“Given the ongoing exposure of malfeasances in both public and private sectors in the country, accountability cannot be a buzzword or a cliche. It must be put into action by citizens from all walks of life”– Dr. Paul Kariuki
By: Nyasha Mcbride Mpani
The term democracy is made up of different characteristics or tenets. These tenets consist of protection of human rights, respect of the constitution, equal and decent treatment of all by authorities etc. It should be noted that democracy is in jeopardy if those in position of authority cannot be hold accountable by citizens. Accountability is the hallmark of any democracy. There are a number of definitions of democracy but for the purposes of this paper Schmitter (2007) definition will be used. According to Schmitter (2007:2) democracy is defined as “a regime or system of government in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public domain by citizens acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their representatives.” With this definition it is imperative to note that government and the executive should be geld accountable for the realisation of each and every tenet of democracy so that they cannot be left to abuse political office and thwart or suffocate those tenets. It is the duty of citizens and elected officials such as Parliamentarians to spend a lot of time and energy demanding and mobilising each other in demanding political accountability. This should be done so that citizens interests/passions are realized and protected from immoral government/executive members. This paper will focus on the why and why political accountability matters in South Africa which is a growing democracy.
Definition of Conceptual Terms
This section will define and unpack the following key concepts ; political accountability, electoral accountability, legislative accountability, legal accountability, hierarchical accountability, and public-reputational accountability.
What is Political Accountability
Accountability is at the center of any democracy and a fundamental contention of democratic theory is that governments have to be accountable. An important aspect in the definition of political accountability is on ascertaining whether or not the government or executive is held responsible for purported wrongful conduct. Yankova (2013) argue that political accountability demands that elected officials use that delegated authority to represent the interests of the citizens. The citizens who delegate this authority simultaneously request accountability from those they would have elected to positions of authority. Citizens are the principals, and the elected officials are servants and at every turn during their tenure in office owe accountability to the principals. These principals can also be institutions. Political accountability consists of five types, and these are; – electoral, legislative, legal, hierarchical, and public-reputational.
Under this type of accountability, Yankova (2013) argues that the principal is the electorate or voter. The voter is responsible of using elections as a tool of controlling or managing the government. Electoral accountability makes it clear to the electorate to be able to determine and sanction their elected representative.
This form of accountability is pushed through parliamentary processes, where government departments and officials are summoned to report. Parliament as a constitutional body is by law legitimately empowered to conduct regular oversight, sanction, or conduct impeachment on agents or agencies of the state (Yankova,2013).
According to Yankova (2013) this consists of the actions of the Justice Department, Attorney General, Independent Counsel, the Supreme Court, and any other courts which is tangled in practicing executive accountability.
Public reputational accountability
Reputational accountability according to Yankova (2013:53) “is identical with “moral capital” or “political capital”, which refers to a reservoir of popular approval that the leaders can potentially use for legitimacy and political survival”. It should be noted that this form of accountability, does not have a set or form of official mechanism that can be used for its inquiry.
Yankova (2013) argues that it inly applies in cases where the appointing authority has the power to fire subordinates from office and constrain their tasks. Further to that the appointing authority also has the power to also adjust their financial compensation even. This normally in situations where the President can hire and fire a Minister.
Why is Political Accountability important in South Africa
Given the different types of accountability articulated above, Parliamentarians as elected officials do have a duty to push for political accountability in South Africa in the form of legislative accountability. Legislative accountability is vital in South Africa as it puts an eye on the executive and summons government officials to account for their actions which might have placed democracy under jeopardy. It is imperative to note that political accountability places obligation on powerholders i.e., politicians and bureaucrats to account for and take responsibility for their actions. South African citizens have a right to demand justifications and explanations from the State when it fails to provide adequate services to them and provide timely corrective action where weaknesses have been identified.
In a democratic State such as South Africa, political accountability is vital as it improves governance through facilitating and involving citizens in decision-making. Citizens are placed at the center of decision making. Furthermore, political accountability leads to improved or enhanced public policies and services which are effective in addressing the needs of the citizens. Political accountability is also important in South Africa as it enhances efficient and effective utilization of public resources. This assists in eliminating corruption and abuse of public office which is now rife in South Africa. Lastly, political accountability safeguards the interests of the poor and vulnerable members of society who are in most cases placed at the edge of any economic strata. Pushing for political accountability in South Africa may assist in making sure they are fairly incorporated into national processes and get an adequate share in the sharing of the national cake (resources).
Conditions for Political Accountability Success
For political accountability to be successful in South Africa, certain conditions do need to put in place and the conditions are as follows;
A conducive and enabling environment is a key ingredient for the success of political accountability in South Africa. Having a polarized environment can act against the success of political accountability. An enabling environment takes into account the political situation in the country, legal framework of the country (do they not militate against the realisation of political accountability, socio-economic factors.
Furthermore, political will is also important in making political accountability a success in South Africa. Political will, takes into account the willingness of politicians across all political parties and public officials to disclose information, listen to and engage with the ordinary citizens.
Capacity and Willingness of Citizens and Civic Society
The involvement of civil society and citizens in political accountability is very crucial and key. Civil society is key as it assists in giving a voice to marginalized communities and people (Putnam,1993). They do this through creating social capital, trust, and raising citizen and community awareness or an number of issues. Furthermore, Mpani (2021:25) states that “civil society organizations aid in making democracy work through tackling collective action difficulties in the short term as well as constructing the essential societal circumstances obligatory for continued cooperation over time”. It should therefore be noted that, having civil society that does have working synergies with citizens, assist in pushing for accountability and developing stable societies that support citizens in their demand for better governance of society. Civil society and citizens therefore are crucial in the success of political accountability as they can assist in carrying out research and present findings based on empirical evidence and availability of resources etc.
Role of the Media in Promoting Political Accountability
Media has a pertinent role in enhancing effective political accountability in South Africa. As a tool that disseminates and gathers information, media has an important role in influencing public opinion about political accountability. Christians et al (2009) reiterates that media plays different roles in society which includes, being a watch dog (controlling the power holders),lapdog(serving the master),and guard dog (looking after vested interests). The watch dog role is important in asserting political accountability. This is notion is further reinforced by Stapenhurst (2000) who argues that “The media in Africa are empowered to crusade against corruption, underdevelopment, diseases as well as the promotion of democracy and human rights; in promoting these ideas, the media plays the watchdog role to which it must ensure its own accountability”.
Therefore, for political accountability to be enhanced in the country media has a key role in dismissing political bias, underreporting of important issues that needs political accountability scrutiny and misrepresentations. To enhance political accountability media in South Africa should;
Promote the concept itself (demystifying the wrong notions on political accountability discourse)
Raising public awareness on policy issues where political accountability is needed (informing and educating citizens)
Monitoring government performance and exposing misdeeds (investigative journalism)
Providing a platform for public debate on national issues
The new Constitution provides for political accountability equality and thus the media has a role in promoting such. South African media to promote political accountability needs to collaborate with civil society to advance this cause. Furthermore, the media can conduct public awareness or information mechanisms where there are features and analysis on accountability issues. It is also imperative that the media conducts live coverage of public meetings on accountability so that the public can be well informed. While South African media has an important role in promoting political accountability it has to be wary of propaganda and agenda setting, ownership filter, advertising filter, newsmaker filter and news shaper filter as these can negatively affect it in objectively advancing political accountability.
Role of Political Parties in Promoting Political Accountability
Political parties are very key in advancing political accountability in ant society. These entities are representative in nature as they are voluntary organisations that have elected leaders representing their various constituents. Political parties safeguard the interests of the public or of their members and hence they are important in promoting political accountability. In any democracy, political parties play a number of roles which include providing a platform for public debates and opinion articulation, election contest and formation of government and they shape policies and legislation of a country through their election manifestos.
As a vehicle of democracy, it should be noted that political parties in particular opposition political parties have an obligation to advance political accountability. These political parties are vital in daring standing for constitutional rule in South Africa. Furthermore, these political parties have an obligation of keeping the state on its toes and push that it creates and maintains an enabling environment that allows broad democratic participation and representation which does not stifle political accountability. The presence of political parties in South Africa is of great importance as their presence and voice on issues mater in promoting political accountability. Over the years, political parties in in South Africa have managed to nudge government towards more people centred policies and questioned different government departments and officials over corruption, state capture and lack of upholding the constitution. It is therefore important that these political parties continue to promote political accountability through holding government accountable, serving as a credible alternative to the ruling government, promoting and stimulating debates in parliament and training future young leaders on how to conduct an effective political accountability campaign.
In pushing for political accountability, the state has a number of obligations that it also needs to put into account. The State is required to take “reasonable” legislative and other measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to achieve the realisation of political accountability. These obligations are sacrosanct and if respected they enhance effective political accountability. The State needs to make the following obligations;
Obligation to respect – This requires the State parties not to take any measures that result in preventing access to political accountability.
Obligation to Protect – This requires the state to make measures that ensures that government department, officials or arms do not deprive citizens of their demand(s) for political accountability.
Obligation to Fulfil – (facilitate) means the State must proactively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s understanding of political accountability.
How can South African Parliament/Parliamentarians Promote Political Accountability
In any democracy, Parliament is very crucial in promoting political accountability. As an elected representative body having supreme legislative powers within a State, Parliament depicts a representative body of individuals to whom the people have entrusted the responsibility of representing them by laying down the legal framework within which society shall be governed and seeing to it that these legal conditions are implemented in a responsible manner by the Executive. Chapter 4 of the Constitution of South Africa spells out the mandate of Parliament, which is to safeguard the Constitution and enhance democratic governance in South Africa. It should be understood that good governance is to do with how public institutions, officials conduct public affairs in order to realise human rights. On the other hand, democracy is about rule by the people. In political accountability, good governance is an essential pillar for democracy building. In this light, Parliament as an institution and Parliamentarians do have the prerogative to ensure that the provisions of the Constitution are upheld. This can be done with Parliament exercising its core traditional functions which are;
Aside the traditional functions of Parliament, it is also the duty of Parliamentarians to enhance political accountability through protecting the Constitution and promote democratic governance in South Africa. Parliamentarians had a duty to ensure that the provisions of the Constitution are upheld and that all institutions and agencies of government act constitutionally and in the national interest. It is therefore vital that Parliamentarians, hold all institutions and agencies of State and government at every level accountable to them and Parliament as political accountability is at the heart of executive oversight. Parliament and Parliamentarians can push for political accountability through different parliamentary processes. Parliamentarians have the corresponding duty to sanction any government official or department to produce justifications and also demand that corrective action in instances where public resources are not being effectively utilised. Citizens through Parliament and Parliamentarians have the right to demand these justifications and explanations from the State when it fails to provide them adequately and corrective action where required. In order for Parliament and Parliamentarians to promote political accountability, the following tools/mechanisms are available for them to use;
Public consultations / hearings
Report back meetings
Participatory public policy formulation
Public Expenditure Tracking
Monitoring and Evaluation of public Services by Citizens / Civic Society
With these tools and mechanisms at the disposal of South African Parliament, it is the duty of Parliamentarians to use them and insist on a politically accountable government. Stories and allegations of state capture are high in South Africa, corruption has become endemic with a number of government institutions and officials being fingered misappropriation of funds cases. Institutions such as the police and judiciary have also been labeled as captured and this is not healthy for the country’s democracy. It is important that institutions such as Parliament and Parliamentarians push for political accountability in order to promote development, reduce poverty and strengthen the country’s democracy. For a country’s democracy is on its descent, it is prudent that Parliament keeps its eyes and ears on the pulse and demand political accountability.
In conclusion political accountability is important as it fosters democracy in South Africa. It can be conducted in various forms such as electoral, legislative, legal, hierarchical, and public-reputational. State has an obligation to play in making sure political accountability is enhanced and the media has a crucial role in promoting political accountability. Parliament as a Constitutional body has a crucial role to play in promoting political accountability and it can do this through utilizing the different tools/mechanisms at their disposal such as public consultations / hearings, report back meetings, participatory budgeting , participatory public policy formulation, public expenditure tracking and monitoring and evaluation of public services by citizens / civic society. It is imperative for Parliament to push for political accountability given the various challenges that are posing a great threat to the country’s democracy such as state capture and corruption.
Christians, C. G., T. L. Glasser, D. McQuail, K. Nordenstreng and R. A. White (2009). Normative Theories of the Media. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press