ACCOUNTABILITY – AN ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL

A solitary search for accountability.

By Blake Wilkins

Is there anyone in South Africa who can stand up and deny without fear of contradiction that political accountability has ridden out of town on the only horse in the stable?

Granted, a groundswell of prosecutions is building hope in many of us that at long-last change is on the way. Even so, the hoof-prints in the dust are immutable reminders of how the accountability safeguards in our beautifully fashioned constitution have been trampled into oblivion.

At this point, our trust remains stillborn.

Why?

Many of us remember the so-called prosecutions of the favoured during the Zuma years. Wretched people found guilty and given a tap on a wrist with a powder puff. Some might have spent a few nights in prison with a fawning maitre d’ in attendance. After a token stay, the guilty returned home by ambulance via a golf course or took a detour to a luxury car dealer before stopping at the nearest bottle store.

Others who were not favoured with a view of a courtroom from the dock were re-assigned to new jobs with perks or cloaked their guilt with fashion accessories while representing their government in foreign climes on the cocktail merry-go-round.

Today, after lengthy self-examination lasting years and extensive pulling of the forelock, the list of names facing possible court action is growing week by week. South Africans, and no doubt the rest of the world, is watching with growing interest.

Will the canary continue singing in its cage or will the noisome gas of expediency murder winged hope as it has in past years?

Here’s where the 2021 trust rating index by Edelman Research makes interesting reading for South Africans defined in the research as ‘general population’. Trust in the government in 2021 sits at a lowly 27 points. That puts South Africa in the red-lined ‘distrust’ sector of the graph.

But there’s a positive. The 27 points is an improvement of 7 points over the previous year, an indicator that trust in the government is growing. We may be punch drunk after being force-fed Gupta cocktails for a decade but we can still bob and weave.

I wrote a piece recently questioning the possibility of officials at local government level being held personally liable for legal costs in court action brought against them for taking reckless decisions. As far as I can establish, no such actions have been brough to date.

But precedent has been set at national level.

A former cabinet minister recently paid a substantial amount in legal fees to cover the costs of a High Court action brought against her. A costs order against the public protector in her personal capacity was overturned recently because her actions in the particular matter before the court were found on appeal not to be proven as reckless or negligent.

The thorny issue of accountability is an uneasy burden and an apparently unwanted cloak of responsibility for many officials across all levels of government. Not that the private sector has been blameless.

Government accountability is a highly complex and emotive subject. What follows below is a cursory view of the subject. Part two of my article on this subject will follow in due course.

A recent study entitled Accountability in modern government: recommendations for change compiledbythe Institute for government talks to the situation in the UK. To my mind, the study provides some insight into the South African political environment.

Stating the truism that ‘accountability lies at the heart of democratic government’, the report details recommendations aimed at improving ‘accountability: clarifying the relationship between ministers and civil servants, meeting the challenges of complex modern government, and shifting the culture of accountability from blame to learning and improvement’.

 

The report concedes that ‘strong accountability is not a panacea for solving the numerous challenges that government faces….. but generates incentives for responsible individuals to act in the interests of the public. Sometimes this means that “heads must roll” following a major failure….a healthy system of accountability also promotes improvements in how government works.’

 

The suggested improvements include:

  • ‘proportionate rewards for good performance
  • proportionate sanctions for failure
  • a greater degree of learning than the current system contains
  • support for responsible individuals to develop, so that they are able to innovate and take appropriate risks.’

The report identifies three main weaknesses in the current system of accountability. The first comprises fundamental gaps in accountability that talk to the relationship between officials and ministers and secrecy issues that obfuscate the division of responsibilities between senior officials and ministers. It is clear that South Africa is tramping through this quagmire.

‘Failure to ensure that accountability has kept pace with the increasing complexity of modern government at all levels.’ South Africa is littered with examples of failure at central, regional and local government level. The reasons for that failure have been outlined in numerous articles.

The third failure listed in the report is ‘accountability is too focused on blame, when it needs to focus on improvement’. At this point, South Africa has launched a massive cleaning out process. There is no question that the second improvement recommended in the report – proportionate sanctions for failure – is a critical activity that needs to gain momentum if the government is to regain the trust of the general public. At this point, the focus has to be on blame.

Improvement is a dire necessity, especially at local government level with the collapse of service delivery in hundreds of small towns across South Africa. A small-scale start has been made; or more correctly, an announcement of a start has been made. The tell-all will be the response to such improvements at grass roots level.

The report lists reforms aimed at bringing about stronger accountability. If implemented, the report states that the reforms would:

·       improve transparency around the feasibility of major projects

  • provide stronger oversight of the civil service
  • clarify what public services citizens get for their money
  • ensure that government policies have strong accountability arrangements built-in
  • strengthen scrutiny of the links between local public services
  • support earlier investigations of possible failures
  • improve the scrutiny that Parliament provides.

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