Complacency won’t create an accountable government – Manuel

Former planning minister Trevor Manuel said civil society and voters needed to become more invested in the development of a democratic South Africa and the running of the country if they wanted to create a more accountable government and reduce poverty and inequality. 

Manuel, who was recently hired by the Rothschild Group to help to build the investment bank’s business across the African continent after serving under three presidents as finance minister, spoke on Tuesday evening at the fifth memorial Helen Suzman lecture in Johannesburg. 

Manuel said he was concerned about the complacency that had set in since the 1994 elections. 

Manuel pointed out that South Africans were currently paying 860 parliamentary and provincial members R1-million each a year to serve the electorate. Yet the parliamentary programme was adjusted to ensure that parliamentary committees and sittings occupied just three days a week.

And Friday, supposed to be a working day, was seldom used for plenaries in Parliament and “only a handful of committees that meet”.  “You will find the planes from Cape Town chockers on Fridays,” he told the audience. 

“Now R800-million a year buys a lot of democracy, but I don’t know how it touches us, how the impact of the money being spent reaches us. I don’t know how many MPLs [members of provincial legislature] are engaging with their electorate. This is a time when the numbers should speak to us,” he said. 

In a speech entitled “The role of civil society in sustaining our constitutional democracy”, Manuel explored the importance of civil society and voters getting involved in decision-making and actively promoting greater equality to uphold democracy. He pointed out that democracy does not equal good governance. 

“All citizens should know how the system works for them, in closing the gap between officialdom and their daily lives … so my question to civil society is: Why are you so tolerant?” It was up to the electorate to protect what South Africa became in 1994, namely a democracy with regular elections, a voiced Parliament, an independent judiciary and an accountable executive, he said. 

A Constitution was nothing “but nice-sounding words, with a beautiful cover” if all South Africans do not play a part in upholding democracy.

Blame game
He said blame for rising inequality could not be laid solely at the door of government, pointing to a World Bank study released last week that showed that South Africa’s fiscal policy is significantly redistributive. Manuel said, “regardless of how redistributive spending is, we will not deal with inequality without creating large numbers of additional jobs”.  

“We can easily get trapped into a discourse where investment is weak, growth is weak, social mobility ceases and social tensions rise. This raises the probability of populist policies, which threaten investment. It’s up to all of us, the elites included, to break this cycle,” he warned.   

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, former politician and head of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), who was among a number of dignitaries who attended the talk, said recommendations by the electoral task team led by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, put forward when Buthelezi was minister of home affairs, were rejected by the Cabinet. 

The task team’s majority report recommended that South Africa’s current proportional representation system should be substituted by one that promoted greater accountability. A minority report favoured the current system being maintained, so Cabinet opted to retain the proportional representation system. 

Manuel said it was up to civil society to hold government accountable and to make it answer for its decisions. 

When asked about restrictive labour regulations by a member of the Johannesburg Bar, Manuel said, as a member of the bar, and so of civil society, the lawyer had a responsibility and the opportunity to change the situation. “Don’t outsource responsibility to those in government … for democracy to flourish it needs dynamic and involved people.” 

Problems around education could not be solved by altering the curriculum or throwing yet more money at the problem. What was required were parents who were more actively involved and held schools to account. “At least 60% of schools are presently no-fee schools and none of these have school governing bodies,” he said. 

‘Spare wheel’
Manuel, in an answer to further questions, said the office of the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, was another case in point. He said the section nine body was never intended to play as a big a role as it has been doing. 

“It is actually a spare wheel; it only comes into motion when the rest of democracy does not work,” he said.  The former minister said the Constitution made it an ongoing task for all South Africans to ensure that a society is created that ensures a better life for all. “It will not self-correct,” he said. 

About the decision of the ANC’s tripartite partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to expel the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), Manuel said: “I think it’s a tragedy”.  “With regard to Cosatu I think Humpty has fallen off the wall, and I don’t believe that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men are going to be able to put Humpty together again.” 

Read Manuel’s full speech.

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