THE phrase "holding officials to account" has become a ubiquitous part of South Africa’s political discourse, but what does it mean in practice? Is the African National Congress (ANC) likely to face any consequences for its actions and omissions, specifically with regard to the obvious attempt to insulate President Jacob Zuma from the political fallout over the vast amount of public money that has been spent on his personal residence?
There are, of course, many different ways in which officials, both elected and appointed by the state, can be held to account in a democracy. Public servants are answerable to their immediate superiors and their performance can be measured against job descriptions or contractual obligations. Some senior political appointees sign performance agreements and can be censured or even axed by the president if they fail to perform.
In addition, there are the laws of the land. If officials, either deliberately or through negligence or bad advice, break the law or flout a constitutional principle, the police, the National Prosecuting Authority and the judiciary are obliged to act. Public participation is part of our constitutional DNA, so as long as civil society remains engaged, there are frequent opportunities for the public to challenge the authorities.
And then there are institutions such as the public protector and the gender and human rights commissions, which were put in place as a safety net in case any of the other state institutions is politically compromised or things slip between the cracks.
But even this relatively comprehensive array of institutional tools to promote accountability is fallible. Politicised appointments, "cadre deployment" policies and an electoral system that gives parties excessive power over elected representatives tend to make nonsense of performance assessments. No law is perfect: loopholes invite exploitation, ministerial discretion is open to abuse, state security provisions facilitate unjustified secrecy, and officials become adept at ensuring the letter of the law is not violated, even if the spirit clearly is.
In such circumstances, the ultimate responsibility for holding officials to account lies with the electorate. In this way, even if ministers who spend millions of taxpayers’ rand on luxury vehicles, or stay in five-star hotels for extended periods without good cause, manage to avoid censure by hiding behind a "ministerial handbook" or are protected by their political cronies in the parliamentary oversight committees, the voters can express their displeasure at the polls.
The trouble with this little lecture on Democracy 101 is that, to the surprise of many, it emerges that South Africans are surprisingly reluctant to use their votes to punish politicians for their indiscretions. This may seem irrational to middle-class analysts — a case of the politics of race and identity overwhelming the politics of self-interest, perhaps — but not to most voters, who clearly have different priorities.
Opinion polls indicate that most South Africans of voting age, including most ANC members, strongly disapprove of wasteful expenditure by government officials and are increasingly angry about rising corruption levels. Yet the party’s branch representatives have just voted convincingly to give Mr Zuma, the man who has presided over South Africa’s decline in these areas, a second term as ANC president.
The only logical explanation for this apparent contradiction is that the average ANC member considers himself to be materially better off — or still hopes to become so during the coming five years — despite the litany of ANC abuses that have been exposed in the media. RDP houses, taps and social grants may seem insignificant to middle-class commentators compared with scandals such as the splurging of public money on Nkandla, but middle-class commentators are not in the majority in South Africa.