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It’s time SA raised the bar for public representatives to ensure they account for their misdemeanours, says Judith February.
Johannesburg - If anyone has the proverbial “nine lives”, it is national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega. In announcing the pending appointment of Major-General Bethuel Zuma as Gauteng police commissioner after the resignation of Mzwandile Petros, Phiyega pointed to the sterling qualities Zuma possessed for this top job.
But, a few hours later, Phiyega was forced to withdraw the nomination after it was found that Zuma had several criminal charges pending against him for, among others, drunken-driving and escaping police custody.
Phiyega and the SAPS, which she leads, have egg on their face – and not for the first time.
The bigger question here is: how does Phiyega keep her job despite the SAPS lurching from crisis to crisis?
President Jacob Zuma, before leaving for the G20 summit in Russia, praised Phiyega for acting swiftly in reversing Zuma’s appointment.
Is that the low bar we have now set for accountability?
It is hard to imagine she survived the Marikana massacre, specifically after her unconvincing testimony at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry.
No one has taken political responsibility for Marikana and certainly Phiyega has been disinclined to do so.
Responsibility for Phiyega’s blunders also rests with Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, her political head.
Mthethwa has been virtually silent on the Zuma issue and seems only interested in the ceremonial aspects of his portfolio.
He chose not to disrupt his honeymoon after Mozambican Mido Macia died as a result of police brutality.
What could be more telling?
But then, Mthethwa seems to have political cover in his alliance with State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele.
According to reports (strenuously denied) both men have placed pressure on Thuli Madonsela to abandon her investigation of Nkandlagate.
The president needs to protect his back, and Mthethwa and Cwele will do the bidding.
Parliament’s portfolio committee has called for Phiyega to explain what happened, yet, the bigger question is: what will happen then?
Who will be held to account?
It seems nothing will change, given the president’s praise.
And Mthethwa is clearly going nowhere.
How do we shift and change things in a political environment which, despite the constitutional requirements of transparency and accountability, is frankly fairing dismally in holding public representatives and the bureaucracy to account?
In Acemoglu and Robinson’s recent book Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty, it is argued that societies which succeed are ones with accountable institutions, both political and economic.
The economics generally follow the politics, they argue.
In the societies in which institutions are extractive and serve only the narrow interests of a small elite and thus lack accountability, chances of prosperity and dealing with economic and other social challenges remain low.
It’s a compelling argument backed by reams of evidence.
In South Africa our institutions are products of a historical moment; a constitutional compromise which heralded an opportunity to build anew.
Yet, we are having to build those institutions on the back of a history of a lack of accountability. How now do we stop this culture of impunity among officials and politicians?
Just in the past few weeks we have had the Phiyega blunder, Pansy Tlakula fighting back against the finding of her “unmanaged” conflict of interest by the public protector and Dina Pule’s ethics violations.
How do we get to the society of Acemoglu and Robinson’s “new, inclusive institutions”?
In Adam Habib’s book, South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: hope and prospects, he mentions three ways in which the balance of power might be able to shift in society, thus creating the uncertainty which ensures accountability among political elites.
They are a more dynamic opposition that provides a threat to the ruling elite; a diverse civil society that is creative about its strategic role in shifting power; and a change in the electoral system.
We are some way off from achieving these three elements in sync.
Ultimately, though, it will be citizens who determine the fate of the country.
Will we face the critical juncture by forming a new social pact, which Habib argues for, or will we continue along this unsatisfactory path of low accountability and potentially extractive institutions? Unfortunately, we will muddle along and have more Phiyegas and Zumas.
* Judith February is the executive director of the Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery Research Programme at the Human Services Research Council.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.