Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

LIKE many parents of young children, I am more familiar than I would like to be with the musical output of a purple dinosaur called Barney — that nasal voice, those facile rhymes, the saccharine sentiments. But here is the thing about kids’ music: it is actually full of good advice. If my daughter grows up to follow the exhortations of her singing heroes (naive and idealistic though they may sound), she will be more productive, more caring and more competent than most of the adults I know.

My present favourite is a song that shows surprising insight into the importance of the public service; it is a tune that has been on my mind since the much-publicised assault on a teacher by a pupil at Glenvista High School. "A teacher is a person who gives help, each and every day," sings Barney. "If you like to help people then being a teacher is A-OKAY. ’Cause people helping other people is what this world’s about, and people like our teachers we couldn’t do without."

He goes on to make the same affirmation about doctors and the police. I know what you are thinking: I have seen the crime statistics, I have seen cops being bribed, I have seen the Marikana footage … there are plenty of policemen and women I would do just fine without. As for doctors (or nurses, or hospital administrators), the private ones are greedy and the public ones are lazy and inept. I could do without them too.

Well, you are wrong. The gist of Barney’s little ditty is incontestable. Education, healthcare and security are the three pillars that keep any society standing. We all acknowledge this implicitly — it is why South Africans who have the means to do so shell out huge sums of money on private schooling, medical aid schemes and security companies. And it is why, when the departments of education, health and police are in crisis, the daily wellbeing of every citizen is affected.

That such crises seem to be perpetual is one reason for the disdain and distrust characterising public attitudes to those who are employed in these sectors. The actions and rhetoric of self-serving unionists at the South African Democratic Teachers Union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union do not help matters.

The failings of the African National Congress and its partners in the ruling alliance, however, only compound an existing and deep-seated South African neurosis about those in the public service. It is a complex that developed long before 1994. And it is a demon we urgently need to exorcise.

Under apartheid, figures of authority were viewed as agents of state oppression. In many cases they were — policemen in particular — and, for South Africans of all races who opposed the National Party government, they became symbols of totalitarianism. Teachers could, and did, inspire resistance; good teachers have always opened young minds to the possibilities of better individual and collective futures. But the caricature of the teacher who endorsed and promulgated "Christian National Education" or "Bantu Education" was not without substance.

In black communities, public servants were particularly compromised. Black policemen were labelled as sellouts.

Black male teachers could also be stigmatised, viewed as disillusioned and debilitated intellectuals or, in extreme cases, as drunks and womanisers and paedophiles (a denigration memorably expressed in the treatment of Zamani, the enigmatic teacher in Njabulo Ndebele’s story, Fools).

Social media are not always reliable sources of information — and, as we are rightly warned, the plural of anecdote is not data — but it was notable that, in the aftermath of the Glenvista attack, alongside Facebook and Twitter posts expressing shock and outrage, there were assertions that sporadic violence of this kind was "business as usual" at some schools. "Throughout my schooling we witnessed it," wrote one observer. "We moered (the principal) and he left," boasted another. "In one incident a female teacher got a serious klap from a matric student," reminisced a third.

It was different for black healthcare professionals, who had significant social standing (if we are to use Ndebele’s depictions as a reference point, we might compare Zamani in Fools to staff nurse Masemola in The Prophetess). But nursing in South Africa is also stigmatised. One of the more common diagnoses of poor nursing is the legacy of limited apartheid-era skilled employment opportunities for black people — with the implication that many black women went into nursing because they felt they had to, not because they wanted to.

Such dubious theorising is less convincing than a consideration of the material circumstances under which nurses now work. A recent study by the Wits Centre for Public Health, for example, found that large numbers of nursing staff are exhausted by back-to-back shifts and are thus unable to perform as they should: 60% of all nurses work high levels of overtime, while a third of nurses in state hospitals "moonlight" in two or more jobs.

Whatever the causes may be — historical or contemporary, or both — the fact is that service delivery in the public education, healthcare and policing sectors is not of an acceptable standard. There are solid grounds, in other words, for South African citizens’ misgivings about those who work in these sectors. Yet it is also true that opinions about these professions are jaundiced not only by local specifics but also by deeply entrenched prejudices in global discourse.

"Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach." It’s a tired cliché, but it gets trotted out so often that it has acquired some kind of unquestioned verity. And policemen — well, they are pigs, right? And nurses — well, they are either women who could not make it as doctors, or they are gay men who could not make it as doctors (snigger snigger).

Fortunately these stereotypes are not universal: they are countered by the respect shown for teachers in countries such as Japan and South Korea, for policemen and women in New York City after 9/11, for the nurses of the Kenyan Red Cross outside the Westgate mall in Nairobi.

What we need in South Africa is a renovation of attitude. We must collectively promote the fundamental value and importance of public servants in education, health and policing even as we criticise individuals who do a disservice to their vocation. The government should find room in the budget to pay teachers, police and healthcare workers better; with a higher salary should come higher expectations, and more severe penalties for those who abuse their positions or who fail to perform satisfactorily.

Barney is right: we cannot do without our teachers, doctors/nurses and police. But unless South Africans consciously undertake to restore dignity to those who work in these professions — simultaneously to make them proud of their work, to make them feel privileged and to keep them responsible and accountable — it will become increasingly difficult to persuade young people that they are vocations worth pursuing.

The circumstances surrounding the Glenvista episode are still somewhat unclear. But the video, disturbing though it may be, has a salutary value. It reminds us that the precarious position of those in public service crosses boundaries of race and class. We may express dismay at the physical beating of a teacher; but we should also guard against the (all-too-common) figurative "bashing" of our teachers and other public servants.

• Thurman teaches at Wits University.