OPINION | Paul Kariuki: Why political accountability matters in South Africa

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Raymond Zondo hands part 1 of the state capture report to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Raymond Zondo hands part 1 of the state capture report to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
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Given the ongoing exposure of malfeasances in both public and private sectors in the country, accountability cannot be a buzzword or a cliche. It must be put into action by citizens from all walks of life, writes Paul Kariuki


The dawn of democracy in 1994 paved the way for the transformation of a nation that had been trapped in centuries of discrimination, under-development, inequalities and exclusion, among other societal ills, that led to divisions based on race, class, and socio-economic status.

A plethora of legislative frameworks and development policies were instituted to remedy the above challenges. However, more than two decades later, whilst a lot has been achieved in terms of political and socio-economic development, the nation seems to be going through an accountability crisis. 

For instance, the revelations of state capture, based on the recently released Zondo Commission report, demonstrate the extent to which institutional systems have been compromised and weakened over time. The failure of existing systems to prevent misconduct in both private and public sectors is a concern and affects citizens' confidence in public institutions negatively. Effective governance systems are aimed at boosting political accountability by promoting good governance in which ordinary citizens can hold political leaders accountable for their actions.

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Against this background, it is imperative to understand that political accountability is an important facet of any thriving democracy. It is one of the cornerstones that support equality, power-sharing, active citizenship and social justice among other aspects of democracy.

But what is political accountability? 

Political accountability 

Whilst there are many definitions of this concept, in this article political accountability refers to the agreements and procedures governing the relations between citizens and their elected representatives in ensuring all stakeholders adhere to rules and laws that govern their existence and relationship.

Stated differently, political accountability simply connotes the accountability of all leaders at all levels of responsibility to the public as well as individuals being accountable to each other for their actions, attitudes and behaviour. In this sense, political accountability becomes a societal mechanism of checks and balances, to ensure everyone acts in the larger interests of society rather than self-interest.

Why does political accountability matter?

Firstly, political accountability matters because it is the heart of democracy. Government officials, political leaders, and all citizens must work together in the best interests of society. Without political accountability, the ruling political elite can make economic, political and social decisions without engaging citizens. Of course, this is undesirable and calls for active citizen engagement politics to defend our hard-won democracy by promoting political accountability at all levels of governance. 

Secondly, political accountability is crucial because it ensures private interests do not override the larger interests of society. However, for the interests of the public to be safeguarded and prioritised, it calls for an informed electorate that always remains vigilant and is not a passive actor in a democracy, reduced to a recipient of decisions, but rather an active shaper of those decisions whilst abiding by the numerous rules and laws that govern their existence as citizens.

Thirdly, political accountability improves the management of public resources because elected political leaders are held accountable for their actions and decisions. The aim is to ensure value for money for all public goods and services that citizens consume.

Fourth, due to the efficient use of public resources to provide quality public goods and services, corporate governance is improved as well. In the end, the costs associated with the investigation of misconduct and misappropriation of public funds are reduced or eliminated.

Role of civil society 

What then is the role of citizens and civil society at large in promoting political accountability sustainably?

Firstly, be informed. An informed electorate can engage in societal discourses with confidence and be able to articulate their views without fear of intimidation. As such, citizens and civil society need to be proactive by seeking information, participating in forums and other public engagement opportunities to understand better the political dynamics in our country and how they are affecting our democracy.

Armed with this information, they will be motivated to engage with political leaders at all levels of governance and power, and confidently demand answers for any aspect of public service that concerns them. In the end, an informed citizenry develops new norms and practices that are likely to influence the political behaviour of leaders towards responsible and ethical public service. 

Secondly, civil society and citizens should mobilise themselves and continue advocating for the observance of the rule of law, towards strengthening the judicial systems and compliance with the laws of the country.

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Thirdly, political leaders, citizens and civil society must continue engaging with each other in support of cooperative governance, whereby democratic principles, such as transparency, pluralism, public participation in decision-making and accountability, are embraced and promoted as societal norms. This is a collective responsibility and not the government alone.

In conclusion, political accountability is every citizen's responsibility.

Given the ongoing exposure of malfeasances in both public and private sectors in the country, accountability cannot be a buzzword or a cliche. It must be put into action by citizens from all walks of life.

Whilst there are pockets of success in fighting and exposing corruption, much work remains to be done. The legitimacy of our politics and system is dependent on citizens and civil society's ongoing vigilance to ensure the gains of our hard-won democracy are protected and preserved for future generations, while being enjoyed by the present generation.

- Dr Paul Kariuki is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Programme (DDP) and writes in his personal capacity.

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