Today’s guest post is from Larry Kirsch, an economist who is currently the Managing Partner of IMR Health Economics.
The South African government, like many governments around the world, faces daunting challenges due to the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic collapse, and civil unrest. Addressing these problems requires not only decisive action by leaders, but also a sufficient reservoir of public trust. Without such trust, a leader’s call for civic sacrifice and solidarity may not receive the desired response. Unfortunately, South African citizens do not currently have much trust in their government. The leading international survey of trustworthiness, the Edelman Trust Barometer, reported this past January that trust in government among South Africans ranked lowest among the 28 countries surveyed—lower than Russia and Argentina and well below India and China.
Part of this lack of trust is due to chronically stressed economic conditions, as well as extreme structural inequalities. But citizens’ trust has been further undermined by South Africa’s endemic corruption. The corruption of former President Jacob Zuma and his closest cronies (especially the rapacious Gupta family) was well-documented in a a November 2016 report issued by the Office of the Public Protector, then headed by the highly-regarded Thuli Madonsela. That report, entitled The State of Capture, also emphasized the burden of corruption on everyday citizens, documenting, for example, how corruption had contributed to the dysfunctions in vital public services and state owned enterprises.
Will the relatively new government of President Cyril Ramaphosa be able to galvanize trust and obtain the degree of public support needed to deal with the grave threats facing South Africa? On the one hand, President Ramaphosa’s public statements, especially since the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Africa in early March, have been decisive, inclusive, and progressive, particularly in relation to the call for solidarity and the government’s commitment to the apportionment of healthcare, work, food, and other public support on the basis of need. But if President Ramaphosa truly wishes to begin a ”radical” restructuring process based on principles of fairness, social cohesion, and inclusive growth, he will have to deal squarely with the persistence of the culture of corruption, as well as with broader concerns about government openness and public accountability. And his stirring speeches have so far not included much information on how his administration intends to tackle these crucial issues.
One important element of a comprehensive strategy to rebuild the South African government’s integrity—and with it citizen trust in that government—would be for President Ramaphosa to personally back robust implementation of South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).
The PAIA, like other freedom of information (FOI) laws, helps promote transparency and public accountability, and serves as a vital antidote to entrenched corruption by providing investigative journalists and civil society groups with the raw material they need to exposes wrongdoing that might otherwise go undetected. During the Zuma administration, the PAIA was routinely ignored or flagrantly flouted in order to cover up the corrupt behavior of President Zuma and his minions and cronies. The Ramaphosa administration has an opportunity to rebuild trust in the South African government by making full implementation of, and compliance with, the PAIA a point of emphasis.
Doing this might seem politically risky—after all, no administration is entirely free of wrongdoing, and effective implementation of the PAIA may lead to revelations that embarrass the government—but there are offsetting considerations. For one thing, as noted above, effective enforcement of the PAIA can reduce corruption and increase the government’s credibility with its citizens. This credibility would also help the government’s reputation with outside actors, such as the IMF or international credit rating agencies, which (like it or not) are powerful stakeholders in South Africa’s public life. These organizations’ assessments of government’s openness and honesty are crucial to the ratings they award and the financial relationships they maintain with South Africa. Demonstrating improved compliance with the PAIA would be a tangible and productive way to begin the process of restoring confidence.
Openness and compliance with the PAIA, while of course not a comprehensive solution to civic distrust, serves important practical and symbolic purposes. The Zuma regime was well known for its secretive and unethical behavior, and its deplorable stewardship of the PAIA epitomized the administration’s contempt for transparency and public accountability. If President Ramaphosa is seen as being a reliable advocate for the PAIA, it will be regarded as a signal of his government’s ethical values and its break with Zuma administration, a crucial step toward rebuilding public trust in South African government.