Political accountability is the bedrock of representative government. It entails politician making choices on behalf of the people and the people having the ability to reward or sanction that politician. The immoral behaviours and the resultant lack of responsibility by Political leaders to answer to the public for their action and decision is the order of the day in the South African society. Going by the accountability crises in the post-apartheid era alone, the fact that political malfeasances, such as grand corruption, fraud, cronyism, state capture, the armed deal scandals, abuse of public funds, bribery, to mention but a few, occurs at the highest echelon of power among politicians, is an indication that political leadership in South Africa had failed. They do not embrace the culture of accountability at every level of government and they failed to represent the interest of the people by making laws and policies. This had a devastating effect because it erodes morals, undermine public trust in government and encourages corrupt behaviours. Lack of accountability has diminished public trust in government, citizens are deprived of their rights, specifically to regularly demand accountability from leaders, and this has resulted into myriads of frustration, which led to re-current violence, public protest, and upheaval in the society. The rate of protest in South Africa is one of the highest in the world and it has been dubbed “the protest capital of the world”. While it becomes worrisome that the prevailing state of unrest is often symptomatic of political accountability failures and the mass mobilization of citizens aimed at sanctioning poor governance is an indication that strong accountability is underway.
In representative democracies, citizens delegate power to elected officials such as parliaments, through periodic elections in order to act in their interest. This implies that members of parliament represent and act as the voice of the people, make decisions on their behalf, seek redress of grievances, and bring public issues to limelight by speaking about them to parliament and exercise influence on their behalf. The establishment of parliamentary democracy engendered optimism amongst citizens who are eager for transparency, integrity, accountable government and to make their voice heard in a new political and civic space. It is important that decision are made in a way that is transparent, involve others and hold to account those responsible for implementation. According to scholarly consensus, parliaments worldwide perform three core functions: representation, law making, and overseeing the government via hearing and enquiries. Parliament have a crucial role to play in setting an example of integrity and in holding government accountable for his action. In democratic countries such as South Africa, parliament function as a platform for ensuring accountability by holding government representatives to account and sanctioning their poor performances. However, there are a number of daunting challenges limiting its action.
Challenges inhibiting the parliament in performing its functions includes:
Capacity issues when exercising its oversight role
In many countries, parliaments do not have access to adequate resources such as, expertise in different fields, digital technology skills, a comprehensive library, and non-partisan research to support its work, among others. Globally, parliaments are allocated a relatively small percentage of the budget compared with the executive. In South Africa, despite the fact that parliamentary service has been in existence as far back as 1994, with a sizeable member, yet parliamentarians are of the opinion that shortage of resources as highlighted above are limiting factors to their performance.
The domination of the executive and its reluctance to corporate:
The South Africa multi-party system, as with most Africa countries, is often characterised by the dominance of a single political party. Since the end of apartheid in 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) has dominated South Africa’s politics. To exemplify, ANC is the ruling party in the national legislature, as well as in eight of the nine provinces. Albeit, the ANC views its hegemony as the expression of its popularity, however, In recent months, political analyst have warned of the danger posed to accountability by dominance of a political party to the state, as this may weaken, the ability of the parliament to perform their role as a watch dog for government, and hence, the aim of political accountability is forfeited.
The culture of party loyalty
Party discipline obligates members of parliament to support the party irrespective of the members of parliament individual desires. The parliament as a representative of the people, approves and scrutinizes the executive spending, however, it is incapacitated to perform this function, notably, in a situation where the political institution is predominantly ANC, because of the need for strict adherence to party rules and the loyalty of the members of parliament to the political party. This weakens the parliament and undermines its capacity to perform its oversight function.
The parliament can promote accountability of the executive in the following ways:
Mode of questions: Oral, written and timely response: One of the ways parliament holds the government to account is by allowing members of the parliament ask questions from ministers which they are obliged to answer. Questions for oral or written reply can be put to the President, the Deputy President and the Cabinet Ministers on matters for which they are responsible. The use of pre-arranged questions should be avoided as this can contravene the aim of oral questions thereby frustrate the effort of the parliament in fostering political accountability in South Africa. Written questions are parliamentary questions that are put to government ministers in writing. They play a critical role in holding the government accountable. They are more effective in extracting information from the executive than would be feasible in an oral response. In South Africa, it has been observed that ministers often use semantics to evade questions even when resources are available, and a number of ministers often provide late response to written questions. In order to closely scrutinize the executive, members of parliaments should be well informed of government policies, and employ a robust mechanism to ensure timely response and substantive compliance, as the publication of the response can expose valuable information.
Backbench debates: A backbencher is a member of parliament who does not hold office in the government or opposition, being instead simply a member of the rank and file. They play a role in providing services to their constituents, in relaying the opinions and concerns of their constituents. For example, asking the government for funding for a project in their constituency, these usually allow for debates and discussions on an issue. Therefore, back bench debate must be encouraged.
Correspondence: Whenever members of parliament, including committees, write to ministers to raise issues. Publishing these letters increases pressure on ministers to respond promptly.
Selected committees: They play a crucial role in checking and challenging the work of the government. Select committees are temporary committees created with a timeline to complete a specific task, like investigating government activity. Rather than researching and reporting bills to the House floor, they research specific issues or oversee government agencies. For an optimal functioning of the South Africa political system, selected committees should Create a better public awareness and understanding, stimulate further debate on important issues both in Parliament and beyond and Influence government policy.
A vote of no confidence: It is one of the main instrument of government control. It is utilized by members of the parliament to bring about election and topple the government. In South Africa any member of parliament in the National Assembly may request a vote of no confidence in either the cabinet, or that of the President.
The fact that the government depends on the support of the majority of the members of parliament to remain in office over a longer period is an evidence that parliament can directly control the executive policy process. However, such control involve a measure of obscurity and ambiguity because members of parliament are often faced by conflicting obligation, concurrently, to party versus people. Accountability necessitate the need for the parliament to balance its decisions.
In conclusion, embracing the culture of political accountability in all the arms of government is therefore urgently required in the South African society, so as to promote democracy and ensure a more peaceful and prosperous world.
Dr. Adefemi Obalade is a postdoctoral researcher. He writes in his personal capacity.