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Accountability and social activism: A new strategy for achieving socio-economic rights in a democratic South Africa1

Colm Allan, Director, Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM)


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    In facing a parliament, the bureaucracy, out of a sure power instinct, fights every attempt of the parliament to gain knowledge by means of its own experts or from interest groups. The so-called right of parliamentary investigation is one of the means by which parliament seeks such knowledge. Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence powerless parliament - at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy's interests.2

Introduction: the current strategic impasse

It is almost a decade since the advent of democracy in South Africa. And this provides progressive civil society with an opportunity to reflect openly and honestly on the successes and failures in realising socio-economic rights. We should readily acknowledge the dividends of democracy for South Africa since 1994. We have seen the provision of electricity, water and houses to citizens across the country who previously were deprived of these services and facilities. The critical questions that need to be addressed, however, are: Do South Africa's new democratic institutions deliver public services in a manner that meets citizens' socio-economic rights? And, are socio-economic rights being met in a way that represents the most efficient and effective use of available public resources?

It would appear that over the past nine years civil society organisations (CSOs) and social activists in South Africa have missed many opportunities to ensure improvements in the delivery of socio-economic rights. These missed opportunities can be attributed to three strategic failures:

  1. a partial understanding of the nature of South Africa's new Constitutional democracy;

  2. the decision by certain organisations and social activists to work outside of the Constitution and the democratic structures of the new state as a means for achieving socio-economic rights, and;

  3. the failure by many social activists and civil society leaders to engage critically with the Executive and public officials on their performance in meeting their Constitutional obligations.
The common thread running through all of the above strategic failures is the absence of a coherent concept of accountability. This is of concern as the concept of accountability underpins progressive civil society's theoretical and practical strategies.

In order to extricate itself from this impasse, progressive civil society needs to embrace a new brand of social activism informed by a new philosophy of 'direct' and 'active' accountability. In terms of this philosophy, CSOs and social activists should strive to hold elected politicians and public officials directly accountable, for the performance of their duties and responsibilities, in an active and sustained manner. Accountability should be viewed as an ongoing obligation rather than an interpersonal favour or an electoral formality. The emphasis within this proposed approach is on building institutions and social relationships of accountability. These institutions and relationships should cut across conventional divisions between state structures (including Parliament and its committees) and social actors (including disorganised community groups, as well as organised social movements and NGOs).

This approach should not be confused with the more passive and indirect philosophy of accountability that underpins traditional liberal democracies. In terms of the traditional liberal view, the onus is on political representatives (elected at 5-year intervals) to ensure their own accountability and to exercise oversight of the executive and government performance. The onus, within the liberal view, lies squarely on the structures of the state and its supporting institutions - rather than civil society and communities - to determine and advocate for citizens' needs and interests.

  1. The author would like to thank Dr Ivor Sarakinsky for his comments and suggestions on this paper. A draft of this paper was originally presented at the Conference On Social Activism and Socio-Economic Rights: Deepening Democracy in South Africa, 11-13 August 2003, Gordon's Bay organised by Idasa.
  2. Max Weber, Bureaucracy, (originally in Wirtschaft unt Gesellschaft, 1922) in HH Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 1970, From Max Weber, Essays in Sociology, London: Routledge.

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