Policy Brief 39: Strengthening Public Accountability to make Democracy Work

democracy collaboration

The lack of accountability at all levels of legislatures, government, and oversight agencies is at the heart of persistent poor public services, financial mismanagement, and corruption in South Africa.

As the Zondo Commission into state capture winds down, a trend running through almost all testimonies is the pervasive lack of accountability by elected and public representatives. South Africa’s constitution calls for accountability, together with responsiveness and openness as fundamental pillars of the democracy (RSA 1996, Section 1(d)).

Accountability in basic terms means to accept and be held responsible for or to account for one’s actions. For the sector, accountability is there to ensure that any leader, manager, and organization “that use public money and makes decisions that affect people’s lives can be held responsible for their actions”. “Furthermore: “It is about the relationship between the State and its citizens, and the extent to which the State is answerable for its actions” (New Zealand Controller & Auditor-General 2016: 9). Accountability lies at the heart of democratic government” (Guerin, McCrae and Shepheard 2018: 10).

Enforcing accountability ensures that elected and public officials act in the interests of the country, not in their own or that of their parties. Accountability is crucial in building trust in government. Without accountability, there is no public trust in elected and public representatives.

South Africa’s Broken Accountability System

South Africa’s public accountability ecosystem is broken. Effective accountability requires a sound accountability ecosystem that involves legal reporting frameworks these would include: effective internal government controls, processes, and institutions; democratic oversight institutions, such as Parliament, the Auditor-General, the Public Protector, and other Chapter 9 institutions; public access to information on state actions, decisions and use of public resources; non-state oversight institutions such as the media, civil society, and ordinary citizens; and finally, consequences for wrongdoing.

Figure 1: Public Accountability Ecosystem: © William Gumede

Year after year the Auditor-General in audit reports bemoans the “lack of decisive leadership to address the lack of accountability by ensuring consequences against those who flouted basic processes” (Auditor-General 2018). The Auditor-General’s reports have been largely ignored by ANC and government leaders. Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, similarly exposed malfeasance by elected and public officials. For that, she was often attacked by ANC leaders (Pilane 2016).

The media, civil society organizations, and whistle-blowers have consistently pointed out corruption, mismanagement, and poor public services.  They have similarly also been dismissed. The judiciary has often become the last resort for ordinary citizens to hold elected and public officials accountable when ANC and government leaders failed to heed other watchdogs’ calls for accountability (Gumede 2016).

Throughout the Presidency of Jacob Zuma, Parliament had been largely ineffective in holding elected and public officials accountable. Madonsela’s successor as Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who faces impeachment proceedings, has been disappointing (Saku 2021).

Minister versus Public Servant: Shifting Blame

At the Zondo Commission, current and former Cabinet ministers, provincial Members of the Executive Council (MECs), and municipal councilors often blamed their subordinate public servants for incidents of corruption, mismanagement, and poor public services under their watch.

For example, Zweli Mkhize (2021), the former Health Minister, blamed subordinate civil servants for irregularly giving the department’s Covid-19 communications campaign contract to Digital Vibes, which was subsequently accused of embezzlement of public money (Myburgh 2021).

The contract was found to have contravened government tender processes and constituted irregular and wasteful expenditure. The Special Investigation Unit in an investigation of the contract award allegedly found that Mkhize had pressured senior health department officials to give the R150m contract to Digital Vibes. Mkhize denied this.

At the Zondo Commission, former Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane (2020) denied claims that when he was Free State MEC for Human Settlements, he was responsible for authorizing the prepayment of R1 billion for a provincial housing project in which public money was squandered in illegal pre-payments to contractors and suppliers for work that was never delivered. Zwane (2020) claimed his subordinates in the public service were responsible.

In another example, former Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Petterson was accused of approving the irregular selling of 10 million barrels of the country’s strategic oil reserves at lower than market price in 2015 (February 2017; Kiwiet 2020; Thamm 2020). In a subsequent investigation by Public Protector, the Busisiwe Mkhwebane the blame was laid on Sibusiso Gamede, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Strategic Fuel Fund Association. Joemat-Petterson did not even receive a slap on the wrist by Mkhwebane, yet as then Energy Minister, she signed off on the decision (Mkhwebane 2020).

Assert the Principle of Ministerial Responsibility

In practice, it appears there is very little clarity about who is responsible, the minister or the public servant when public services fail, public money continues to be mismanaged, wasted, and stolen. This makes it very difficult to hold specific individuals accountable for wrongdoing.

There must be a clarification of roles and responsibilities between ministers and senior civil servants. The principle of ministerial responsibility for the consequences of decisions made, policies implemented, and public services not delivered under their watch must be enforced, to ensure Cabinet ministers are held accountable and to stop the culture of impunity.

Ministerial responsibility means that Cabinet ministers are responsible for the decisions, policies, and actions of their ministry and their department as a whole (Bovens, Goodin, and Schillemans 2014; Guerin, McCrae, and Shepheard 2018).  Ministerial responsibility ensures the accountability of government for the way public resources, finances, and services are managed. Ministers must hold public servants accountable if they do not implement policies effectively.

Cabinet ministers must be held accountable for wrong decisions in their ministries, departments, and the SOEs reporting to them. Ministers should be held more robustly accountable by parliament. They must be held accountable even after they have left office. The president must also hold Cabinet Ministers accountable more stringently.

More effective oversight over public servants

The role of public servants is to ensure that policies are implemented. Public servants must flag problems of implementation to ministers – and if they do not, be held accountable for not doing so. Parliament should also be able to call public servants and accounting officers to account for decisions they made even after they left their positions.

In her investigation into the wrongful sale of South Africa’s strategic oil reserves, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said that the former Minister of Energy said there would be no action taken against then Strategic Fuel Fund Association Chief Executive Officer Sibusiso Gamede because he was not in the employ of the organisation anymore at the time of the completion of her investigation (Mkhwebane 2020).

As CEO, Gamede was the accounting officer of the entity at the time of the sale of the strategic oil reserves. Accounting officers of entities should account for their actions, during the time they were in charge when wrongdoing was committed, even if they have resigned or retired.

There must be more effective oversight of the public service. Parliament should increase its scrutiny of the public service and ministers. Parliamentary committees must ensure that there are follow-ups to the recommendations of the Auditor-General and Chapter 9 institutions, which are often ignored.

Senior public servants, such as Directors-Generals and CEOs of state-owned companies must be directly accountable to Parliament for the implementation of policies, projects, and public services under their watch.

There must be regular audits of the performance of public services, including looking at their financial sustainability, quality, and impact. These assessments must be published – and scrutinised by Parliament.

Empower accounting officers

Accounting officers should be appointed on merit, based on their skills and experience, not because of patronage considerations. The position of accounting officer within public entities must be empowered, must operate more effectively to ensure public money is spent prudently (National Treasury 2000). Accounting officers should escalate malfeasance to boards, audit committees, Cabinet ministers, and parliament.

Accounting officers should also be held more robustly responsible for financial mismanagement, corruption, and inefficiencies. They should be held personally liable for the cost of wrongdoing.

In 2018, the Public Audit Amendment Act was assented to, which gives the Auditor-General new powers to refer suspected “material irregularities” found during audits to public bodies for further investigation and to compel accounting authorities to “take appropriate remedial action” where irregularities exist (RSA 2018).

If accounting officers do not implement the Auditor-General’s remedial measures, the Auditor-General must now issue a certificate of debt compelling the accounting officer or entity to repay any money lost. This will help strengthen accountability in government.

But independent auditors of government finances should also be better protected. Auditors from the Auditor-General have often experienced threats of violence and bribery for exposing financial irregularities, waste, and corruption when they audit municipalities according to the prescripts of the Municipal Finance Management Act (Makwetu 2019).

Municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern, and Mpumalanga have become hotspots of violent threats, intimidation, and bribery made to the audit office. These incidents forced then Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu to approach Parliament for help (Makwetu 2019). Some of these incidents included auditors being attacked at Rand Water, threats at the Victor Khanye Municipality in Mpumalanga to kidnap auditors, and at the Nelson Mandela Metro where the Auditor-General’s audit team had to be withdrawn because of threats. Those who threaten auditors should be dismissed, prosecuted, and prevented from working in the public service or getting tenders.

Improve public access to information

Public and elected officials often hid information from the media, civil society and oversight institutions (Karrim 2021). Because there is a lack of information, when the scrutiny by oversight institutions, the media and civil society come, it is often too late, and public resources had been squandered. When government and elected representatives deliberately hide information, public service delivery failures cannot be fixed on time.

A case in point has been the refusal of the Gauteng government to provide the media with information related to a number of multimillion-rand health tenders linked to Covid-19 Personal Protection Equipment procurement (Karrim 2021).

When there is a lack of information, when the scrutiny by oversight institutions, the media and civil society come, it is often too late, and public resources had already been squandered (Guerin, McCrae and Shepheard 2018). Furthermore, in cases such as South Africa, which are polarised along racial, ethnic or language lines, governing parties and leaders are prone to blame the legacy of the past or historically “enemies” for their own delivery failures.

When their constituencies are largely uninformed they may believe such deliberate misinformation by governing parties and leaders. Lack of information or false information about success or failure government and leaders’ decisions, policies and actions, mean that citizens cannot properly evaluate the performance of government and leaders and therefore cannot hold them effectively accountable.

Opposition parties, civil society and the media must ask more probing questions to the governing, party at national, provincial and local level about decisions, actions and policies. Civil society and citizens must take government to court if necessary, to get critical information about the reason for decisions, actions and policies.

Enforce compliance with key legislation

A pillar of accountability is for elected and public representatives to comply with laws, reporting requirements and procedures created to ensure the use of public money are done so prudently, responsibly and in the public interest. Sadly, there are high levels of non-compliance to key legislation meant to ensure accountability, such as the Municipal Finance Management Act at the municipal level, and the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) at the national departmental and entities’ level.

Furthermore, there are often no consequences for non-compliance. The Auditor-General for example reported there 92% of non-compliance with key legislation at the municipal level during the 2017-2018 financial year (Auditor-General 2019).

The National Treasury has introduced a compliance management framework to help accounting officers improve PFMA compliance within entities (National Treasury 2016). However, in some case, the framework has been largely ignored. Audit committees and internal audit functions within entities often do not have the necessary power, authority, and skills to properly hold organisations and public servants accountable to adhere to laws (Auditor-General 2019; Gumede 2019).

As the Auditor-General stated: Accountability for government spending can be improved through acting in a consistent and deliberate manner against those officials who intentionally fail to comply with legislation or who are guilty of fraud or misconduct” (Auditor-General 2019). This is not happening consistently – and should be, to improve accountability.

Introduce “heads must roll” action against wrongdoing  

One reason for the lack of accountability is the lack of consequences for wrongdoing. There is no “heads must roll” culture when there is wrongdoing in the public service or among elected officials. Many public servants and elected representatives stay on, even if they perform poorly, have proven to be incompetent and steal public money.

Having no consequences for wrongdoing perpetuates a culture of impunity. Elected and public representatives who do wrong are often shifted to other jobs, often higher positions, indicating a reward for wrongdoing culture, rather than an accountability culture. This means that wrongdoing is recycled from one government entity to another.

Accountability in government starts at the top (Granat 2020). If senior leaders are not held accountable, we cannot expect juniors to be accountable either. But accountability also begins with the quality of candidates put forward by parties as elected representatives and as government officials. If corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest individuals are deployed for election and appointment, they are likely to bring a culture that goes against accountability.

Ministers, senior public servants, and accounting officers at every level should be personally held accountable for mismanagement, waste, and corruption under their watch. Furthermore, those who have been proven to be wrong should be prevented from elected and public positions.

Citizens must use their vote more tactically

Many South Africans still do not use their vote effectively to enforce accountability. Governing parties and leaders do not become more accountable, honest or more competent, unless they have a real prospect of losing power.

Many ethnically, language and colour diverse countries, with a historical past where one group dominated and others were subjected, that both the former dominant voters and former oppressed voters often vote for candidates and parties that speak to their historically shared struggle, ethnicity and colour, rather than on their competence to deliver services (Gumede 2021a).

The World Bank in its 2004 World Development Report also pointed out “where populations are polarized around nonservice issues—religious, ethnic, caste, or tribal background, for example—voters care more about what politicians promise on these polarizing issues than on services, giving politicians incentives to pursue other goals at the cost of effective services” (World Bank 2004: 8). The sad thing is, in countries, like South Africa, where this is the case, after being elected, “politicians have neither the incentives nor the capacity to listen”.

Because of such voting, these countries also struggle to get accountability from governments and leaders, as is the case in South Africa, because leaders and governments know that their traditional voters will continue to vote for them based on historically, ethnic or colour reasons. Many South African voters, particularly ANC supporters appear to not vote when they are angry with the party’s lack of delivery, which gives the party and its leaders a free pass – as they get re-elected, albeit with small turnouts, without being held accountable (Gumede 2021a).

Furthermore, many ANC voters – as the case is in many African countries with liberation or independence movements where voters vote on past struggle credentials, shared ethnicity or shared, angry voters do not vote for other parties or leaders, believing it will be selling out (Gumede 2021a). Unless, South Africa’s voters starting electing candidates and parties based on merit, their record in power and their probity, and not based on past struggle credentials, ethnicity and colour, they will not get accountability from elected and public leaders.

Voting against, rather than for a party or a leader is a crucial mechanism in a democracy to hold parties and leaders accountable. This accountability principle appears poorly understood and undervalued among many voters, especially ANC members and supporters in South Africa.

Parliamentary tracking of the recommendations of official inquiries

Government entities should also be required to regularly report to Parliament about internal investigations, their conclusions, and actions taken. Parliament should allow follow-up on civil society, media, and citizens’ exposures of lack of delivery, mismanagement, and corruption.

There have been many inquiries, investigations, and task teams into poor performance, mismanagement, and corruption, but changes are never made based on their recommendations. To ensure accountability, parliament must also follow up on whether the recommendations of official inquiries, task teams, and investigations are implemented.

Importantly, parliament should track the recommendations of the Zondo Commission to ensure they are implemented. Civil society organisations, the media, and Chapter 9 institutions should also monitor the implementation of recommendations of the Zondo Commission as well as other official inquiries into wrongdoing.

Figure 2: Accountability Culture © William Gumede


There is a need to build stronger accountability systems within all levels of government. The political will to hold elected and public representatives accountable appears missing. Those responsible for mismanagement, waste, and corruption must be identified and action taken against them. If elected and public representatives are personally held accountable for public resources stolen, mismanaged, and wasted we may see greater accountability.

Finally, when the party and leaders in government fail to deliver on their promises, and become corrupt and are indifferent to the plight of ordinary citizens.  The ultimate accountability measure for a governing party is for citizens not to vote for the party again.

Finally, when the party and leaders in government fail to deliver on their promises, and become corrupt and are unresponsive, citizens must not vote for them again, but vote for alternatives, even if they disagree with the alternatives. The ultimate accountability measure – and guarantor of effective service delivery – for a governing party or leader is for citizens not to vote for the party or leader again, if they do not deliver.


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William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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