctions in both Rhodesia and South Africa in order to weaken white rule. It was a war of attrition, led by Patsy behind the scenes, in which we journalists all had a small part to play.

In 1988, after Patsy had also become director of information at the Commonwealth Secretariat and I a BBC current affairs editor, our paths crossed for the first time. Brittain describes in her obituary how Patsy inveigled us into being foot soldiers: “A web of subtle defiance of UK policy emanated from the Secretariat’s grand Marlborough House offices in London. Staff visited South Africa, and Patsy’s vast network of journalists were briefed on the realities hidden beneath misinformation by South African officials. She was also the facilitator par excellence of discreet meetings for journalists and politicians ready to listen to other narratives from opposition leaders risking their lives, and to anti-apartheid voices from Scandinavia to Hollywood. At Commonwealth summits, with her facts and her gentle charisma, Patsy proved a devastating rival to Thatcher’s tough spokesman Bernard Ingham. While Thatcher spoke of the African National Congress as 'terrorists' and refused to meet any of the internal opposition who came to London, the Commonwealth led the English-speaking media into turning the tide of opinion.”

The effect was to effectively sideline the UK government. In 1990 when Mrs Thatcher left office, having publicly stated that the idea of Nelson Mandela’s ANC running South Africa was “absurd,” white government in South Africa was on its way out, Nelson Mandela was free, the African National Congress (ANC) was no longer illegal, and in 1994 free, democratic elections were held, and as Brittain says, “The Commonwealth viewpoint had prevailed."

Patsy’s role in that victory was well known and in 1995 the UN appointed her senior adviser for the World Conference on Women in Beijing to bring attention to women’s issues, from leadership roles to women’s poverty and the status of widows, and Patsy continued public service till the end.

PJ Patterson, former Jamaican prime minister, would have known his fellow Jamaican colleague Patsy Robertson, since he too spent a lifetime in public service. In his excellent, engaging biography of his life as a politician, My Political Journey, Patterson has included the chapter “A Modern Public Sector and Governance.” In it, he describes the challenge of making public-sector reform a permanent feature of governance and driving the agenda “for promoting a strong and professionally managed public sector, capable of enabling national goals.”

Patterson will take part in a panel discussion on the big question of Caribbean political leadership at the 10th NGC Bocas Lit Fest online next Sunday, at 10.30 am, at bocaslitfest.com


"Distinguished public service"

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