How and by whom can governance be improved?

Mamphela Ramphele says citizens now need to stand and be counted

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Oudtshoorn. 13 April 2012. 06h30.

Speech by Dr Mamphela Ramphele Launch of Round 2 of the Open Society Monitoring Index 11 April 2012 Johannesburg.


Allow me to take you to a place where society is closed to the world. We are making our way to a space that opens more or less horizontally onto a rock-face. At the mouth of this cave a broad-shouldered man greets us. He wears a long, loose garment and sandals. He puts a finger to his lips to encourage quiet, and then motions us to follow him. Some way down, where the tunnel turns sharply, human-like figures huddle.

“Behold!” says the man. We do – and recoil. We see men and women, legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can see only in front of them. Above and behind them blazes a fire; before them there is a low wall on which the shadows of those passing by are thrown.

Welcome to Plato’s cave, that greatest of allegories in philosophy. These men and women have lived in the cave since childhood, prisoners observing only the shadows of things. It is the philosopher who ventures outside, sees things as they really are, and returns to tell those held there the truth of what he – or she – has seen.

A little under two years ago, the Open Society Monitoring Index was launched. It assesses the degree of “openness” in South Africa and tries to measure the country’s progress in creating an open society. Since the release of round one of the index, much has happened. The current state of the nation makes the appearance of round two very timely.

South African citizens have much to be proud of. Over the last two years citizens have increasingly asserted their rights and assumed their responsibilities to make ours a constitutional democracy that lives up to our dreams.

Citizens’ voices have been raised against attempts to move us backwards into a closed society in the name of transformation.

Citizens have challenged not only the government, but the private sector in areas where impunity is taking root.

South Africans have much to be worried about. The tide towards a closed, unaccountable and corrupt state is too strong for the few who dare to stand up to be counted. Strength in numbers is needed. The majority of South African citizens resemble Plato’s cave people – a subject people chained to a “subject identity” from which they believe they cannot escape. The occasional protest, however violent is short-lived and self-sabotaging whilst belief in the all powerful leaders remains despite the behind the scenes’ obscenities thrown at them. This schizophrenic existence is the ultimate in helplessness and lack of self-respect.

In this talk I would like to take us back to 2 years ago when the Open Society Monitoring Index was launched at UCT. I then want us to see how we have fared this time round and why. I will end on an appeal to citizens to use this Index as a mirror that should help us come face to face with areas that need urgent improvements if not radical change.


Events between the first launch of the OSMI and now regrettably have proved the truth of the adage that the more things change the more they stay the same. Two years ago I spoke against the imminent enactment of the Protection of State Information Bill. I said: “Very effectively, the Protection of Information Bill’s draconian fines and prison sentences would bring guardianship of our democracy to a stop. Why? Astonishingly, the Bill makes no provision for disclosure of state information in the public interest.”

Now passed by Parliament and shortly to be signed into law, the act makes no provision for disclosure of state information in the public interest. In that and other non-provisions, it prompts at least as much anxiety about our democracy as before.

Compounding that, we continue to be faced by the strangest of democratic scenarios: overwhelming dominance by one party. In its wake comes what I termed the plague of group morality that fuels a culture of impunity, a phenomenon by no means confined to government. The past few years have seen many examples of corporate conniving, price-fixing, and covert cartels. Food industry monopolies have relished deploying age-old anti-competitive practices to exploit poor people.

And now we have deplorable and bizarre instances of new types of public-private partnerships that are anything but jointly enabling mechanisms for the greater good. There have also been instances of collusive operational methods that do nothing to advance the greater good. I think of what happened in around the 2010 soccer World Cup. New infrastructure for the event promised much on paper and fuelled optimism among many citizens, particularly those in the most underdeveloped and historically disadvantaged parts of the country. It seemed a perfect match: building stadiums would help fulfil aspirations of employment, skills transfer and, albeit limited, poverty alleviation.

But the bricks and mortar did little to build those dreams.

Many of the contracts were secured by companies experienced in the art of lubricating tender processes. In delivering their side of the bargain, they added little value to local communities. On site, companies installed their own workforces and few skills were transferred to the local populace.

More insidious was the curiously approximate and notably high costs of project bids. Building companies had South Africa over the barrel of a gun. State capture, it seems, can have more than one sense and one captor. In the case of the World Cup, FIFA and the construction sector seem to have held the keys.

There is, of course, the more traditional form of state capture, where party, government and state merge into a monolith of impunity. But that seems old hat when set against these concentrations of power in new and unholy alliances between the public and private sectors.

None of this is cheering for South Africans. It is even less so for investors. Rating agency Standard & Poor’s has downgraded our country’s credit rating outlook, hitting stateowned enterprises such as Eskom and Telkom where it hurts – the cost of capital. But ultimately it is the citizen who stands to lose – you and I will have to foot the bill.


Governance and fiscal accountability did not emerge well from round two of the monitoring index. As in the first round of the Open Society Monitoring Index conducted in 2010, our expert respondents do not rate South Africa’s performance on any the four primary dimensions of openness above the midpoint of 5.5, on a scale of 0 to 10. Respondents felt that openness was most compromised regarding fiscal accountability. This dimension earned an overall mean score of 3.8, compared to an average of 5.4 for accountable and responsive government, 4.7 for the rule of law, and 4.6 for the free flow of information. Overall, these scores show that South Africa is not doing particularly well on three of the dimensions, and doing particularly poorly in the area of fiscal accountability.

As we can see from these results, the highest score for any dimension was awarded for accountable and responsive government, though this is largely because respondents had overwhelmingly positive evaluations of South Africa’s record of regularly holding free and fair elections. The conduct of elections is the most positive score of any sub-dimension in this year’s study. It is significant to note that no other substantive area achieved an overall mean of 6 or more out of 10.

I do need to elaborate on the low score for fiscal accountability. It disguises a very large variation between the 5 given to the sub-dimension of national government fiscal accountability and the 2.6 scored by political party fiscal accountability, easily the lowest tally in any of the 11 subdimensions.

Although national government fiscal accountability at 5 out of 10 – 50 per cent – is nothing to crow about, it is almost double the mark given to the fiscal accountability of political parties. This is an extremely alarming outcome, which tells us that the fiscal accountability of the parties representing the citizens of South Africa is a sliver above 25 per cent.

I do not think we need reminding of the perils of lack of fiscal accountability. But in case we do remember that deliberate disregard for the true bottom line and fraudulent audits by cynically compliant accountants led to the collapse of Enron and Lehman Brothers, among many notable companies. What followed in the wake of the Lehman debacle was the world’s worst financial crisis since 1929, and one that is with us as I speak.

You will recall also that it was a series of lying audits that destroyed the credibility of the firm Arthur Andersen. Its accountants had signed off on fraud and put their names to egregious fiscal evasions.

Actions that fly in the face of the Public Finance Management Act throw accountability sharply into relief. Genuine accountability is to volunteer to stand up and be counted, to embrace being held responsible to sign your name to the truth.

It is precisely because he will not underwrite a lie that John Proctor, the protagonist of The Crucible, goes to the gallows.

The justices had rung a confession out of him that he had seen the devil. Then they demanded that he sign a declaration affirming that he had seen an old woman consorting with the devil.

He refuses, saying, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies!” Irrefutably, he concludes: “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” It is clear that many auditors and those they account for feel rather less concern for their good name. That is a pity. As citizens and members of civil society, these accountants have failed their fellow citizens.

And it is a double shame, because of the views of the influential Jim O’Neill. Let me recap. If you want capital from abroad to flow into your country, he says, it is essential to have stable government, to fight corruption, to exercise the rule of law and to have a proper education system. Pithily, he emphasises, “That applies to South Africa too.” We are guilty of exceptionalism a la Mahmood Mamdani.

Given that, what is the solution for political parties’ seeming lack of fiscal rectitude? Perhaps in some instances it is merely a lack of proper bookkeeping. I am not joking. In a 2005 study, Lloyds Trustee Savings Bank showed that accounting anxiety has led to “balance denial syndrome” whereby bank customers are so fearful of being in debt that they systematically ignore their bank statements. Jacob Soll, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, wrote of this syndrome that “It might be that the first step to balancing the books is finding the courage to face keeping them.” That seems like a commendable piece of advice to local political parties.

There are, of course, other factors that might account for political parties’ very poor record of fiscal accountability. It is likely that the parties can resolve some of these themselves. If not, surely there is public interest in knowing how and why such situations arise? But it is the public interest that has been excluded in the Protection of State Information Act.

That exclusion is an affront to the notion and meaning of a republic. As Thomas Paine so elegantly argues in Rights of Man: What is called a republic, is not any particular form of government. It is wholly characteristical of the purport, matter or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, RESPUBLICA, the public affairs, or the public good; or, literally translated, the public thing. It is a word of a good original, referring to what ought to be the character and business of government.[1]

Jim O’Neill, global chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, emphasised that government stability, fighting corruption, the rule of law and education were necessary to attract foreign investment. South Africa, he wrote in the Mail & Guardian, “does reasonably well in some areas of governance and schooling. If it could improve in other areas, especially in the broader use of technology, opening up to trade and aspects of governance, then it would start to approach South Korea’s levels”.[2]


But how and by whom can governance be improved? This is a question of continent-wide validity because in many parts of Africa the state is the lever of self-enriching power elites.

Often heading those elites is a patriarchal leader – the sort of “Big Man” about whom Moeletsi Mbeki has written so eloquently and so witheringly. Can civil society ameliorate the negative impact on the continent of these so-called Big Men? The Arab Spring shows that dictators can be overthrown.

It is a real-life tale to gladden the heart and mind of George BN Ayittey. In his just-published book, Defeating Dictators: Fighting Tyranny in Africa and Around the World (Palgrave), Ayittey argues that activism can build genuine democracy in Africa. His is no top-down model, overseen by a ruling clique for its own benefit. No Big Man looms over the democratic project as seen by Ayittey. Instead, this is the democracy of so-called ordinary people, the citizenry.

In introducing the index two years ago, I said, “The democracy of South Africa belongs neither to government nor to any political party or political class. Freedom, democracy and open society in the making are the people’s to have and to hold.” Citizens and civil society do not govern, however.

They are governed – even if they have elected their governors.

It is governance, then, and the accountability of the governing to the governed, that is of prime importance. Accountability includes fiscal accountability, especially so in a time characterised by the nexus of nepotism, cronyism and tenders.

Our democracy has two fatal flaws. First, a citizenry that has yet to make the journey from subjects to citizens. Second flaw is a national constitution that has an electoral clause that discounts the weight of the vote of the citizen.

The first flaw pertains to our collective underestimation of the work needed to make the transition from subjects of an authoritarian system that has been with us for generations to citizens of a constitutional democracy. South Africa missed the opportunity in 1994 to educate for democracy beyond the excitement of singing freedom songs or putting one’s choice to a ballot box. The Independent Electoral Commission failed to rise to the occasion too.

How did we expect black and white South Africans who had no experience of democracy to simply switch roles from subjects to citizens? Most stable and progressive democracies have developed and promoted civic education programs that enable citizens to understand what it means to be a citizen and how that translates into rights and responsibilities. Such education should not be the preserve of educated people and their children but it is particularly relevant to those trapped in “the subject identity crisis” at the bottom of a humiliating hierarchical social system that seems to confound most political analysts.

How can people being treated with such disrespect continue to return the same disrespectful public officials to power? The “subject identity” permits no self-respect. The disrespect by public officials simply confirms one’s own sense of worthlessness as a subject. But the same public officials are themselves wounded and lacking in self-respect that is why they humiliate their fellow human beings, especially those who look like them.

It is only through healing circles of citizens who acknowledge their woundedness and the need for transformative action that we can generate a momentum for the journey from subjects to citizens. Citizens who are empowered by the knowledge of their ownership of the democracy are unlikely to tolerate the level of unaccountability and impunity in high places which have become part of our political culture. Knowledge is power and most South African citizens are being denied that power.

The second flaw needs an active knowledgeable citizenry to generate the momentum to tackle it. Citizens’ voices have been undermined by the closed party lists that have resulted from exclusive proportional representation. This clause was meant to be part of the “sunset clauses” to enable our transition to democracy. The political parties represented in Parliament have shown little appetite for reviving the “Van Zyl Slabbert Commission” that reviewed that clause within the 5 year limit agreed by the negotiating parties and came out with a mixed electoral system to address the dual fears of “winner takes all” and the “party bosses make the call.” Unfortunately, most of the current political parties are too comfortable with the blank cheque from voters to rock the boat.

We the citizens now need to stand and be counted. We have to refuse to be bought at the cheap price of an RDP house – “ovesunyawo – the ones that leave your feet outside.” We must equally refuse to be bought for the price of tenders that take food away from the mouths of babes. Nor should we be willing to be bought for the price of powerful positions in the public or private sector.

Here I would like to return to Plato, called “the broadshouldered one” because of the dimensions of his gymnastically developed chest. Winner of the Ishthmian wrestling contest, Plato knew a thing or two about checks and holds and unbalancing the opponent. He also knew a little about the dangers of democracy. And at this point, I should emphasise that it is precisely because Plato is the arch antidemocrat that he has such insight into democracy in The Republic, the greatest of his dialogues.

Book VII of The Republic opens with the dramatic metaphor of the cave. Further on, Plato has Socrates – the dialogue’s narrator – explaining to Glaucon, his chief listener and occasional dialectical opponent, that: You must contrive for your rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a wellordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. Whereas if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after their own advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State.[3] Plato was born 2 439 years ago. His words have lost none of their urgency or applicability. I’d like to share another example of his prescience and remarkable understanding of human nature and politics, from Book VIII of The Republic.

When a democracy thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.

Something of this scenario is being played out today, as the national discourse centres on accountability, corruption, the Constitution, the rule of law and educational standards and practices.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote the great political thinker Thomas Paine in the late 18th century, a cry of the heart that many South Africans would echo today. For this is, in short, the time of BRICs, the time of brickbats, the spring of investment hope, the winter of corruption despair, the age of governance by Big Men, the era of unrest by socalled ordinary people.

It was Paine who wrote that great classic of democracy, Rights of Man (1791 and 1792). In the chapter on old and new systems of government, he says: In the representative system, the reason for everything must publicly appear. Every man is a proprietor in government, and considers it a necessary part of his business to understand. It concerns his interest, because it affects his property. He examines the cost, and compares it with the advantages; and above all, he does not adopt the slavish custom of following what in other governments are called LEADERS.

Paine spells leaders in capital letters, poking fun at their selfimportance and pomposity. Devastatingly, he follows up with: “It can only be by blinding the understanding of man, and making him believe that government is some wonderful mysterious thing, that excessive revenues are obtained.” Paine’s canny conflation of accountability, governance and fiscal matters goes to the heart of what round two of the Open Society Monitoring Index attempts. On accountable and responsible government, it looks at free and fair elections; the degree of public participation in legislative processes and the accessibility of those procedures; and the executive’s accountability to Parliament.

Government must be accountable to ordinary citizens and civil society, which is vertical accountability. Government is accountable also to other institutions of government and state, which is horizontal accountability. Vertical accountability and responsiveness are most likely to be found where government is elected through free, fair and competitive elections featuring widespread public participation. Here, elected legislators are accessible to ordinary citizens and legislatures enable the public to take part in law-making processes. A mixed constituency system in which citizens can hold individual Parliamentarians to account is critical to enforcing accountability and ensuring that the voice of the voter counts. Party bosses are the only ones whose voices count today in our proportional representation only system.

This undermines democracy and has to be challenged and transformed.

Horizontal accountability is most likely to be found where the legislature and other state institutions have the constitutional powers, resources and political incentives to regularly monitor and review executive branch policy and implementation.

Legislatures have more incentives to do this when elections are competitive and participation is widespread, and the legislative process is transparent and encourages maximum public involvement. The legislature needs to be freed from political party bosses who are currently holding them the ransom and denying them the right to vote with their consciences and represent their constituencies.

Knowledgeable citizens are essential to hold Parliamentarians’ feet to the fire to hold the executive to account.

It is one’s civic responsibility to know just how accountable government is, especially if you believe in the principle that Paine expressed in Common Sense (1776) that “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” When governments become intolerable they have generally intruded excessively into the lives of their citizens. Or, as Plato puts it: “Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are the most eager, the worst.”[4]

The Protection of State Information Act will make those allegedly guilty of fraud, theft, transgressions of the Public Finance Management Act as well as of acts of omissions and commissions of governance, the victims of those trying to get at the truth. It is the truth-seekers, whether whistle-blowers or journalists in whom they confide, who will effectively be criminalised by being detained, questioned, arrested, tried and sentenced. The act is a marvellously pre-emptive device for those who have committed crimes or wish to evade responsibility. It guarantees perfect conditions every time for a witch-hunt against legitimate investigation. In all, this is a case not of “Who let slip the dogs of war?” but rather of “Who leashed the watchdogs of democracy?”


We end where we began, standing inside the cave with the broad-shouldered Plato beside us. On the low, shadowreflecting wall, we see the shapes of dogs chained and muzzled. To their right stands a huge crucible, from which belches flames, perhaps a portent of the fires of the Salem witch-hunts.

It does not have to be this way. Can we – dare we – hope to see something more auspicious play out on those walls? The Open Society Monitoring Index holds up a mirror to our society. But it does more. Bertolt Brecht believed that art is not a mirror to society but a hammer to reshape it. We hope that round two of the Index will reflect South African society and, where needed, help to reshape its image. Truly, we are in a crucible of testing, of proving and of opportunity.


[1] Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Part Two, Chapter 3, “Of the Old and New Systems of Government”.
[2] “SA’s Bric score not all doom and gloom”, Mail & Guardian, March 30 to April 4 2012, page 37.
[3] Plato, The Republic, Book VII, translated by Benjamin Jowett.
[4] Taken from Benjamin Jowett’s magisterial 1894 translation of The Republic, as is the next quote.

Issued by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, April 12 2012

Published by Politicsweb

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One thought on “How and by whom can governance be improved?

  1. Pragtig gestel, KOMMERWEKKEND want SA sit midde hierdie moeras

    Besluit self of die volgende aanhaling beide Bredell en die ANC mooi uitbeeld.

    It is one’s civic responsibility to know just how accountable government is, especially if you believe in the principle that Paine expressed in Common Sense (1776) that “Government, even in its best state, is but a
    necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” When governments become intolerable they have generally intruded excessively into the lives of their citizens. Or, as Plato puts it: “Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are the most eager, the worst.”[4]

    Tyd vir onderdane om burgerlikes te word en die onbehope verkiestes TOTAAL teen te staan.

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