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By Martin Williams

Councillor at City

Accountability is so rare in South Africa, it’s almost mythical

How confident are you that every crooked politician and official in any way involved will get their just desserts?

Accountability is so rare in South Africa, it’s almost mythical. Daily, we hear about how people must be held accountable. Sometimes we are told they are being held to account. What does that mean?

The way people talk about accountability, you’d think it was a panacea, a remedy for all society’s ills.

Many derive satisfaction from seeing people being held accountable. Consider, for example, how MP Glynnis Breytenbach dealt with last week’s parliamentary committee hearings into the prison escape of murderer and rapist Thabo Bester.

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There was an outpouring of applause and “appreciation tweets” for her tough, no-nonsense approach. In a climate where politicians and officials get away with too much, it was gratifying to see some of them squirm when under the whip. It was a rare sight in a cesspool of impunity. Bravo.

But will holding people to account in this way fix things? How soon will we move to the next outrage, not knowing whether justice will be done – and be seen to be done – in the Bester case? How confident are you that every crooked politician and official in any way involved will get their just desserts?

Accountability denotes an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. There hasn’t been a queue of people lining up to accept responsibility for Bester’s escape.

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Even Judge Edwin Cameron, who played an invaluable whistle-blower role in the matter, found it necessary to explain how he was not to blame. Indeed, he is a hero here. If he had not tipped off news organisation GroundUp, using information in the public domain, Bester and his “celebrity” doctor partner might still be living in undisturbed luxury in Hyde Park.

Accountability, or lack thereof, is at the heart of another news story this week: the signing into law of the Electoral Amendment Bill. Not as enthralling as murder, rape and escape, but no less important.

Lack of accountability is a flaw in the way we are governed. The system makes politicians more accountable to parties than to voters.

In June 2020, the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) gave MPs an opportunity to correct this. The ConCourt said exclusive party proportional representation could no longer be used. It ordered parliament to correct defects in the Electoral Act. The Act has been tinkered with to allow for independent candidates, but the set-up is still weighted in favour of parties at the expense of independents.

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There are other flaws. For instance, the vote recalculation formula to fill seats left vacant by independent candidates unfairly favours bigger parties. That was to be expected from a parliament still dominated – perhaps for the last time – by the ANC.

As former president Kgalema Motlanthe has noted, the governing party “has no appetite for a system that creates accountability”.

Too many South African politicians have been able to avoid accountability, either to voters or to tough prosecutors such as Breytenbach. Every five years you have an opportunity to hold politicians accountable by voting them into or out of office.

Use your vote wisely next year in what will be South Africa’s most important election since 1994. If you don’t, future generations may hold you accountable.

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