South Africa has a long way to go in realising a truly open society

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“If a non-elected government or leader could impose law and order, and deliver  houses and jobs, how willing or unwilling would you be to give up regular elections  and live under such a government?”

This was one of the questions posed in a recent survey to a representative sample of  all South Africans. The response is sobering: some 60 percent of urban dwellers,  even more among rural respondents, said they were either “willing” or “very willing” to settle for this undemocratic equation.

While we can ponder the merits of this substantive and materialistic view of  democracy – a system that delivers goods and services rather than a political  process, we cannot wish away the sentiments, nor ignore the nexus of politics and socio-economic conditions.

The Open Society Monitoring Index (OSMI) provides a valuable assessment of the  state of our young democracy, drawing on empirical data collected by the  Democracy in Africa Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, as well as the  opinions of analysts and researchers.

The first OSMI appeared in 2010, and now two years later, based on face-to-face  interviews with a nationally representative sample of South Africans, telephone  interviews with information officers in a range of government ministries, and the  analysis of researchers, we are again able to assess public opinion, as well as how  the institutions of our democracy are functioning and the behaviour of those elected
and employed to serve it.

The OSMI examines four broad dimensions, critical for an open and democratic  society: the free flow of information; inclusive, accountable and responsive
government institutions; fiscal accountability; and the rule of law.

South Africans are, justifiably, proud of their constitution, but institutions alone will  not entrench a culture of democracy.

The Money & Politics Project of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSFSA) warns that “the corruption of money and politics, a defining feature of South  Africa’s apartheid past”, is threatening the country today”. The Auditor-General and  Special Investigations Unit report that between R25 and R30 billion is wasted  because of graft – the equivalent of one fifth of the state’s procurement budget.

The investigative journalism adage – “follow the money”, is all too apt. Transparency  in public expenditure and party political funding are essential elements of a  functioning democracy. It is perhaps no surprise that the Public Protector’s office eceives more requests to investigate complaints than any other independent  oversight institutions – those created under Chapter Nine of our Constitution.

But it is not enough to look only at the number of cases lodged with and processed  by these institutions – the overall functionality of these bodies must also be
examined. While the Public Protector was fully staffed in 2009/2010, the South  African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has been hampered with only nine of  the 12 human rights commissioner posts filled in 2010/2011 and a vacancy rate of  between 19-25 percent in key departments and among senior management.

The limited capacity within the SAHRC is worrying because this is the institution  responsible for the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) – one of the key,  hard-won tools of our democracy. Equally worrying, however, is the low level of  public awareness of PAIA and the often-torturous bureaucracy required to access  information through this mechanism.

In a survey conducted for the OSF-SA in November 2011, 86 percent of respondents  said they had never heard of PAIA while just seven percent had. Even fewer were  aware of the right to information under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act  (PAJA).

Information, debate and criticism are most effective when elected officials and civil  servants are compelled to answer criticism, justify their policies and behaviours,  and respond by changing them if they cannot be justified. For this to happen, access  to information is essential.

On a daily basis, the majority of South Africans get their news from television (75  percent), 60 percent from radio, while 27 percent of South Africans rely on
newspapers. Given that 69 percent of urban residents and 89 percent of those living  in rural areas never use the internet, it is not surprising that only a tiny minority  goes online for news and information.

While newspaper editors have been among those at the forefront of resistance to  the Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB) which threatens journalists with jail  if they publish sensitive information, they should be mindful that only half of those  surveyed said they trusted newspapers “a lot” or “somewhat”. By contrast, 80 percent trusted SABC-TV news and 72 percent trusted radio.

The Protection of State Information Bill, as passed by the National Assembly in November last year, is inconsistent with the goals of the Promotion of Access to
Information Act. It also finds little traction among the public. Just 12 percent of  respondents “agreed strongly” that government should be able to restrict access to  any information it sees fit, (including covering up mistakes and corruption), while
one-in-four surveyed “agreed”.

There is also growing public concern about corruption at all levels of government –hich South Africans ranked as the third most important problem facing the
country (after unemployment and poverty).

Half said that “most” or “some” of those in the Office of the Presidency, Members of  Parliament, government officials and local government councillors were corrupt.  And 40 percent said that MPs and local councillors “never” listen to those they  govern.

So which institutions inspire confidence? The South African Revenue Services are more trusted that than the South African Police Services and the courts, despite  President Jacob Zuma’s warnings to those who would “co-govern the country  through the courts, when they have not won the popular vote during elections”, are  more trusted than the ruling party.

South Africans also hold our elections process in high regard. When asked about  how much they trusted the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) 69 percent said  “somewhat“ or “a lot” as opposed to 56 percent who trusted parliament “somewhat“
or “a lot”.

Change, as always, brings uncertainty, but following the resignation of the IEC  chairperson Brigalia Bam last year, along with other commissioners who had
completed their terms of office, the newly appointed commissioners have been welcomed by all parties.

Under the new chairmanship of Pansy Tlakula, the IEC would appear to be in safe  hands. Tlakula served for nine years as the IEC’s chief electoral officer, and has  taken a firm line in defence of access to information and media freedom in her role  as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information for the  African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

Yet, while South Africans feel free to vote and express themselves politically, they are sceptical when asked about political party fiscal accountability. This category in  the OSMI earned the lowest score across a range of dimensions measuring the extent of open and responsive government in South Africa.
We must remain vigilant – and where necessary outspoken – with regard to party  spending and the accountability of officials. The Auditor General’s report in 2009  found that more than 2000 government officials were in business with the state,  benefiting directly or indirectly from government tenders worth more than R600 million.

In the words of the OSF-SA’s Money & Politics Project, “when money is a critical  condition for political participation, open and democratic contestation is
undermined.

- Opinion editorial by Zohra Dawood

[Source: Open Society Foundation]

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