We are all hearing a lot of service delivery complaints lately. There are complaints about our electricity supply, Johannesburg’s water supply, potholes in the roads of various cities, education failures and many others, many of them real, some imaginary.

But there is one failure that no one complains about, at least not publicly – the failure of lifts (those devices the Americans call elevators) – in our public buildings.

Maybe South Africans have inherently sturdy legs and do not mind taking the stairs, or maybe with all our other complaints we are simply inclined to overlook this one. It is real, and in true democratic South African manner, it starts at the top.

During a period in which my work often took me to the Union Buildings, I had experience of the lift there. It was old, rattled and only worked sporadically. Now this is perhaps not a crisis. The building in question is not very tall and therefore does not have many floors and, presumably, cabinet ministers, directors general and such who frequent those halls are in reasonably good physical condition.

They may be, but it is certainly not true of the patients in public hospitals. And Pretoria’s Steve Biko hospital, for instance, has nine stories. People who have limped slowly down seemingly interminable hallways are then often faced with flight after flight of stairs to get to the part of the hospital where their ailment might be treated.

Now, it is not true that the lifts in that hospital never work. There are occasions when some of the six main lifts for the public are working, but after many visits I have never once found all of them working at the same time. On a few occasions none have worked.

Staff members, faced with this problem every day, have found their own way of dealing with it. Once with a patient in a wheel chair on the third level, I was faced with a set of six lifts of which none worked and needed to take the patient to the ninth. A nursing sister came hurrying past. “Excuse me,” I said, “how do I get a patient in a wheel chair up to the ninth floor?”

“There are six lifts, just over there,” she said.

“None are working.”

“Use the stairs,” she said and disappeared into a ward. She had not slowed in her stride.

On another occasion when the public lifts were not working, a helpful sister pointed me to a different hallway. “You’ll find four lifts there. They are intended for staff and goods, but go ahead. No one will stop you.”

I found the four lifts, but a pair of mechanics was working on them. Parts and tools were scattered all over the floor. “Are you going to be long?” I asked.

“Probably all morning. But don’t worry. This is a goods lift. There are six public lifts down the passage on your left. You can’t miss them.”

Sporadic Lifts