Monday, October 12, 2009

Accountability and the lack of it

By Paul Whelan (Richmark Sentinel)

Some among us, as former president Thabo Mbeki used to put it, are perhaps beginning to ask when exactly we will see some bold stroke of governance (as opposed to fine words) from the new ‘people-friendly’ administration: an incompetent or spendthrift minister dismissed; the destructive Judge John Hlophe affair settled - as President Jacob Zuma’s own legal troubles were settled - by a ‘political’ decision.

There must be increasing scepticism that the arms deal is going to be investigated one day; whether a constitutional watchdog can make a finding against a delinquent government department now any more than before; whether members and friends of the ANC, even those convicted of serious offences, will ever cease to enjoy thinly disguised preferential treatment.

When will the long-promised drive against corruption begin and when will SA’s new minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, appalled at the waste of taxpayers’ money, no longer find it necessary to ask MPs to hold incapable or dishonest public servants to account?

When will the ANC, both party and in government, move beyond simply ‘calling for’ these abuses of power to end, if they were put in power to end them?

It could be a long time yet.

In SA one party controls the state and certainly until Polokwane plausibly posed as the nation. Through its command of a majority among voters – which it can always gloss as a permanent mandate from ‘the people’ – it constitutes the executive, dominates the legislature, staffs key administrative posts, dispenses preferment and patronage and names avenues and airports to confirm its pre-eminence.

By definition the people cannot change the monocrats and, lacking any threat of replacement, the monocrats have little reason to change themselves. For any new leadership in the single ruling party to attempt a major ‘clean-up’ campaign, or policy reversal, risks a split. Drawn out too long, this monocratic stage drifts into inefficiency and, paradoxically, into both authoritarianism and instability, developments very obvious in Zimbabwe over the last decade and, to many minds, begun in SA under Thabo Mbeki.

This lack of accountability cannot be made up for by the courts, by a free press, by churchmen’s prayers for society's moral regeneration, or by touching but na├»ve calls for South Africans once more to ‘all pull together.’ The problem is political: a fundamental democratic deficit, which is only remedied by the coming of an electable opposition.

That remedy is never imposed from the top down. It emerges, when and where it emerges, by pressure from the bottom up.

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