Covid-19

Maverick Citizen: Op-ed

Covid-19 and freedom: The need for access

MTHATHA, SOUTH AFRICA – File photo 24 May 2011: Children playing soccer in the rural Eastern Cape village of Qunu near Mthatha, South Africa on 24 May 2011 where former president Nelson Mandela has returned to rest. (Photo: Gallo Images/Foto24/Felix Dlangamandla)

We already know where some fundamental shifts need to be made in our governance systems.

There were a number of significant events on South Africa’s calendar this week. First: President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the annual Freedom Day speech on Monday 27 April. In it he underscored the “collaborative spirit” with which the government, civil society, business and labour have sought to combat Covid-19. Another important event is the easing, after 35 days, of lockdown regulations in which more than one million South Africans are scheduled to return to work. Aptly – this also coincides with the global commemoration of Workers’ Day – another significant day. Finally, Thursday 30 April saw the biennial announcement of the Open Budget Survey (OBS), ranking South Africa against 117 other nations on the transparency of their budgets.

Each of these events are separate yet intimately connected to governance and human rights realities that should provide South Africa a momentary pause to consider new ways of governing, collaborating and leading in this unique moment in history.

The impact of the lockdown on people’s freedom of movement, on access to services, on employment, on education and personal safety has been uneven but in many cases devastating. Business for South Africa estimates that more than one million will become jobless as a result of Covid-19, while the South African Reserve Bank estimated job losses of 370,000 resulting from the initial 21-day lockdown. Various organisations have quantified the disproportionate impact on low-income households. This points to an immediate need not only to redouble efforts to tackle widespread inequality but to target the very factors leading to uneven societal vulnerability to the socio-economic impacts of the response.

Around the world, multi-stakeholder efforts towards humanitarian and economic relief have produced (some) innovative mechanisms to channel resources. Many of these interventions such as South Africa’s Solidarity Fund involve the mobilisation of massive funds. The processing of payments and transfers must – understandably – occur within urgent time-frames. Some bureaucratic “red tape” in provincial and municipal finance processes has rightly been snipped. 

However, amended procurement processes to enable faster purchasing of essential goods and services present new avenues for financial misuse and misallocation. The INTOSAI Development Initiative (IDI) warns that some executives may intentionally weaken accountability and oversight systems in this period. The IDI offers examples of past audits of crises to illustrate how emergency situations provide fertile ground for such lapses in accountability, creating pathways for the misappropriation of emergency funds. To interrupt this opportunism, publishing real-time spending and procurement data may help. Current e-government and open budget platforms such as Treasury’s e-tender portal and vulekamali should be explored for real-time reporting.

The pandemic has unearthed a whole new world of real-time reporting and accounting by politicians. The Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, has been the subject of some praise; from his responsiveness to public queries about the reasons for his own persistent cough to what has been described as a “ruthlessly efficient” fight against the virus. In all instances transparency and information-sharing have been key. Notably, the quality across ministerial briefings has not been uniform. Contradictory details, superficial understanding of regulations and vague pronouncements have plagued some ministers. Information therefore needs to be both timely and clear. 

Perhaps the best illustration of the value of clear messaging is New Zealand’s fight against the virus. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 27 April announced that her country had “won the battle” against community transmission of Covid-19. The prime minister and her director-general for health have held almost daily public briefings centred on clear, consistent and reliable messaging. Credible information can be both empowering and reassuring in times of uncertainty. Further to this; reliable information about when and how relief aid will arrive is vital. While daily press briefings would be neither practical nor desirable in future, the importance of direct accounting to the public on open platforms is a paradigm shift that many within the executive would do well to factor into their governance habits.

There is also an important link between effective governance opportunities for public participation. The OBS assesses countries on the transparency of their budgets, measuring the expanse and timeliness of budget information they publish in the public domain. The last survey results declared South Africa and New Zealand as the international shining stars of transparency (joint first); but decried South Africa’s shortcomings in creating meaningful spaces for public participation in the budget process. The current crisis presents an opportunity not only to engage the public in questions of budget shifts and reprioritisation but in how to co-create the very spaces in which these dialogues should occur in truly democratic and deliberative ways. What opportunities are being uncovered in the groundswell of online meeting and communication platforms? The parliamentary space has clearly been extended beyond the physical chambers, with multiple committees convening online. This calls for an expansion in our collective delineation and definition of these spaces.

 

When this crisis is over we need to have harnessed these and other emerging lessons to tackle our devastating levels of inequality and redouble our efforts in socio-economic and environmental justice.

 

Social accountability approaches to governance recognise the agency of the entire ecosystem of actors – including the public – to achieve sustainable change. Covid-19 has emphasised a key lesson from the social accountability domain, which is that while such collaborative processes take time, by reimagining these relationships and building trust between public and state, they can contribute to improving services for all.  

And so, regardless of what the OBS 2019 results tell us, we already know where some fundamental shifts need to be made in our governance systems. 

First, ensuring that reporting and information dissemination systems are accessible and affordable would mean that vital health and other emergency information can reach people with equal speed.  

Second, transparency in public budget, procurement and service delivery data not only increases public trust but increases the chances that other stakeholders may identify shortcomings or opportunities for innovation.

Third, legislators and politicians must guarantee meaningful participation of all spheres of society in decision-making processes now and well beyond the Covid-19 response.  

Fourth, we must redouble efforts to democratise credible information by making it available in readily understandable, accessible formats and languages while recognising the limitations of internet and mainstream media access for many households. 

When this crisis is over we need to have harnessed these and other emerging lessons to tackle our devastating levels of inequality and redouble our efforts in socio-economic and environmental justice.

And lastly – because let’s face it South Africans are incredibly competitive – if we’ve somehow slipped in our number one world rankings on the OBS, we will hopefully be in the position in 2021 to show the world how, like New Zealand, we beat Covid-19 in record time! DM/MC

Zukiswa Kota is a programme manager at the Public Service Accountability Monitor and the Steering Committee Chair of the Budget Justice Coalition. 

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