President Cyril Ramphosa has repeatedly cited governance reforms among his top priorities, reforms increasingly important for addressing the confluence of crises related to the pandemic, including the Covid-19 vaccination strategy.
Yet, his government’s recent commitment to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) falls well short of meeting the challenges of the moment.
The OGP was created in 2011 when government leaders and civil society advocates came together to create a partnership to promote accountable, responsive and inclusive governance. South Africa has been a member since 2011 and there are now 78 countries, a growing number of local governments and thousands of civil society organisations that are members of the partnership.
The reform commitments were made as part of South Africa’s two-year action plan submitted to OGP and, importantly, were developed in consultation with leaders across civil society. Though, what began as a positive, inclusive process to strengthen democratic governance did not, in the end, fully meet the needs of the country as identified and endorsed by civil society partners.
The president regularly speaks about the need to take on corruption related to the R500-billion Covid-19 funds, a challenge that would greatly benefit from more robust open government practices. In the weeks and months ahead, they will be vital to effectively monitor these funds and improve the delivery of services to ensure that social assistance initiatives reach the most vulnerable.
Fortunately, there is still time to turn the president’s words into action — and realise an even more ambitious agenda for governance reform.
OGP rules provide a window of opportunity that allows South Africa to review and submit an updated set of commitments. It is a second chance we cannot afford to waste. Specifically, strengthening the three reform areas already committed to. If fully implemented, these reforms have the potential to improve millions of South African lives.
The first area is that of transparent government data. The use of government data is vital for increasing civic engagement and advancing social innovation. This commitment has the potential to transform decision making and make it more citizen centered. There is now a large body of evidence on how opening government data can be a vehicle for the design of policies that are inclusive, transparent, and a countervailing force against corruption.
Second, implementing greater fiscal and contract transparency shines a light on how public funds are used and strengthens public trust. Such openness is a deterrent against corruption. Open spending and open contracting empower citizens, journalists and civil society to follow the money and become the government’s eyes and ears on the ground.
Finally, the updated OGP commitments must also seek greater clarity on the beneficial ownership of private companies. Knowing the individuals who are earning profits from private companies is a powerful tool to stemming illicit financial flows and fighting tax evasion. Strengthening this commitment will signal South Africa’s bold steps to tackle anonymous companies in line with the G20 principles.
Additionally, it is vital that this second-chance at reform does not ignore the critical perspectives of civil society. The benefit of the OGP co-creation process is its ability to bring multiple stakeholders to the table. Civil society ensures that what results accurately reflects the scope and complexity of the issues facing the country. Establishing a multi-stakeholder body to coordinate and oversee the development and implementation of the OGP national action plan will ensure civil society voices are represented and reflected.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve all asked each other to dig deep and do everything possible to respond to a true global crisis. We should ask no less of our leaders. South Africa has the unique opportunity to take bold, ambitious steps to assist its citizens by recommitting to its open government roots. This is how we will ensure that the recovery does much more than bring us back to normal.
It is far past time for South Africa to rise to the occasion Covid-19 has presented.