The Mail & Guardian and Save the Children South Africa Critical Thinking Forum held in Johannesburg on November 24 invited debate on how the country is meeting the sustainable development agenda for 2030, with a particular focus on access to education and healthcare for children.
Respected journalist and media personality Xolani Gwala moderated a panel of civil society leaders comprising Abongile Sipondo, head of advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children South Africa; Iliana Nadi Albino from Unicef; and Gugu Xaba, the national project manager for the Window of Opportunity Project at Path.
Gwala kicked off proceedings by asking whether government is willing to listen to input from civil society and co-operate with them when it comes to health and education issues and challenges.
Sipondo responded: “There are certainly instances of this happening. There are a number of multi-stakeholder forums within government departments that create a space for conversations. However, does government listen and is the relationship between them and civil society a genuine one, or do they only want to tick the boxes? The respective parties need to sit down, discuss the issues with one another, and listen to what is being said.”
Albino believes accountability needs to be entrenched. “This [accountability] is one of the most elusive things that currently exists in our system. However, it is not just a South African problem but an African phenomenon. Those individuals who are in public office should have clear targets and be held accountable for not meeting them. There should be consequences for their actions or lack thereof. Accountability is also not something that exists only between government and civil society but between all parties and the communities they serve. For me, it is about facing up to the consequences for lack of delivery. When we fail and children cannot go to school or die, we should ask fundamental questions as to why this is happening.”
Awareness of accountability
Xaba said underpinning the issue was the fact that communities are not kept constantly informed.
“There are no good systems for informing communities. At the moment, people live day-to-day to survive, so discussions around sustainability seem far-fetched. Over the years, our organisation has set up forums as platforms for communities to engage in, so they can understand what they need to hold municipalities accountable for. The reality is that community members need to understand what the responsibilities of government are when it comes to healthcare and education.”
In the past, Gwala pointed out, peer review mechanisms were put in place to identify the lack of awareness of health and education programmes. But this has rarely resulted in action, so what can be done on a practical level to change this?
“There are good examples of these mechanisms working in other African countries. For example, Tanzania recently elected a new president who has taken the country back to ‘factory settings’. Now, everybody is responsible for what is happening there. It boils down to there being consequences for every action. If this does not exist, people act how they want. Laws should be enforced,” said Albino.
A first step, she believes, is to start with children in school. They are young and can be made to understand this at an early age. Albino cited Uganda as an example of a country that has put in place real-time monitoring that hold government departments accountable if things do not happen.
“We should learn from them and look at the indicators of why certain schools are not performing. Is it a case of teachers not having the right expertise, or do they not receive [adequate] support from government? Every child in the country has to have access to health and education.”
Easy to understand
For Sipondo, there is much to be learnt from what is happening throughout the continent.
“We need to go back to communities and look at the things that the MDGs and SDGs were designed for. At the moment, people do not understand these goals. So in a way it is not a case of putting in place sophisticated accountability mechanisms, but [rather] simplifying things. People need to know that they can hold their elected officials accountable for not providing basic services. We need to be creative and think of simpler ways to empower ordinary citizens to be advocates in this regard.”
Xaba agreed, but said that role players need to take a step back from accountability and instead focus on responsibility.
“People need to start taking responsibility as individuals. Mothers need to be more responsible when it comes to things like breastfeeding. Similarly, the youth need to be more responsible around substance abuse. They are the main ones left behind, because the education provided to them is not helping them be strong in their own responsibilities. They need to understand that their actions have consequences.”