How can South Africa promote citizenship and accountability? A conversation with some state planners

March 13, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

How can states best promote active citizenship, in particular to improve the quality and accountability of state servicesnpc_COVER3 such as education? This was the topic of a great two hour brainstorm with half a dozen very bright sparks from the secretariat of South Africa’s National Planning Commission yesterday. The NPC, chaired by Trevor Manuel (who gave us a great plug for the South African edition of From Poverty to Power) recently brought out the National Development Plan 2030 (right), and the secretariat is involved with trying to turn it into reality.

I kicked off with some thoughts which should be familiar to regular readers of this blog: the importance of implementation gaps, the shift in working on accountability from supply side (seminars for state officials) to demand side (promote citizen watchdogs to hold the state to account) and the challenge from the ODI-led Africa Power and Politics Programme that accountability work needs to break free of such supply/demand thinking and pursue ‘collective problem-solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust’, which seems a pretty good description of South Africa, according to the NPC. I gave the example of the Tajikistan Water Supply and Sanitation Network as an example of how this can be done through ‘convening and brokering’.

Once I shut up, it got more interesting (funny how often that happens). Some of the most interesting questions (and responses from me and others)

Lots of ‘convening and brokering’ is little more than talking shops – when does it lead to concrete results?

  • Depends who’s in the room – do they share a common interest in finding solutions or are they there to fight turf wars, defend ideological positions etc?
  • Can you build forward momentum by identifying some quick wins that make people realize what is possible?
  • Individuals matter – is there a charismatic leader (as in Tajikistan), who can bind the forum together and keep it moving forward?

south africa education protestHow to move from dependency to agency? At least some people see a real problem of acquired dependency. Poor people in South Africa have become dependent on free housing, state welfare etc, and have lost their sense of agency. Instead they oscillate between passivity and protest. The government conducts large scale consultation set pieces to try and encourage participation, but what is lacking is the day to day accountability the allows citizens to get action when public services fail.

The civil servants in the room happily disagreed with each other – fascinating to see an internal debate like this – Oxfam colleagues also contributed, so what follows draws on the points raised by people from both organisations. Some saw this as a supply side problem: the lack of public sanction when teachers don’t show up; officials are corrupt etc undermines citizen action; the teachers’ union resist reforms; moreover, ‘politicians only listen when something burns’, turning violent protest into a sensible change strategy.

Others focussed on the demand side, pointing out the problem of time poverty – women in particular just don’t have time to take part in exhausting exercises in citizenship on top of all their other tasks. One of the effects of the fall of apartheid has been an exodus of aspiring socially-motivated black and coloured people both from the teaching profession, and from poor communities, aggravating the problem of sink schools that the middle class, whether black or white, can ignore (especially if they go private). Others questioned this and pointed out that there is actually a lot of protest on the state of public services, and plenty of accountability structures such as school governing bodies, although coverage is patchy.

Which led us to compare the lack of progress in improving the quality of education with the great strides made on tackling HIV and AIDS. Why have the social movements on HIV had so much more impact than in other areas such as education or landlessness?

Here people pointed to the importance of starting with long term awareness-raising, designed both to inform andEducation-in-South-Africa1empower, but also to shift social norms, in this case from seeing HIV as an individual shame to a collective responsibility. This kind of ‘conscientization’, in the language of Paulo Freire, seems ill-suited to state action, so who might be able to do it in the case of education, for example shifting attitudes to seeing poor school grades as a collective, as well as individual, challenge? Social movements? Faith organizations?

HIV was a cross-class, cross-race issue, touching everyone in South Africa, so the movement found it easier to overcome social divisions. By contrast, poor education is tied closely to class and race, so coalitions are harder to build. And of course HIV was also, literally, a life and death issue – motivation was not a problem. In contrast the ‘slow death’ of bad schooling doesn’t galvanize the citizenry to the same extent. How to change that?

Some final thoughts from me:

–          What about trying to shorten the accountability chain in education to make it possible for citizens to get quick action rather than become bogged down in interminable bureaucratic process? How about an education ombudsman with power to investigate complaints and impose sanctions?

–          One of the weaknesses of the National Development Plan is its approach to gender. The half a page on ‘Women and the Plan’ in the NDP Overview fails to mention two major obstacles to citizenship: women’s time poverty and the lack of support for their role in the care economy; and the need to change the role of men. I’m pretty sure that on average, women are more concerned about the state of education, but as free time remains a male concept, they will struggle to do much about it.

Great discussion. This is what makes trips such fun.