According to Afrobarometer, in South Africa, only 27 percent of the population trusts the ruling party and 24 percent trust the opposition. What is striking about these statistics is that the demographic that displays the least trust are the younger and more educated respondents. There are several explanations that can be offered for this phenomenon. While political campaigns use several persuasive techniques which include sensationalist tactics of relaying information. Those tactics do not work on those who have high expectations for them. The structure of formal education is such that everything has to be qualified with facts and figures that one can always look back to thus the people require some form of quantifications of statements.
In this regard, trust in South Africa’s democracy is waning and what this looks like statistically is that a sizeable number of people say they would be willing to forego elections if a non-elected government could provide security and better services. This reveals that the opposition has not done enough to prove themselves as a viable alternative to the ruling party to the point that the people would rather sacrifice democracy altogether than opt for the opposition party.
People respond to what they perceive as real to them and the reality is that there is poor service delivery, lack of access to basic services which can be attributed to rampant corruption which is a direct result of a public service culture that is void of accountability. When considering data that was collected prior to an investigation into alleged corruption implicating Minister of Health Mkhize who has since resigned. Out of seventeen institutions that Afro Barometer asked about only three managed to instill some trust in more than fifty percent of South Africans and these were independent broadcasters, government broadcasters and the Department of Health which were in the spotlight since the first case of Covid 19. What these institutions did was to relay information consistently whether it was good or bad. Through broadcasting, the general population knew what stage of the pandemic that the country was on, whether Covid-19 cases were increasing or decreasing. Broadcasters engaged various state actors to speak on the pandemic. This information was relayed timeously and what broadcasting did was that it affirmed people’s trust. People felt that they had been offered the full picture of what was happening in the country. Broadcasters did their job of providing access to information thus being accountable to the people.
An analysis of the public’s trust in the president showed that when it was at its highest it was in sync with high levels of economic growth and a low level of unemployment and its lowest associated with industrial corruption and allegations of state capture that were reported during the Zuma presidency. Again, inefficiency is very clear when it manifests itself in the form of unemployed graduates for example or an increase in the price of food. It is seen when one tries to add some fuel to their car at the petrol station. That is what data looks like in the life of the average person on a daily basis. When someone looks at the data and it is synonymous with their painful lived existence it becomes a reflection of entities that are failing to do their job that they have been elected to do.
Now how can data be used to foster political accountability? It begins from being intentional about assessing the needs of the voter population. It would not make sense to spend time on getting information about something which they do not have any particular regard for. An essential part of data collection is collecting relevant data. When using Afrobarometer’s Lived Poverty Index a tool detailing access to key resources required to survive 35% of those who experienced high lived poverty had some trust in the president then 42% of those who did not experience any lived poverty had some trust in the president. These statistics reveal that when one is not at close proximity to the problem, they are desensitized to the lived realities of those experiencing life differently from them. Thus, it becomes important to collect data holistically as different socio-demographic groups have different needs. It would be unfair to conclude overall satisfaction from the opinions of those who are not experiencing hardship. A good data collection strategy is one that acknowledges current shortcomings, where they come from and using data-based solutions to monitor the problem. What data does is validate people’s problems by making them real and affirming the cries of those who have decried those problems.
The Human Rights Based Approach to Data formulated a preliminary set of principles, participation, data disaggregation, self-identification, transparency, privacy and accountability. Through this approach people are humanized and not just classified as a group of numbers.
Political accountability in a democracy comes from giving everyone the right to choose who they want as their leaders as well as encouraging participation. Data collection should be intersectional and should cover all demographics as to curb the problem of isolating a certain demographic at the benefit of another.
Disaggregated data refers to the separation of compiled information into smaller units to explain underlying trends and patterns. It is data that is broken down by age, sex and income levels. By recognizing different life experiences at research level, this has the potential to inform the design of public services as well as appropriately targeting development programs.
This involves personal identity characteristics (indigenous status, religion or sexual orientation). These characteristics may also extend beyond those listed in international treaties or recognized by national law as necessitated by logistics where a particular group of people is not recognized by the state but is understood to reside exclusively in one location.
This means that information should be openly accessible. The public has the right to information which is tied to freedom of expression. In a democracy people have the freedom to seek and impart information and this right is protected by international human rights treaties. Having numbers and statistics is an important component of information that the public is entitled to.
Privacy refers to confidentiality meaning that data cannot be used beyond statistical purposes and the use of data must be regulated by law. No one may be subjected to unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home and correspondence.
In a democracy, from a human rights perspective, the state and those in authority are held accountable by the population who are affected by the outcomes of their decisions. Politicians have the duty to respect, protect and fulfill rights in their daily exercise of statistical activities.
As the world progresses and there are more spaces where people can express themselves and to also obtain information because of the internet, people have more room to assess their needs from their political leaders. Due to that fact, they are less willing to be infantilized from non-committal answers and propaganda. The world is now a global village and people no longer exist in vacuums of their own communities. Governing through data would reform the way service delivery operates and make serving in a democracy something to aspire to and not just a space for the privileged elites to treat governing of a country like an old boy’s society.
Rorisang Moyo is a Bachelor of Arts in Law graduate currently studying towards her Postgraduate law degree at the department of Law University of Pretoria. She writes in her personal capacity.