Two of the comments have stuck with me, and I paraphrase: “Prisoners have more rights and privileges inside prison than people on the outside. They get three meals a day and free health care, which people on the outside don’t.” And: “As soon as you murder someone, you should hang. No discussion.”
I was not eavesdropping because the people having this discussion knew that I was there and could hear them, yet they felt comfortable having this conversation loudly in my presence.
I realised that while the government is meant to be guided by one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, this does not necessarily mean that those lower down the pecking order understand the Constitution or, frankly, give a damn.
There is probably a huge need for public servants, at junior and senior levels, to be educated in what the Constitution says about basic human rights and how this should impact on government policy and service delivery.
The Constitution is quite clear on the unlawfulness of the death penalty and, barring a miracle, there is no way that South Africa will go back to implementing one of the most barbaric mechanisms to combat crime and one which has never been scientifically proven to be effective.
The fact that civil servants - and they were all, I suppose, speaking in their personal capacities - could harbour such thoughts on the death penalty and have such a negative attitude towards prisoners, worried me and I tried very hard to understand what drives these kinds of attitudes.
I suppose I am one of those naive people who thought that, once we became a democracy, the government would begin to put the interests of the majority at the centre of its programmes and that public servants would be guided by the Constitution and, in fact, be loyal to the Constitution.
But none of us could have anticipated that crime and corruption would spiral out of control and that personal greed among those who were supposed to be custodians of the public purse would threaten to derail our democracy.
I suppose many people are looking at how criminals are getting away with crime - and, lest we forget, corruption is a crime - and throwing up their hands in anguish. In their desperation to free our society of crime, they express the kind of negative attitudes that I witnessed first hand.
Public servants, and here I include government ministers, have more of a responsibility than the rest of us to live by example and to, for instance, raise their voices and take action when they see things going wrong. After all, they get paid to serve the public.
Too many people who are supposed to serve the public have turned a blind eye to corruption, meaning that those who have always been vocal about it have been isolated and threatened. In one case that I know of, Vernie Petersen, the former national commissioner of prison, died mysteriously after being put under pressure for opposing and wanting to expose corruption. In another case, Lennox Garane decided to take his life in protest against corruption and inaction in Parliament.
Both these cases were under the spotlight at a rally at St George’s Cathedral last Saturday called by a group known as #justice4vernie, consisting of family and friends of Petersen who are demanding that the circumstances around his death be properly investigated and that he be accorded proper acknowledgement for his anti-corruption stance.
Maybe Petersen and Garane are the kind of public servants who should be held up as role models for others who work in the government. Their stories should be shared and studied and could help to develop a better cadre of true public servants, not only in word but in deed.
* Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.