As the world remembers the passing of global icon Nelson Mandela, the fact that he was a man of principle is a clear element of his success as a leader and overall greatness. He understood the vital importance of the constitutional principles of accountability and the rule of law. He not only said as much, but also demonstrated the courage of his convictions by submitting himself before the courts when summoned to defend his decision to set up a commission to investigate alleged racism, corruption and nepotism in South African rugby.
It is therefore saddening to see how far some in the ruling elite have strayed from the example set by this great man. An important barometer of the extent of this problem is growing public sector corruption, whereby public funds are being diverted away from the public good towards private interests. Of course private sector corruption is also a problem, but until we get a handle on corruption in government, private sector corruption will continue to flourish.
South Africans certainly think that public sector corruption is getting worse. Transparency International's (TI) 2013 global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) shows that South Africa has dropped 34 places since 2001, with half the decline of 17 places occurring since 2009. South Africa is currently ranked at number 72 out of 175 countries and heading downwards.
The Human Sciences Research Council's (HSRC) annual South African Social Attitudes Survey shows the proportion of people who think that tackling corruption should be a national priority almost doubling, from 14% to 26% in the five-year period between 2006 and 2011.
This trend is supported by the latest 2013 Afrobarometer report, Governments falter in fight to curb corruption, released on 13 November 2013. The report, based on surveys of 51 000 people in 34 African countries, shows that South Africa is one of the countries where there is a notable increase in public perceptions that corruption is getting worse, particularly since 2008. This is in contrast with countries such as Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal and Zambia, where people believe that their governments are making gains in curbing public sector corruption.
Interestingly, South Africa is better placed than many other African countries to tackle this problem. There are 13 public sector agencies that have a particular legal or policy role to play in combatting graft. Moreover, a number of national mechanisms – such as the National Anti-Corruption Task Team – have been established to coordinate the functions of these agencies. South Africa also has dedicated policies, standards and legislation specifically designed to enable the state to tackle corruption through both criminal and civil action.
The question then becomes, why, with all these resources available to tackle corruption, do South Africans perceive the government to be failing in this regard. For example, Afrobarometer has found that on average a little over half (56%) of people on the African continent thought that their governments were doing a poor job in “their efforts to fight corruption”. However, South Africa performed notably worse than the average, with two out of three citizens (66%) believing the government to be performing poorly in combatting graft.
Importantly, these opinions are not held because South Africans are regularly confronted with public sector corruption. In fact, the 2013 Afrobarometer report shows that South Africa was ranked fifth lowest among African countries when it came to citizens having direct experiences of paying a bribe for public services.
Only 15% of South Africans said that they had paid a bribe in the previous year compared with an average of 30% of Africans who had paid a bribe. The worst performer was Sierra Leone, where 63% said that they had paid a bribe. So why do South Africans have such negative perceptions of corruption?
Arguably, it is because although most people are not expected to pay a bribe to access a public service, the public are aware that politicians and public officials divert public funds away from service delivery into their back pockets. In 2011 the former head of the Special Investigation Unit, Willie Hofmeyer, reported before parliament that between R25 billion and R30 billion was lost to the government procurement budget each year due to this type of fraud.
Moreover, there is evidence that incidents of corruption are increasing. A report by Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, based on documented fraud and malfeasance cases presented to parliament and contained in Public Service Commission reports, found that the amount involved increased from R130-million in 2006/07 to over R1-billion in 2011/12.
So there is evidence that the heart of the problem lies in the lack of accountability for maladministration and corruption. Corruption Watch states that this problem starts with the president – while there are various efforts by the government to tackle corruption, “these actions were countered by the continuing impunity on the part of those who were politically and financially powerful”. In particular, it was explained that the "Gupta wedding saga and on-going fiasco surrounding the president's private Nkandla residence are indicators in the past year of impunity in operation". Little symbolises the nature of our public sector corruption challenge better than the scandal of R215-million of public money being diverted away from the public good to upgrade President Jacob Zuma's private homestead.
It is therefore not surprising that research data supports the argument that corruption committed by politicians and government officials is driving negative public perceptions of corruption in South Africa.
According to the 2013 Afrobarometer Survey, perceptions of the office of the president being corrupt more than doubled, from a low of 13% in 2002 to 35% in 2011. This finding is backed up by the latest Future Fact Survey released last week that showed “a massive slide in trust and confidence in President Zuma to a current score of 37 from a high of 257 five years ago”.
President Zuma is not solely responsible for all corruption in the public sector, but he certainly has stymied any progress that could have been made in this regard. In addition to his own shady dealings with people like convicted fraudster Shabir Shaik, he has repeatedly appointed people of low ethical standards to key positions in cabinet and the criminal justice system.
As a result, citizens are less trusting of their national leaders. This is reflected in the recently released 2013 South African Reconciliation Barometer survey undertaken by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. This survey revealed that since 2012 there has been a 10.8% decrease in citizens' confidence in national government. There has also been a 13% increase in the proportion of citizens who feel that government does not care about “people like them”.
This can partly be explained by the sad reality that some in the ruling elite have jettisoned principle for political power (see The danger of sacrificing principle at the altar of greater power). In order to truly honour Mandela, it is now up to those men and women of principle in the ANC and the broader alliance to step forward and start taking to task those who besmirch his proud legacy.
There is no moral justification for the spending on Nkandla and the unethical behaviour of some of our cabinet ministers. Rather than trying to justify the indefensible or attacking important institutions such as the public protector, the ANC now needs to be at the forefront of holding its leaders to account for corruption and maladministration. Failing to do so will not only undermine Mandela's proud legacy, but will also further damage South Africa's prospects of solving its most pressing problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
This article first appeared in ISS Today, the weekly online newsletter of the Institute for Security Studies.
THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.
Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.
Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.
But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.
These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.
Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.
Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.
And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.
Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.
Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.
Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.
John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.