IN South Africa’s democracy, accountability is all important – as long as you are in government.
Accountability is a key feature of democracy. Power holders in democratic societies cannot do as they please; they are expected to account to the citizenry for their actions. They are also meant to face consequences if what they do is not what the people want them to do. All this should be obvious to the minority of South Africans who get to be part of the national debate – they talk about it all the time. But only some are held to account: those who hold public office. Private power holders are usually left alone unless they are accused of particularly obvious racism.
Most of the time, private power holders – businesses, the professions, educational facilities -are treated as if they were entirely powerless, subject to whatever the government, the society’s only power holder, wants. But, in reality, to be private is not to be without power – at times, private power can wield far more influence than the government. It can also influence governments and their policies. Closing our eyes to private power can leave unaccountable decisions which affect the fate of most citizens. And in a climate in which public is always seen as a problem, private is always a solution, private interests can always blame their own failings on the government.
Covid-19: Passing the Buck
There are many South African examples but perhaps the most current is the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. This is a partnership between business and the government, largely prompted by the fact the national debate believes that the government is incapable of doing anything and that business is always efficient and fair. Neither the government nor the business roll out has been fair – the government’s was biased against people who could not register on line while the private medical aids’ contribution has been marked by favouritism and queue jumping.
But, not only has the private contribution avoided all criticism – it has been praised for opening vaccination to connected people who don’t qualify. No-one has bothered to ask why private medical aids are dispensing vaccines in the first place – they are not pharmacies and have no expertise in the area. And, because the private actors know that anything they say will be believed and anything the government says will not, they have simply resorted to blaming anything which goes wrong on the government. They are, predictably, believed despite the fact that their accounts are full of holes. At a recent meeting, a representative of organised business claimed that there would have been no vaccine programme without business. He did not bother to defend this highly dubious statement – his audience simply lapped it up.
So, the distribution of life-saving vaccines has been grossly unfair to many. But only one of the causes of the unfairness – the government – is required to explain itself.
Before the vaccine rollout, this country’s fight against Covid-19 was severely weakened by very loud lobbies, mainly from business and some religious leaders, to open up activity. The government largely gave in – and is still doing this. As the ‘Third Wave’ of the pandemic gathers force, it is not taking the preventive actions which are needed because it does not want to offend the lobbies. The government should be held accountable for listening to the lobbies. But that does not mean that they should avoid accountability for placing their short-term interests ahead of the country’s.
What is Tolerated and What is Not
These examples illustrate a much wider trend. Few issues are more important to the country’s immediate future than the state of the economy. It is also widely agreed that the country will be unable to meet the material needs of all who live in it unless there are structural reforms to the economy. But, in most mainstream discussion, this does not mean that all the economic actors must change. It means only that the government must change what it does. Business and the professions do not need to change at all.
This ignores one of the key reasons why the economy does not grow as fast as it should and why many are denied the fruits of growth. A core problem is that many people with energy and ability find it impossible to benefit from the economy – because the country is not using the contributions of all its citizens and many people cannot afford what it produces, growth is sluggish and the economy is a constant source of conflict.
Not all of this is this government’s responsibility – in fact, most of it may well not be since these realities have plagued the country for at least half a century. Large businesses use their power to make life difficult for small enterprises – the muscle of the established interests make it very difficult for anyone who is not connected to them to make an impact. As long as that persists, changes to what the government does will have only a limited effect.
None of this is recognised by the current debate – once again, government is blamed for what businesses do. One obstacle facing structural reform is that it tramples on the interests of some businesses, not government officials. For example, one reform which has enjoyed wide support for quite a while is extending spectrum to expand the digital economy. This is meant to happen through an auction.
But the auction has now been delayed – not because Marxist government bureaucrats are resisting it but because some companies feel the process is not fair to them and have gone to court to halt the auction. This is hardly a surprise – structural reform affects businesses’ economic interests. In a country in which turning to the courts is almost second nature, progress will inevitably be held up as companies ask the law to ensure that they do not lose out unduly – or that they are not deprived of benefits for which they were hoping.
The reaction of organised business to this reality is – to blame the government. According to one business association leader, the government should have known how to introduce the reform without being taken to court. He did not say how it could do this – not surprisingly, since there is no way that it could have done it. Businesses are entitled to take the government to court if they think their interests are threatened – but, when this delays reform, blaming it on the government is pure buck-passing
Corruption is another important area in which accountability is a little skewed. In fairness, some companies who have facilitated corruption have been forced to pay a price, but the debate’s reaction to them is a lot milder than it is to the government participants. And corporate corruption does not elicit from the debate anything like the anger which greets its government equivalent. Steinhoff, the company whose executives seem to have engaged in multiple wrong-doing, is a case in point. If the executives are to be prosecuted, it seems more likely that this will be in European courts, not those in this country. And, while the Steinhoff executives are not popular, they have not faced the same barrage of demands that they go to jail as the political culprits.
More generally, the South Africans whose voices are heard routinely put up with behaviour by large companies which are quickly denounced when the government does them. Waiting for in a line at a government office is seen as intolerable – doing exactly the same at the headquarters of a cellular phone company or a digital television corporation is accepted without complaint. If they feel they are not getting value for their taxes, they are outraged. If they get little or nothing from their insurance premiums or medical aid contributions, that is an unpleasant fact of life.
Why do private actors get off relatively lightly – or often have no need to account at all? This is yet another symptom of South African political reality. Despite more than a quarter century of democracy, the country is still divided into two worlds – very roughly, those of the suburbs on the one hand and those of the townships, shack settlements and rural areas on the other. It is the world of the suburbs which decides who should account and who should not. And in the suburbs, businesses, professionals, and other private actors are ‘us’, the government is ‘them’. This is ironic, since the government has far more in common with the suburbs than the rest of the country. But the perception is strong despite this: private interests are associated with competence and honesty, the government with the reverse.
In one sense, this is a plus for democracy because it means that the government is loudly and continually held to account. But it is also a huge negative because important social actors whose decisions affect the lives and well-being of millions are given a free pass. Democracy is meant to apply to all of public life, not only what happens in government offices.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor, faculty of humanities, politics department, University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.