Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas addresses crowds.
If South Africa’s democracy is to be upheld, the civil society movement needs to be strengthened and better co-ordinated to ensure that accountability is sustainable. That’s the view of former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, who spoke at the Open Book Festival at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.

Jonas said the public accountability system had been tested in numerous instances where the rulings of the Constitutional Court were not upheld.

“We are a country in crisis. The levels of poverty and inequality are deep. The level of youth marginalisation is high; our economy is growing at a very slow pace. The poor and marginalised people are asking for new solutions, and the ruling party is struggling to provide those solutions,” he said.

Jonas also said the danger of giving too much power to political parties eroded public accountability and the best way to remedy this was to establish active citizenry.

“As South Africans, we need to be acutely aware of our institutions, protecting them and holding them as credible as possible. There’s no institution you can dismiss as unimportant, as anything could happen. In defending democracy, we need to monitor our institutions better, and intervene when they are capsizing.”

Jonas said the country could not look at December (the ANC’s elective conference) as a panacea for its problems.

While the news that the country was out of a technical recession was welcome, the structural issues of the economy remained to be addressed, said Jonas.

“Our economy is not growing at a desired pace; the levels of unemployment and inequality are high and the state needs to play a large role in economic reform,” Jonas said.

Asked why National Treasury had not done much to grow the economy while he and former minister Pravin Gordhan were at the helm, Jonas said the role of Treasury was “largely in the macroeconomic space".

"Distributing funds and managing expenditure and economic growth should be driven by creating an enabling environment through policies".

“Policy certainty is fundamental. Coupled with that is credible political leadership.

“If you look at the JSE, a big chunk of it is pension funds, followed by foreign-owned companies. We are as vulnerable as ever. Yes, we need to transform the economy and diversify it,” he said.

Another critical area for him, where the government could not justify “monumental failure”, was education, where a lot of reform was needed to ensure it is aligned with the needs of the economy.

Jonas said there was a great need for artisans, but big business should be more involved in the curriculum and preparation of pupils and students for the world of work.

But his biggest concern after the cabinet reshuffle, which saw him lose his job, was “how we organise civil society to speak with one voice”.

Jonas said the country should guard against replacing an “elite with another elite ruling entity", and instead deepen engagements with people at grassroots level.

Sunday Independent