As the 2014 election nears, the issues of accountability and electoral reform are making headlines again and they took centre stage when Unisa’s Department of Public Administration and Management hosted a roundtable seminar on 11 April 2013 with Dr Essop Pahad, Former Minister in the Presidency and Editor-in-Chief of The Thinker magazine, and Dr Mamphela Ramphele, anti-apartheid activist, as key speakers.
For Ramphele, the operative word is indeed accountability, and now there needs to be a shared understanding of it. “As a citizen, it means for me the capacity of a system to hold those in public service responsible for discharging the mandates that they are given, to ensure that the democracy that we have, that so many people died for, has meaning in the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens,” she says. She strongly believes that if the electoral system has accountability built into it, then citizens will be able to reward public servants who do a good job in terms of delivering quality public services and they should also have the ability and capacity to punish those who don’t perform. The only instrument citizens have to do that with is their vote.
The issue of accountability has been on South Africa’s agenda since the dawn of democracy. While an electoral system should be seen to be fair, inclusive and accountable, when the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission looked into the system in 2003, after the first two democratic elections, a wide range of consultation showed that the issue of accountability was front and centre for citizens. The review process established, from a consensus amongst South Africans, that it was pivotal to introduce greater accountability into democratic politics in South Africa.
Changing the electoral system won’t improve political accountability
Ramphele doesn’t believe changing the electoral system will actually improve political accountability. She’s determined to pursue the electoral clause change in order to transform the politics of South Africa into a caring political culture, which puts the country and its people ahead of leaders. She referred to the caring political culture highlighted in the recently published book, The Athena Doctrine, by authors John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio.
Some of the skills and approaches of of the Athena leadership style they identify include a nurturing leadership that’s empathetic, the capacity to listen and relate to others, promoting a positive culture, and practising inclusive decision making. “If you look at our education and health system, look at the performance of our economy, look at safety and security, would you say these principles are present in our political processes and our public service? Absolutely not!” she says.
Government protected by voter support
There is little doubt that South Africa inherited a very strong authoritarian and accountable political culture. All the strengths that came together in 1994 (indigenous African cultures, European traditional cultures, Middle and Eastern traditional cultures) have this common thread. However, says Ramphele, “Post-apartheid South Africa has not made much progress in creating a more accountable political culture. We have relied too heavily on litigating our way out of disputes about accountability. And those in government and the public service have been protected by the overwhelming majority of voter support that have enjoyed thus far. The issue is, if that support is put to the test, where individual citizens vote for their own interests, to live in a society which is governed by those principals, do you think they will continue to vote in the same way? I don’t think so.”
Pahad has heard a great deal of criticism of the electoral system but maintains that few understand how it was reached. “In a democratic parliament, what we needed at the African National Congress(ANC) was to open avenues for as many political parties as possible. So we needed an inclusive system, a system that would enable even the smaller parties to get at least one seat,” he explains. He also stresses the role of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) that runs the elections independently, even if it’s funded by the government, maintaining that the “present system that we have is the fairest and most just system. Every vote that is cast, counts.”
Pahad says some criticism is valid
Reflecting on major criticism of the system (also referring to the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform report), he admits that some parts of it are valid. Concern about the need for greater accountability foregrounded the report of the electoral task team, chaired by the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert. “The system that we have now doesn’t necessarily make your elected representative accountable to the electors. This is a fundamental criticism of the system and it has its validity because the question and challenges of making our public representatives at all three tiers of government more and more accountable to the electives, is one that we must keep on trying to meet.”
Pahad is not turning a blind eye to the critical issue of accountability. Part of the problem, he believes, is that accountability is highly stratified. “At the ANC we have levels and not tiers, so the branch, region and province do not have the same capacity to make policies and to implement and to give leadership, as the national executive committee of the ANC.”
Ward committees have not worked
It goes without saying that there is no system in the world that that is above criticism. However, the problem of accountability (or lack thereof) of public representatives to their South African constituents is become increasingly challenging. The system of ward committees, for example, which was designed to make local councillors accountable, not just to the party that put them there, but to the community, has not worked. “Unfortunately, up to now, the ward committees have not functioned in the way they were envisaged to. And that’s a great pity. I just hope that as we go on, the councillors and political parties, and especially in this case, the ruling party, take the necessary steps to pay a great deal more attention to strengthening ward committees because, for me, this is one of the biggest areas where you can be accountable, not only to your own members but the community at large too,” says Pahad.
Without active citizenship, accountability doesn’t exist
Arguing that accountability does not depend on the electoral system, Prof Dirk Kotzé, Professor in Unisa’s Department of Political Sciences and Political Analyst says, “Accountability is determined, first of all, by how well organised civil society is. If you have the perfect electoral system, a very strong executive legislative relationship, but if civil society cannot play its role and active citizenship doesn’t exist, then accountability doesn’t exist.” So the onus, in a sense, moves away from the electoral system to ordinary South African citizens. Kotzé stresses that accountability cannot be enforced in the absence of freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom because information is needed in order to ask for accountability.
Other respondents joining the roundtable debate included Kayum Ahmed, CEO: South African Human Rights Commission, Dr Leonard Martin, Faculty Head of the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection), and Advocate Reuben Baatjies of the South African Local Government Association.
*Article by Kirosha Naicker