Opinionista Xhanti Payi 14 February 2019

Taxpayers should not foot the bill for government’s failure in the Life Esidimeni debacle

As a people we need to look deeper into our system of government, and how we allocate risk and reward, responsibility and accountability. If we fail here, we will fail in statehood.

In his book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, Noam Chomsky discusses how, with the end of the Cold War, a new framing for military intervention and state capitalism had to be found.

Even though the military complex was supposedly evolving, Chomsky observes that “as in the past, the costs and risks of the coming phases of the industrial economy were to be socialised, with eventual profits privatised”. He was reasserting an enduring phenomenon in which gain is privatised, but the cost is socialised.

I was reminded of these observations as I pondered on retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke’s compensation award as an arbitrator in Life Esidimeni debacle — which most South Africans remember with shame and pain.

The former deputy chief justice was asked by the Gauteng government to play the role of arbitrator in determining compensation for victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy in which a government project led to the deaths of many mental health patients.

The Gauteng government had already accepted that it had failed in its duty and the former deputy chief justice had to determine how much the government would pay to compensate the victims.

In this action, the Gauteng government gave true meaning to abuse of power and the assault on our democracy. First, the government has no money except that which it derives from taxpayers. We as taxpayers give the government of the day our hard-earned money to administer towards various ends, including to show our solidarity to our fellow brothers and sisters in need. We expect that it will develop rules and standards that allow it to effectively and responsibly discharge the responsibilities it takes on our behalf.

In this case, we give the government the power to employ and pay officials to undertake the services we need as a society. Officials are paid as individuals for the work they do. Some of the work these officials do is to care for the less capable, and as a society, we are willing to do this as an act of solidarity. So the officials responsible for this diabolical episode were paid to oversee our duty to the meek.

If government officials are also remunerated for the work they do on our behalf, and this reward is private, shouldn’t it be curious then that, when they fail in their duties, it is not these officials who are made to pay, if there must be compensation, but us, the taxpayers? In parenthesis, one must note the poor financial situation of the Gauteng health department. In all manners, standing at the brink of collapse.

We are certain of the gainful employment of those responsible for the Life Esidimeni debacle — the details remain private. Yet their failures are public. When the government failed, it decided to subvert the basic rules of democracy, which are about accountability. It abused its power and transferred all responsibility.

As a layman, this leads me to believe that there must be a fault in our law that allows this kind of injustice. The taxpayers bear all the costs, and yet these same taxpayers are made to suffer under a collapsing health system which pays for the failures of people they were remunerating, and those they were showing solidarity with.

As a people, we need to look deeper into our system of government and how we allocate risk and reward, responsibility and accountability. If we fail here, we will fail in statehood. DM

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