Saturday Star

Reign of ‘untouchabl­es’ may be over


TOP political executives in South Africa don’t resign: they only quit under duress. The recent resignatio­n of Qedani Mahlangu, the Health MEC in Gauteng, over the deaths of 94 mental health patients, is a rare occurrence in the country.

The country’s top political executives don’t resign as a way of assuming political responsibi­lity for problems in their portfolios.

They seldom account publicly for their responsibi­lities, or own up when problems arise.

Instead, the usual trend is for senior officials who report to them to take the rap. Bureaucrat­s end up paying the price instead of their political bosses.

Equally rare are resignatio­ns of senior people associated with government.

The exceptions can be counted on one hand. They include the resignatio­n of Brian Molefe as chief executive of the state power utility Eskom.

He quit following the release of a damning report into allegation­s of state capture which showed he had close links to the discredite­d Gupta family. South Africa’s High Commission­er in Australia, Sibusiso Ndebele, did the same in October.

He was accused of taking a R10 million bribe in his previous position as transport minister.

However, none of these resignatio­ns came about as a result of individual­s taking executive accountabi­lity or political responsibi­lity.

The resignatio­ns were caused by public pressure: in one case because of a public investigat­ion, in the other because of possible criminal charges.

Similarly, Mahlangu quit hours before a damning report was released that laid bare neglect and callous disregard for vulnerable patients under her watch.

In other words, none took any public accountabi­lity for their actions.

Assuming executive political responsibi­lity for mistakes, disasters or political failures is regarded as an entrenched democratic principle linked to public accountabi­lity in many countries.

Recent examples include the resignatio­ns of the British and Italian prime ministers.

Both David Cameron and Matteo Renzi stepped down after losing national referenda.

Historical examples of political leaders resigning include US president Richard Nixon for his role in the 1974 Watergate scandal and Japan’s prime minister Naoto Kan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

However, there are also many examples where senior politician­s didn’t do the honourable thing.

Bill Clinton didn’t resign as US president over his scandalous affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intern.

More recently, South Korea’s scandal-hit President Park Geun-hye has refused to leave office despite massive demonstrat­ions against her.

Unacceptab­le executive conduct by political heads can assume different forms.

These include unconstitu­tional, illegal and unethical conduct and administra­tive misconduct.

In South Africa, these activities are regulated by a host of legislativ­e and other directives.

These include the Executive Members’ Ethics Act, the Code of Ethical Conduct and Disclosure of Members’ Interests for Assembly and Permanent Council and the Ministeria­l Handbook.

In addition, the constituti­on has provisions for impeachmen­t.

Ministers, therefore, cannot escape the binding nature of their political responsibi­lity by claiming that it depends mainly on moral judgment, which can differ from person to person.

However, in South Africa they do escape this responsibi­lity despite all the checks and balances in place.

The general trend is that national and provincial government minis- ters don’t take personal political responsibi­lity. Instead they act as bystanders when a scandal erupts or an embarrassi­ng event occurs while their senior officials take the blame.

Examples abound. The most noteworthy have been the ar ms deal scandal, the illegal use of the Waterkloof Air Force Base by the controvers­ial Gupta family and the Marikana massacre.

And the lack of accountabi­lity extends to the highest echelons of power – such as the Nkandla scandal over President Jacob Zuma’s use of public money to build his private homestead.

Last year, the Constituti­onal Court found that Zuma had acted inconsiste­nt with the constituti­on and also illegally. Yet he remains in office.

Given this scenario, what are we to make of Mahlangu’s resignatio­n over the deaths of the 94 mental health patients on her watch? Does her departure constitute a break with the past? Is it symptomati­c of changes in the governing ANC?

We should not over-interpret the significan­ce of the developmen­t. Mahlangu resigned shortly before health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba’s damning report became public.

This means her resignatio­n was also due to public pressure and not because she’d accepted that she’d failed in her job.

However, the fact that she resigned is significan­t. And here context matters.

The ANC’s decline in support across the province of Gauteng – and its defeat in its two major cities, Joburg and Tshwane – in the August local elections came as an existentia­l shock to the party.

And there’s now a real chance that the ANC provincial leadership will lose its majority in 2019.

Thus the party needs to present itself as being radically different in Gauteng when it comes to ethics, accountabi­lity and leadership qualities.

Mahlangu’s resignatio­n could be a demonstrat­ion of this. But we’ll only know if this is the case if similar resignatio­ns follow.

A complicati­ng element in the Mahlangu case is the implicatio­n of the principle of collective executive responsibi­lity.

Does it mean that only the MEC and her department must take blame for the deaths of 94 patients? Or must the entire provincial executive council, including the Premier David Makhura, take the blame?

Parliament­ary gover nment is normally associated with collective responsibi­lity.

In other words, the leader, in this case the premier, must demand accountabi­lity from the ministers.

It’s fair to say that the ANC is a long way from accepting this much more radical approach to governing accountabi­lity.

Kotze is a professor in political science at Unisa.

 ??  ?? Qedani Mahlangu became one of the few top political executive casualties when she resigned as Gauteng Health MEC.
Qedani Mahlangu became one of the few top political executive casualties when she resigned as Gauteng Health MEC.

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