Our culture of unaccountability

Helen Zille on why it is so difficult to ensure “responsibility with consequences” in SA

During my time in government, my lodestar was Francis Fukuyama’s analysis of how a country makes progress towards peace and prosperity for all citizens.

At the risk of over-simplifying, Fukuyama concludes that, in order to succeed, a democratic society must get three key things right:

1) The rule of law.

2) A capable state performing its functions reliably and efficiently; and

3) A deep-rooted culture of accountability.

It is a deceptively simple formula, but I have learnt how devilishly difficult it is to achieve.

We can all recognise these attributes in countries that have them. Crime is very low, corruption virtually unknown, public institutions work, leaders accept accountability, and ordinary people assume responsibility for improving their own lives, while empowering their families to do so too.

It is a formula that enables people from very different backgrounds to live peacefully together. Such societies foster trust, social cohesion, and confidence in the future. These factors drive personal effort and innovation, attract investment, drive growth and create jobs, in a virtuous cycle of progress.

In the ten years I spent trying to construct the three “pillars of success” as Premier of the Western Cape, I began to understand why so few societies have managed to achieve them.

Former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was quite right when he said “for countries trying to establish the rule of law, the first 500 years are always the most difficult.”

It’s a useful reality check to remember that we are just 25 years into democracy. In theory everyone is equal before the law. In practice, we still have a very long way to go.

In his books, Fukuyama’s focuses on leadership accountability. But I believe that social progress cannot happen without a broad-based public culture of accountability, which is the foundation of the rule of law.

I define accountability as “responsibility with consequences”. Accountability exists when people understand that failure to fulfil their obligations will have negative consequences for them personally.

Establishing such a culture anywhere is an enormous challenge. But it is proving particularly difficult in South Africa for a number of reasons.

Firstly, we are burdened by the weight of history. Today, a quarter of a Century after the demise of formal apartheid, race is still widely assumed to be the marker of victimhood. When it comes to demanding accountability, society deals differently with “oppressors” compared with the “oppressed”.

Inevitably, double-standards define codes of social behaviour and their consequences, which makes it extremely difficult to establish a common understanding of what “accountability” requires.

Just take one frightening statistic. Of children registered at birth in South Africa, 62% are recorded as “father unknown". I often ask myself whether these fathers are genuinely “unknown” or whether mothers deliberately withhold the identity of their children’s father in an attempt to remain within the cut-off income threshold to receive government grants.

Whatever the motivation, the result is that well over half of all South African fathers evade accountability for their most fundamental responsibility: caring for the children they bring into the world.

I am certain that a great deal of the dysfunctionality in our society can be traced back to this fact.

Let’s look at the AIDS pandemic. Almost everyone knows that the HI Virus is spread by unprotected sex, especially when infected individuals have multiple concurrent partners. And when HIV positive older men have sex with younger women, the virus spreads like wild-fire, jumping generations. AIDS is costing our society billions -- yet almost all our policies seek to protect individuals from accountability for their choices regarding sexual behaviour.

(Of course, many people, especially women, are often powerless to exercise such choices or prevent the spread of AIDS, which makes it all the more important that sexual predators -- usually men -- are held accountable for their actions).

Every time I raise this issue, there is a predictable outcry. But I keep on doing so because these things need to be said.

Then take a look at our housing policy. A person is only eligible to obtain a free house from the state if they are over 18 with dependents, and if the entire household earns less than R3,500 a month. That undermines personal motivation to remain in school, postpone parenthood, acquire skills, get a job, earn a decent salary, and accept accountability for the quality of your own life. You throw away your chances of a free house if you do these things.

Nor is there any stigma attached to being dependent on the state. On the contrary, it is a right conferred by victimhood. Anyone who criticises these policies for their unintended consequences runs the risk of being vilified as “racist” or worse.

No-one understands how to manipulate victimhood to escape accountability better than President Zuma. Despite all the evidence of corruption and mismanagement against him, our former President has skilfully managed to portray himself as a hapless victim of Machiavellian conspiracies.

The Zuma-faction’s fight against President Ramaphosa is nothing more than an epic battle to evade accountability for crime.

This evasion of accountability cascades through society from the top to the bottom. Our labour laws, for example, are designed to protect and exempt those lucky enough to have jobs from accountability.

During my ten years in government, I experienced just how difficult it is to terminate an incompetent or lazy person’s employment for failure to perform their functions.

We succeeded in doing so only once in ten years, and then only after untold effort, conflict, cost and departmental disruption, despite meticulously following the letter of the law.

The process was so difficult and fraught, that I can understand why companies and governments would rather pay millions to entice incompetent executives to leave quietly, rewarding poor performance and entrenching a culture that is the very opposite of accountability.

Ah, people will say, but at least we have the Zondo Commission, which is at last enforcing accountability.

As much as I hate to say it, I fear the Zondo Commission may end up being a highly publicised and costly accountability-avoidance mechanism.

The only way to ensure accountability within the law is for people who are suspected of a crime, to be investigated by the police, prosecuted, and either acquitted by an independent court, or found guilty (with our without extenuating circumstances).

The Zondo Commission has no power to undertake any of these functions. It has provided a platform for some mind-blowing criminal allegations. But if they are never tested in court, they will remain just that. Sensational allegations. Some people may deserve the negative publicity. Others not. Some may remain below the radar entirely.

But none of this contributes towards a culture of accountability.

So, is it possible to turn this around?

A lot depends on whether it is possible to resurrect the criminal justice pipeline, starting with the National Prosecuting Authority.

Advocate Shamila Batohi was appointed as National Director of Public Prosecutions six months ago to undertake this mammoth task. To be fair, it is too early to expect results already, but the clock is ticking.

We certainly cannot wait 500 years. Not even 50.

A greater responsibility hangs on this office than almost any other. Nevertheless, we all have responsibility to help establishing a culture of accountability.

When we exercise responsibility and expect it from others, we lay the foundations for accountability. If we do it for long enough, it becomes a habit, and then a culture.

And this is the way that nations succeed.

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.



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