August 15, 2008

MWALIMU (Vol 1.2. – Second Quarter 2008)

Filed under: Mwalimu (Vol 1.2. - Second Quarter 2008) — newritings @ 9:00 pm


(The views expressed in the newsletter do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation)


The complexities of the struggle for transparency, ” good governance” and accountability

Recently, I have been following how state-government departments and private institutions and organisations respond to users – citizens (and even consumers) concerns and rights. These experiences are based largely on my own (more recent) activism which I hope may find resonance wider. In this not scientific study, I generally found that those organisations-institutions that (in the case of the internet) have a pre-formatted response (limited) space often do not respond to the queries genuinely, but use it as a filter to frustrate or devolve the complaint to the lowest levels of responsibility rather than to highest levels where decisions are taken. Instead of seeking a speedy resolution, they try to force one to phone or write a letter via post, which in itself is not a bad thing, but works in effect to delay and frustrate – hoping that the problem (and those who have it) will disappear with extreme exhaustion. Let me explain with help of a few examples:

I wrote complaining about the BBC’s reporting on skin lightening creams, and used the formatted response letter, even complaining to the Trust, to no avail – fixed systems of complaints substantially aim to retard rather than enhance accountability. Interestingly, seeking information from L’Oreal, recently requesting information about skin lightening product contents too has proven to be a gigantic task.

Governments have not done better. Or some. The South African government is great exception in this regard. I was trying to follow up on a story first featured in Channel 4 (UK –documentary and then an article by the Guardian´s Cris McGreal), on the alleged Spanish and South African governments’ involvement in the attempted Coup in Equatorial Guinea. The allegations were seriously troubling for any African but more so for any democrat, yet very few newspapers or media houses chose to do a follow ups on it. We tried, and after not getting a reply first from the RSA government, emailed to all and sundry without a reply until finally writing directly (via email) from a publicly available email address to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma. Within 10 minutes we got a reply from the director of communications of her department refuting involvement and calling for prosecution of those involved.

The Spanish government, on the other hand, is opaque in comparison. I was forced to write in the formatted response forms to president J. L. R. Zapatero (as head of the PSOE party) and to date have had no reply. Just to get an email address to a relevant minister is a project in itself!

The final example relates to the recent National Anti-Corruption Summit (third since inception, held on 4 and 5 August 2008 ) which I did not attend, and write from a distance. I think the National Anti-Corruption Forum (NACF), and the Summit is worthy of celebration in the manner in which it seeks to tackle corruption as a collective effort, realizing that the obligations on capital, the state, and civil society are different. However, on reading the keynote address by Minister Geraldine Fraser Moleketi, theoretically excellent, was significant on what it did not say rather than what it did say. The earlier postponed conference was to have been presented by the president Thabo Mbeki, who during all this time is a significant actor in some ongoing cases such as the arms deal (allegations) and the dismissal of head of the prosecutions authority Vusi Pikoli. The Ministers´ speech did not touch on one known (reported) case of corruption currently ongoing in South Africa: arms deal, Jacob Zuma, Jackie Selebi, Vusi Pikoli, etc. as these all have vibrate within the dominant political party – the African National Congress. The premature death of the Scorpions (directorate of special operations) in South Africa could not be publicly lamented.

It was left to the newspapers to raise the voice of citizens. The Times hard hitting editorial, Leaderless under the reign of the tsotsis, which we quote at length for its relevance, argued that:

…a relentless succession of depressing news reports demonstrates almost daily that the morals of criminality are becoming the dominant standard of our society.

From the urban worker who makes out a false police report to justify a fraudulent insurance claim on a mislaid cellphone, to the civil servant passing government business to a relative, South Africans are excusing themselves from the constraints of the law and natural justice.

As Nelson Mandela says his public goodbye in London’s Hyde Park, we are left apparently leaderless.

In place of moral icons, we have only a brawling mass of petty politicians more interested in their own pockets than the people. No one seems willing to take a stand, to denounce a friend or neighbour or even just to say, “No thanks” to an unlawful opportunity.

For this newspaper the rot or resolution starts “at the top, where President Thabo Mbeki and ANC president Jacob Zuma have not matched their rhetoric with personal examples of moral principle.

Mbeki’s defense this week of a new contract for suspended police commissioner Jackie Selebi served to confirm that anything goes, unless and until a judge pronounces a perpetrator guilty beyond the last appeal.

And when a judge seems likely to make an inconvenient decision, there is always the option of public pressure.

ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema retains his post after threatening to kill fellow South Africans to protect Zuma from the due process of law. Labour leader Zwelinzima Vavi has yet to be repudiated by his allies for taking up that call in blatant violation of our law and constitution.

The first signs of fundamental moral decay included the sorry saga of parliament dodging its obligation to find, prosecute and punish MPs who abused their travel privileges. Then we had unions protecting teachers who did not bother to turn up for classes, and security guards willing to kill colleagues who refused to back their violent strike action.

We have ended up with a teacher who has been charged with selling drugs to his own pupils in his classroom, and policemen joining a gang that blows up automatic teller machines for the cash inside them.

And our leaders, apparently mindful of the skeletons in their own closets, prevaricate, excuse and seek to explain the inexplicable, leaving a moral vacuum that sucks in the young, the poor and, mostly, those who are just infinitely greedy.

There can be no substitute for leadership from the top, from the presidency, the cabinet and the courts.

But, with the always morally ambivalent Zuma looking likely to be our next president – and then with a sackful of political debts to settle – there is no prospect of a new national role model in our medium-term future.

Nor can we hope for a late recovery from Mbeki and his tacky team, who continue to lie and obfuscate in order to shore up a crumbling legacy, even at the cost of our own criminal justice system or the rights to life and, quite literally, limb in Zimbabwe.

It ends with the cry that ”We must reject the reign of the tsotsis.”

So to conclude, formal response structures (whether via the web or real life) like the old suggestion box that use to be popular in the past, do not in themselves facilitate an effective response from authorities, and activists may have to look at other avenues and strategies to get genuine redress. This may include protests, strikes, consumer boycotts and such dramatic action. When engaging in the fight for genuine accountability we must always bear in mind that it is a struggle of power (the powerful) against the people, whose power is yet to be realized. When vested interests are threatened, rules will be bent, turned, twisted… whatever, to evade the truth from seeing the light. Take the case of the British government, which in December 2006, decided to drop its investigation into alleged corruption around the £43bn Al-Yamamah fighter export deal with Saudi Arabia. The grounds it relied on? National security and will not risk its relationship (economic as well) with the Saudi government.

In the face of such duplicity and power play we have to remain principled and struggle for genuine accountability and governance which means that in:

– corporations: their policies and practices must be open to scrutiny and public sanction, especially as they impact on the environment, worker rights and health of consumers and society at large. Do they pay taxes? Or do they evade or avoid paying by putting these in tax havens?;
– government capacity: the government –state must have the right and capacity to deliver on its social, economic and political mandate, without being hamstrung by corporate or other elite interests and needs; and
-civil society organisations: trade unions, citizens groups, consumer organisations, etc. are key to ensuring effected accountability and governance towards effective and efficient use of the environmental resources for those in need, now and for the future generations. Yet, it must be borne in mind that many NGOs in the NORTH usually take up the positions of their governments whilst they criticise governments of the SOUTH for things they do not do at home!

All the policies – value statements must be followed by effective and empowering mechanisms that will enhance people’s organisational and personal power to make real decisions, to challenge leaders (corporate and political), and elect and recall leadership (in politics and corporations) by rules that are not manipulated by elite and powerful interest groups. This responsiveness to citizens -the people-, if reliant on those at the top, is likely to be a charitable act. Genuine leaders will locate this power in mass organizations at the bottom. The new tools of communication at our disposal may be a friend or an enemy and we are advised to be vigilant. Anyhow they are not a substitute for a real face to face encounter with the power holders, but in the now globalised world with global power reaching far and wide exploiting all within its long reach… tools of communications that empower, truly educate, could be a friend.

Hassen Lorgat (coordinator and contributor)

Go to Contents of Mwalimu (Vol 1.2. – Second Quarter 2008)

1 Comment »

  1. […] Contents Filed under: Mwalimu (Vol 1.2. – Second Quarter 2008) — newritings @ 8:00 pm · Editorial: The complexities of the struggle for transparency, ” good governance” and acc… […]

    Pingback by Contents « newritings — August 27, 2008 @ 11:18 pm | Reply

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