Category Archives: Andrew Nash

Cape Times: Accountability as a strategy leaves loopholes

Resources of our society should be used for the benefit of all
Accountability as a strategy leaves loopholes

August 24, 2009 Edition 1

Andrew Nash

The outcry about cabinet ministers and MECs spending millions on new luxury vehicles, with every imaginable accessory, at the same time as they call on workers to tighten their belts, is surely justified. But it misses the bigger picture.

When Minister of Communications Siphiwe Nyanda said that the cabinet-approved ministerial handbook entitled him to his new cars, he summed up the new model of accountability that comes with our constitutional democracy.

He also gave us a glimpse of how the model of accountability that sustained the liberation struggle has been debased.

Accountability became a central term in South African politics with the rise of the independent trade union movement after the Durban strikes of 1973. At the time, it was illegal for African workers to strike.

When workers walked off the job in January 1973, management had no unions to negotiate with. Workers insisted that management negotiate with all of them.

This sense of everyone being equally involved in a collective struggle characterised the labour movement that emerged after the Durban strikes. Steven Friedman’s Building Tomorrow Today (1987) describes how this movement deliberately sought structures that would ensure that workers took part in decisions.

The movement itself depended on constant debate and argument over its own goals and character. It sought to protect its identity as a worker organisation against the encroachments of nationalist and populist politics.

Unions developed and nurtured this distinctive class identity by focusing on shop-floor organisation and issues close to workers’ daily lives. Meetings were conducted in their own languages, and translations were provided when language was a barrier. Union leaders took care not to impose their views on the meeting. When important issues had to be decided, debate often went on all through the night.

By the mid-1980s, one unionist estimated that about 150 union meetings were taking place throughout the country on most week nights.

Accountability was the foundation on which the movement was built. Union leaders were constantly made accountable to union members and union members to each other, and unions sought to engage with allies on a similar basis.

This model of accountability had a three-part structure. It began with a mandate, which was required in order for leaders to act on behalf of workers. The mandate process would often specify when representatives would report back. At the report-back meeting, the mandate would be confirmed or recalled, or a new mandate created through discussion of the report. The same people who agreed on the mandate would participate in the report-back.

This three-part structure of mandate, report-back and confirmation or recall provided a framework for accountability, neither populist nor bureaucratic, but deeply democratic. It provided an ethic that informed the relationships and daily actions of huge numbers of people.

It was also at the heart of the vision of the society they sought to bring into being, in which “the free development of each was the condition for the free development of all”.

Although this practice of accountability began in the labour movement, it was never thought of as limited to that movement. It provided a model for all the institutions of a future society, whether in education, the workplace or in government. This model found its way into student organisations and the community struggles of the 1980s as well – perhaps most conspicuously in the Cradock Residents Association under Matthew Goniwe. A complex network of street committees, area committees and people’s courts enabled communities to withstand the onslaught of state repression.

But this model could not be sustained in townships, villages and schools in the same way as in the labour movement. Street committees and community projects often became conduits for instructions from above, rather than forums for genuine debate and democratic decision-making.

Nelson Mandela’s decision to begin negotiations with the apartheid government in 1986 was, at the time, a major departure from this ethic of accountability. Mandela himself was at pains to make clear that he was not negotiating on behalf of the liberation movement.

His unquestionable record of self-sacrifice gave him the credibility to weather the storm when word of his initiative reached activists in the mass movement.

The Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) was perhaps the last gasp of the philosophy of mandate and report-back that carried the labour movement through the struggle years. It was on the basis of the RDP that Cosatu threw its weight behind the ANC in the 1994 election. The general secretary of Cosatu, Jay Naidoo, was appointed to Mandela’s cabinet with the responsibility of the RDP.

But the RDP mandate was exercised in a new context, in which there was little or no active and ongoing participation by the electorate, and no real prospect of their recalling their leaders. In 1996 the RDP was abandoned, and the neo-liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution plan (Gear) became government policy.

Just at the time that this ethic of accountability was dealt its death blow, the idea of it was being celebrated as never before. The new constitution adopted in 1996, the year that the RDP mandate was unceremoniously abandoned, announced in its first clause that the South African state was founded on values, including those of accountability, responsiveness and openness.

It also established various bodies tasked with different forms of political and ethical oversight and accountability – beginning with the so-called chapter nine institutions.

In time, a whole accountability industry has sprung up, with a proliferation of codes of conduct, investigatory bodies, advertising campaigns, conferences, academic centres of applied ethics and the like. Processes of public accountability continue under the new constitution – imbizos, public hearings, ward committees, etc – but mostly as an empty ritual.

The main focus has been on the government, not on business, even though much of the focus of the new accountability is on corruption, in which business is often involved.

There has been no real challenge to the idea that business corporations are primarily accountable to their shareholders and their obligation to them is to make a profit.

The new model of accountability stands in sharp contrast to that developed within the labour movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

The earlier, more participatory model saw accountability not just as an organisational strategy, but as a virtue, to be exercised and developed in relationship with others in the context of a shared struggle for justice. It was a virtue that required a commitment to democracy and equality for its exercise and strengthened that commitment.

It did not reduce members of the collective to a homogenous mass, but enabled them to articulate their own views in such a way as to contribute to shared goals.

The model of accountability that has developed under the auspices of the South African constitution of 1996 treats accountability as a set of rules exercised within a bureaucratic structure by professionals-mainly lawyers and politicians.

You engage with those rules by making complaints or allegations, denials or excuses, and by discovering procedural problems or legal loop-holes. Structures of accountability often isolate individuals from those around them, as complainants or subjects of investigation.

This model of accountability does not so much promote neo-liberal capitalism as take its premises for granted, treating society as an accumulation of acquisitive individuals whose essential aims are furthered by evading the requirements of accountability. In a world in which the market is treated as the only arbiter of value, public service and representation are anomalies, to be kept under surveillance.

Consider how each of these models of accountability would treat the purchase of new motor cars by MECs and cabinet ministers.

In the participatory model of accountability that characterised the labour movement of the 1980s, one cannot imagine a leader asking for a mandate to pay for all of this from those who elected her or him.

Union organisers did not drive expensive cars. But in the new procedural model of accountability, what matters is the terms of the ministerial handbook, and nothing in the handbook sets a limit on accessories.

In the first model, accountability depends on active participation in political life, informed by a shared ethical standard. Even when the mandated initiative fails, the process of accountability strengthens the capacity of oppressed people to act collectively and consciously take responsibility for their actions.

In the second model, the process only adds to public cynicism and apathy, whether the ministers get their car accessories. Any obstacle to the car-buying will be reversed once the outcry subsides.

Using large sums of public money to buy luxury cars for cabinet ministers is the other side of the coin of ensuring that the major resources of the country remain privately owned, so that the wealthy can spend their profits from them on whatever they want.

Taking away the luxury vehicles and the many other perks of ministers and MECs should be no more than a first step towards ensuring that the resources of our society are used for the benefit of all, not the excesses of a few.

As long as corporate CEOs drive luxury cars, cabinet ministers will do the same. Accountability based on democratic participation should be a norm not just for the government, but for society as a whole.