Friday, 14 March 2008

'A country where it is okay to fail'

March 13 2008 at 04:16PM

By Tony Leon and Gareth van Onselen

Peter Hain might have done better for himself had he pursued a political and ministerial career in South Africa, where he grew up, not in Britain.

In late January he was obliged to resign from the British Cabinet for failure to declare a donation to his campaign for the deputy leadership of his party.

His resignation, demanded by the strict standards of accountability in Westminster, could never have occurred in South Africa, where government and Parliament have become virtually ethics-free zones.

Under the influence of the ANC, the South African government does not have a clear understanding of or appreciation for the principle of accountability.

Coupled with its insistence on using "the collective" as a smokescreen to protect individual culpability, this has reduced ministerial office to a safe haven for low standards and poor performance.

As a result, misconduct and malpractice are seldom met with meaningful penalties and, instead, a culture of excuse and compromise has been embraced, where everything is negotiable, there are no red lines and seldom are there consequences for failure.

It is a problem and attitude disseminated from the highest office in the land and one which, in turn, has infected even the lowest levels of the public service. But let's start at the top, with President Thabo Mbeki.

Last week, answering a DA question in the National Assembly on whether the Cabinet should be held to account for the Eskom crisis, the president's response was, at best, specious, at worst, warped.

He said: "The government takes collective responsibility for the national electricity emergency. This means that the attempt to attribute this national emergency to particular ministers is misdirected. The president of the Republic will certainly not join that effort."

And so we reach an intellectual cul de sac. For where do you take the case for accountability from there? Nowhere. You can't, because the president's logic is circular.

First, he equates accountability with responsibility, yet they are two different concepts. Responsibility tells you who is in charge; accountability refers to the consequences that those in charge must face when they fail to perform.

The reference to a collective blurs the issue even more. Instead of one person being held to account, suddenly the entire Cabinet is accountable two very different interpretations of the word.

Second a favourite trick of the president's by stating something forcefully, he implies (or perhaps hopes) it is the infallible truth and anything to the contrary is devious or dishonest.

Why is an attempt to attribute this crisis to a single minister misdirected? Because the president says so? Wrong. Actually, it's perfectly logical.

Various processes failed. In each case, someone was in charge of that process. And, in each case, they must be held to account there must be consequences for their failure.

Here is one element of the crisis, by way of illustration. Politicsweb recently set out how Eskom's management of its coal supply helped created the electricity crisis.

In June 2002, former Eskom CEO Thulani Gcabashe approved a corporate directive on procurement from black suppliers.

This established a "hierarchy of procurement" which had to be followed in sourcing products and services.

Although existing agreements were to be respected, for any further purchases drawn from outside the company Eskom was required to go first to "black women-owned suppliers", then "small black suppliers", then "large black suppliers", then "black empowering suppliers".

Only once these options had been exhausted could "other" South African suppliers be considered."

The result was that Eskom's coal stockpile was systematically reduced year-on-year, from 61 days in 2000 to just 18 days in 2007.

Now, all his other responsibilities aside, has Gcabashe faced any consequences for that massively destructive policy? No, none. In fact, he is still on Eskom's payroll.

He was responsible for that policy. It failed with devastating results. Yet he hasn't had to face a single consequence.

But in Parliament, Mbeki went further. When Dr CP Mulder asked him about the constitutionally mandated requirement of individual ministerial accountability to Parliament, the president's response was instructive. He said: "We can't resort to fall guys and scapegoats and things like that."

But while Mbeki might have intended his response to protect the relevant minister now Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka he ignored the fact that there are, indeed, "fall guys and scapegoats" in this saga.

But they are not in the Cabinet or in the public service, but rather in the work force or more likely in the unemployment queues.

While Mbeki was shielding the Cabinet and Eskom top brass from any responsibility or blame, Goldfields, Africa's second-largest gold producer, had announced, just two weeks before, that it might have to eliminate 7 000 jobs or 13 percent of its workforce because of power cuts in the mining sector.

By removing accountability meaningful consequences or penalties from any corporate structure (public or private) you are, in effect, removing the fear of failure.

Indeed, if failure becomes just another concept to be condoned by reference to generic terms like "collective responsibility", then, in effect, it becomes acceptable to fail. Even if the failure in question causes devastating economic consequences and fuels unemployment.

The leitmotiv of the ANC government appears to be "it is acceptable to fail". And that attitude is rubbing off on our citizenry, which is hardly surprising given the tip from the top.

Be it the electricity crisis or the service you receive at a home affairs office, South Africans no longer expect the best from their government; indeed, many expect hardly anything at all.

The president has now signalled that there is no consequence for poor performance and no one is held responsible.

This grim prospectus one of the less noted legacies of the Mbeki era needs to be reversed unless we are content to slide toward the low road of mendacity and mediocrity.

Tony Leon is a former leader of the parliamentary opposition and 2007 Fellow, Institute of Politics, Harvard University. Gareth van Onselen is Director of Special Projects, DA.

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