Rich Mkhondo

OPINION: Could Maimane's resignation spark a health of democracy?

2019-10-27 09:50
Mmusi Maimane addresses DA members after he was elected as the party leader at its federal congress in Port Elizabeth in 2013. (File, Muntu Vilkakazi/City Press)

Mmusi Maimane addresses DA members after he was elected as the party leader at its federal congress in Port Elizabeth in 2013. (File, Muntu Vilkakazi/City Press)

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In many countries, politicians fall on their sword on a gratifyingly regular basis. However, in our Rainbow Nation such examples are conspicuous by their absence, writes Rich Mkhondo

For many years presidents, prime ministers, members of Parliament and public officials have done untold damage to the institutions and organisations they run, and the people they serve. But why is it so difficult to resign, to quit or jump ship before they are pushed?

Do they cling to their jobs because they need the money, because they enjoy the power or because they really don't understand or care what all the fuss is about? Is it because, as our public representatives, they are saints, or resignation is just a last resort?

What quirk of the South African Ubuntu character prevents our leaders, our so-called role models, from accepting the consequences of bad behaviour?

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Maimane's resignation the right thing to do

Has the resignation of Mmusi Maimane as DA leader and his colleagues, federal chairperson Athol Trollip, Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, federal council chairperson James Selfe and CEO Paul Boughey, sparked the health of a democracy which can be gauged by the quality of its resignations; by a willingness to accept responsibility for mistakes made and damage done, let alone political beliefs and vision?

There may be examples of leaders who courageously do the right thing. Indeed, in many other countries, politicians fall on their sword on a gratifyingly regular basis. However, in our Rainbow Nation such examples are conspicuous by their absence.

The evidence, from across the political spectrum, is that our politicians would rather suffer the slings and arrows of public humiliation, scorn, criticism and embarrassment than take responsibility for doing wrong.

Even when they finally step down – as in the cases of President Jacob Zuma and a few others, for example, it is only after years of pressure and only when even their closest allies can see through the lies, the inventions and the feeble excuses.

Behaving in expedient rather than principled ways

But why should this be? In a country with no history of genuine public accountability, it becomes impossible for public officials to take responsibility for their actions.

Here are some of the reasons.

When confronted with wrongdoing of any kind including ethical lapses, our leaders would rather behave in expedient than principled ways. They look for positive balance of credit over blame for their actions.

While we associate accountability with democracy, we have failed to recognise the significance of the problem of evasion and, therefore, to think about the forces at work.

As the accountability process has become all about naming, blaming and shaming, little prevention, learning or improvement has occurred. Lack of accountability across the board is slowly discouraging prudent risk-taking, innovation, disclosure and honest dialogue about what needs to be done and what works, does not work and why.

The accountability blame falls to the bottom

For many of our public officials, the accountability blame falls to the bottom, to the fall guy. This means when things go wrong, public officials try to shift the blame. Even when there is evidence of complicity at the highest levels of government, blame will find its lowest plausible level.

When the news of abuse of public office, ethical lapses or corruption and personal scandals hit the front pages of newspapers or electronic media, our leaders faced with managing the blame usually react in a self-interested and opportunistic way to deny and evade accountability.

Us versus them

In most cases leaders turn the controversy into an "us versus them" situation, especially the "us" versus the so-called "out-of-touch media" elite or "clever blacks".

Almost every day we see signs of officials hiding what they do from the public, often without real merit. National security is often invoked, political or trade secrets, or some other rationale for drawing a veil over the government's activities.

To evade accountability, our leaders manipulate the flow of information about events, actions, and policies. They manipulate the standards used for evaluating their action or policies and ultimately manipulate the consequences of any wrongdoing.

We all know that accountability is the guiding principle of a representative democracy and if it is to be found in any country's politics, it is to be expected in a country with stable democratic institutions and free and independent media like our Rainbow Nation. But alas, here our public officials do not submit an honest account of how our nation found itself in such a political and economic fiscal cliff. No one has acknowledged responsibility. They have regularly shifted the blame to their opponents and the world economic downturn.

As a consequence, and despite the general claim that accountability is a central feature of democracy, it has not been delivered when it is most needed.

Perceived self-interest

Could it be that our leaders' perceived self-interest often conflicts with accountability and they fear their reputations will suffer and their political support will decline or that they may even have to face legal proceedings? Could it be that they seek to avoid charges of negligence or worse?

In summary, could it be that we are dealing with individuals, with power, with selfishness and human failings?

Accountability safeguards our beloved Constitution, our laws, and our democracy. Our three tiers of government rests squarely on the notion that our public officials, whether elected or appointed, need to be accountable to us. They are responsible for their behaviour, their decisions, and the policies they implement, use and misuse of the funds and resources in their care.

Skilled at avoiding accountability

The weakening of accountability in our systems of government over the years ought to worry all of us. Our politicians and bureaucrats at all levels have become very skilled at avoiding accountability. Even when citizens or reporters file freedom of information requests, these are sometimes ignored, or turned down.

Perhaps our politicians should live to US President Harry Truman's motto he placed on his desk: "The buck stops here." There's a reason why this motto is so famous, and why we should consider it a standard our politicians should set for themselves.

Let us all demand politicians who will step up and take responsibility for their decisions. Let us demand political leaders and public officials who will hold themselves accountable to us, who exercise the responsibility handed them by our constitution to hold themselves accountable. 

As we move slowly to the 2021 municipal elections, let us hope parties will pay more attention to the character of the people they nominate to stand for public office.

Let us hope the Maimane, Trollip and Mashaba "accountability" bug will slowly bite all political leaders and public officials in our beloved Rainbow Nation. 

- Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm, a ghost-writing, content development and reputation management hub.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    mmusi maimane  |  athol trollip  |  democracy  |  accountability


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