Zuma hotline goes live

[Image] The presidential hotline is buzzing, with
over 2 000 calls an hour recorded on the
first day. (Image: The Presidency)

MEDIA CONTACTS
Vusi Mona
Deputy director-general, communications
+27 76 682 0079

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Janine Erasmus

President Jacob Zuma’s much-anticipated hotline went live on 14 September 2009, enabling members of the public to direct government-related complaints or queries straight to his office.

The toll-free hotline number is 17737. This will take callers to a Union Buildings-based call centre, which will be open from 7.30am to 10pm, Monday to Friday. Citizens can also fax the call centre on 086 681 0987.

Vusi Mona, former City Press editor and now deputy director-general for communications in the Presidency, said that a shift system was in the pipeline, which would extend the hours.

While calls from landlines are free, it is unclear whether callers from mobile phones will be charged, as government and mobile providers are still in negotiations.

During the first few hours of operation, the call centre reported an average of around 2 400 calls per hour.

Efficient service

The R4-million service, which will reportedly cost about R1.5-million a year to run, is fronted by 43 public liaison officers. All officers have received specific training in dealing with general enquiries from the public, questions about the government and service delivery complaints.

Each government department and province has been assigned its own public liaison officer, who is expected to attend to all issues efficiently and quickly, and to follow up enquiries and complaints received.

Eventually it is expected that each provincial government will implement its own hotline.

“The provinces are expected to create a forum that includes liaison officers for each municipality,” said the Presidency in a statement, “so that the service is taken to local government level, including rural municipalities and districts.”

Zuma has indicated that he may even take a few calls himself, if his schedule permits. The president’s office will be linked to an online platform that will enable him to take calls directly.

On the first day of operation, the president did indeed answer one or two calls personally. He spoke to a widow from the Eastern Cape who was battling to access her late husband’s pension, and a resident of Benoni in Gauteng with a complaint about consistent sewerage leakage.

“Government has always communicated with the public before, including through izimbizo,” said Zuma, addressing hotline staff. “We are now taking that interaction a step further, through ensuring that there is two way communication. We want people to be able to tell us what their problems are with service delivery, so that we can assist directly.”

Zuma urged operatives to always remain cool and collected, even with angry callers at the other end of the line, adding that they would solve many problems through just being human. He called on them, as the first line of government communications, to help improve government’s image.

Language no barrier

Callers will be served in their language of choice. South Africa has 11 official languages, and the country’s Constitution states that everyone has the right to use their chosen language in any activity and at any time. The National Language Service of the Department of Arts and Culture is responsible for projects and policies that promote the use of all South Africa’s languages.

Former music star Eugene Mthethwa, of the moderately successful kwaito group Trompies, is in charge of the hotline. Mthethwa is the newly appointed deputy director for public liaison and stakeholder management.

“This is a way for people to get closer to government, and to express their dissatisfaction with poor service delivery,” said Mthethwa. “We take these matters very seriously.”

All hotline calls will be recorded and logged to enable the Presidency to monitor and evaluate the quality of service offered, as well as determine the time taken to deal with complaints. Records will also help staff obtain important statistics to improve performance, such as which government departments receive the most – or the least – complaints.

A more interactive government

“In this era of renewal, we will move towards a more interactive government,” said Zuma in his maiden State of the Nation speech on 3 June 2009. “To lead by example, work has begun on the establishment of a public liaison capacity in the Presidency. In addition to receiving letters and emails from the public, we will also establish a hotline for easier access.”

Zuma went on to assure the country that hotline staff will treat each query as if it was the only one, and would track its progress until it arrived at the person who would handle it properly.

Now is the time for Zuma to make good on that promise. The Presidency said it expects around 1 500 calls per day.

With the service up and running, said the Presidency, it will spend the next few weeks fine-tuning the system and eliminating any bugs so that it will be fully functional by the end of September.

The Presidency also said it hopes the hotline would prompt government departments to remember that they are there to serve the people, and to develop a culture of putting the citizen first.

Offering renewed hope

According to Vusi Mona, the hotline was a cause close to the president’s heart.

Mona also admitted that the fact that hotline exists at all is a sign of failure in service delivery. He added that the hotline would give renewed hope to disgruntled citizens who struggled with “inaccessible government services”.