VOTING rules and the latest governance fads do not make governments account to their citizens – only citizens can do that. South Africa’s response to Covid-19 shows what happens when the citizens who can hold the government to account, don’t do that.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, while announcing his government’s decision to ease most of the restrictions designed to stop Covid-19 spreading, claimed that a drop in new cases to a few thousand a day showed that the country has succeeded in limiting the spread of the pandemic. Since no voices were heard challenging this, there seems to be wide agreement among those who are heard in the national debate that the country has done as well as it can to limit the virus. The evidence suggests otherwise.
South Africa has more reported Covid-19 cases and deaths than the rest of Africa combined. This will be dismissed by some who, like US President Donald Trump, insist that poorer countries who have low levels of cases are not testing infected people and that thousands of cases have gone unreported elsewhere in Africa. But the low death figures confirm that other countries on the continent have been much less severely affected. The chair of the government’s medical panel, Prof Salim Abdool Karim, who has an obvious stake in making this country’s performance seem as good as possible, acknowledged in an interview that Covid-19 cases and deaths in other African countries are much lower than South Africa’s. So, despite its much greater share of resources, the country has, by a very large margin, fared worst on the continent in containing the virus.
That this has been portrayed as a triumph, and this claim has hardly been challenged by media, political parties, and the many citizen’s organisations which are heard in the national debate, shows clearly that the government is not being held to account for its efforts to fight the virus. It has been forced to account repeatedly for the regulations it imposed, such as its bans on the sale of tobacco products and alcohol. It has also been loudly held to account where corruption by officials and politicians in the fight against the disease has been revealed. But its very poor record in ensuring that people do not fall ill and that lives are saved has passed unnoticed.
There may be good reasons why so many more South Africans have fallen ill but, if there are, we have no way of knowing because neither the government nor the scientists who advise it have said why this is so. The reason for this is that no-one has asked them. In other countries which have suffered high case numbers, a public debate demands to know why the government has not done better. This forces it, and its advisors, to explain themselves. In South Africa, the problem has not been that officials brush off these questions with shallow answers or blame the questioner for their lack of patriotism. It is that they have never had to deal with critical questions because no-one has bothered to ask them. The few who do ask critical questions in the national debate are not dismissed or ridiculed – they are simply ignored. The lack of accountability is extreme – not only is there no campaign to reduce illnesses and deaths, the government is not even asked to explain itself.
In the absence of any answers, it seems fair to suggest that the lack of accountability and the high number of cases is related. The whole point of accountability is to ensure that the government is forced to do a better job of serving citizens. If no-one with any influence sees the need to ask it to explain itself, mistakes remain unnoticed and uncorrected. For example, testing infected people and tracing their contacts is the key to controlling the disease. But the government has been under no pressure to explain why its testing and tracing programme failed to prevent hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths. This means, of course, that weaknesses in testing and tracing might never have been corrected because the government was never pushed to fix the problem.
No Technical Fix
The government was, therefore, not held to account on its response to Covid-19 not because it was able to dodge the judgement of the public but because those in the public who enjoy enough influence to hold it to account chose not do this.
This says something important about the battle for accountability in this country. Most remedies designed to ensure that government accounts to citizens rely on technical remedies. One favourite is the electoral system. If, we are often told, the country changes to a system in which elected politicians are not chosen from a party list but are directly responsible to voters, we will have more accountability since representatives will need the support of voters, not party leaders if they want to be re-elected. Other ‘cures’ include forcing government to provide information, strengthening Parliament’s powers to demand answers from ministers and officials or increasing the powers of institutions which investigate official behaviour (such as some of the Chapter Nine institutions created by the constitution).
None of these proposals would have made it more likely that the government would have been held to account for the number of Covid-19 illnesses. The electoral system did not prevent anyone asking aloud why cases were mounting far more quickly than on the rest of the continent. It is hard to see how stronger oversight by parliament or citizens’ organisations would have made a difference since parties and civil society groups showed no interest in holding the government to account. All anyone who wanted to hold the government to account needed to do was to ask questions in public. There is nothing in the current rules which prevent anyone doing this so we can be sure that the rules were not the problem and that, if we had an entirely different electoral system and the toughest accountability machinery in the world, the result would not have been greater accountability because those who could hold the government to account chose not to do this.
The belief that changes to technical rules are the answer only make sense if we assume something which those who want these reforms rarely if ever mention, perhaps because they see it as obvious – that citizens want to hold the government to account but are somehow unable to do this. It obviously makes little sense to find ways of forcing governments to listen if citizens don’t want to speak. And there is no point in changing rules unless you are convinced that those which we now have prevent people forcing the government to account. Those who want new rules also often assume that, if they are changed to force accountability, citizens who can’t hold the government to account now will be able to do this. Covid-19 in South Africa challenges the first belief. Those who had the power to get the government to listen were not interested in using it; changing rules would not change that. But it may also challenge the second. The government may have been given a free ride because people who wanted to challenge it were unable to do so, not because of the rules but because no-one who has any influence listens to them.
We do not know how many middle-class and affluent people were affected by Covid-19. But it seems likely that its effect on the middle-class and the wealthy was not severe. This is based not on any information on Covid-19 but on knowledge of accountability in South Africa. To hold the government accountable, people need to be part of the national debate. In South Africa, only some can get in on the debate –the insiders who join political parties and civil society organisations and who enjoy access to the media. They are almost all middle-class or well-off and so the government is likely to be held to account on those issues which worry the middle-class and the wealthy. The restrictions imposed to fight Covid-19 did bother the insiders. So too does corruption. But ensuring that as few people as possible would fall ill or die was not a concern, since it was never raised.
We have no idea how outsiders – the majority of citizens who can’t get into the debate – feel about these issues. They may also resent controls on what they can buy and we do have evidence that they too are angered by corruption. But the concerns of those people who are desperately frightened about falling ill, and may be particularly worried because they can only earn a living in ways that place them at risk, were never heard. It seems unlikely that they would be heard if we changed the electoral system or gave more powers to Chapter 9 institutions or forced the government to make more information available. The problem was not the rules but the fact that only some can hold the government to account and that those who could do this had no interest in forcing it to say why we have so many more cases than the rest of the continent.
The failure of accountability on Covid-19 sends an important message, one which will still be important if and when the disease is no longer a threat.
It shows clearly that South Africa’s accountability problem is not the rules. It is, rather, the fact that the society is divided into insiders, who are heard, and outsiders, who are not. If the insiders want to hold the government to account, they can – the rules we have now do not prevent them. This may be why the government has dropped the alcohol and tobacco sales bans even though infection levels are still quite high. And it is certainly why, since the corruption allegations surfaced, the governing party has been forced to promise new measures to fight the problem because it fears that it will lose credibility if it does not. If they do not want to hold it to account, no rules will make them do this.
Under the current rules, the insiders don’t always get their way, which is why some of the bans against which they campaigned have stayed for some months. But they do always get their say, and this often changes what the government does, even if its response may not be all that the insiders wanted. And so, not only have the bans been lifted, but so have most of the restrictions which upset insider interests ranging from mining companies through restaurant and tavern owners, taxi organisations and religious leaders. Some of these lobbies got the government to ease the rules when infections were rising, which is when restrictions are most needed.
The government is not held to account on behalf of all citizens because the division between insiders and outsiders means that only some people’s concerns are heard. Many people fear to ride in taxis because they may contract the virus (one of the few restrictions medical scientists here seem to support is limiting how many people taxis can carry). But there are no loud voices holding the government to account for not forcing taxis to protect the health of the people who ride in them. The obvious reason is that insiders do not use taxis and so the problem is of no concern to them. It is a life or death matter for outsiders but they lack the power to hold the government to account.
Covid-19 shows that the route to ensuring that everyone can hold the government to account, pressing it to do what they need it to do, does not lie in changing the way representatives are elected or finding new rules to force the government to listen. It lies in finding ways to ensure that the outsiders, who greatly outnumber the insiders, are also able to bring their concerns to the public debate and so to force the government to listen to them.
Prof Steven Friedman is a lecture at the University of Johannesburg. He writes for DDP in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of the organization.