‘Proper accountability’

by The Editor

SERIES: Weasel Words: “Words of convenient ambiguity, or a statement from which the meaning has been sucked or retracted,” [Brewer’s Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable]. A great deal of what is said – particularly those contentious statements made in response to sensitive issues – obscure meaning with vagueness and ambiguity. And Weasel words – empty clichés and jargon – often the mechanisms by which this is achieved. Weasel Word Watch is series dedicated to highlighting this kind of misdirection, with a view to cutting through the obfuscation.

Weasel Word Watch


The adoption of the Protection of State Information Bill (the ‘secrecy bill’) by Parliament on 2s November 2011 was met by much general unhappiness from the media, opposition and civil society alike – as indeed was the entire process involving its formulation and passage through the legislative process. On 23 November, in response to the successful vote, the ANC released this statement – a vague and generic attempt to counter to the extreme criticism levelled at the nature of the proposed legislation and its inevitable effect. That statement contained the following paragraph:

“We have noted the objections that were registered by some organisations and the opposition parties including the media, to that extent we believe the value of tabling it in Parliament has provided a platform for engagement. We believe that the construct of the legislation is in keeping with international practice and that it is in the interest of all South Africans that information that is in the hands of the state must be handled with care and proper accountability as is the norm all over the world.”

It is a paragraph loaded with Weasel Words and phrases: “we have noted”, “objections that were registered”, “a platform for engagement”, “construct of the legislation”, “international best practice”, “in the interest of all South Africans”, “handled with care” and, perhaps most egregiously, “proper accountability”.

None of the key words or phrases used are qualified or explained – the nature of the objections or their veracity; the form of the engagement; the problems inherent to the legislation; the conflicting interpretations of international best practice and what, exactly, “proper accountability” means.

In short, the paragraph in question represented little more than an attempt to obscure the intense opposition to the Bill, its accompanying process and its desired effect. By reducing particulars down to generic ambiguities, the ANC was trying to create the impression the Bill’s adoption was the democratic consequence of a wholly democratic undertaking and any opposition mild, if not entirely expected. As if to suggest there really never was anything to get too worked up about.

‘Proper Accountability’

One could provide an in-depth examination of each of those phrases identified above – as to how they gloss over the particular in favour of the general – but the point is well made by focusing on one alone: “Proper accountability”.

With only the rare exception, any attempt to qualify a principle usually results in redundancy (presumably there is no such thing as ‘improper accountability’, for that would not be accountability at all) or a misrepresentation of the ideal itself. Certainly it lends itself to ambiguity and confusion.

For one, it suggests some alternative understanding. One not articulated but none-the-less implied. And the following question in turn: Why is the undefined definition not the authorative one or, perhaps more to the point, what exactly is ‘proper’ accountability? At least, what does the ANC understand it to be?

But not defining it, the ANC gets to have its cake and eat it – to appear democratic by evoking accountability as a necessity, but to mask with vagueness some understanding of the idea particular to it and highly contested outside of the organisation.

None of those phrases need be replaced by lengthy explanations. But they do need to be explained; otherwise they hold no real meaning. So, for example, one could replace the following sentence:

“We believe that the construct of the legislation is in keeping with international practice and that it is in the interest of all South Africans that information that is in the hands of the state must be handled with care and proper accountability as is the norm all over the world.”

With this:

“The key criticism against the legislation – that it contains no public interest defence – we believe invalid. Many countries do not use this qualification and we believe it wise to follow their example. Particularly, we believe the exclusion of such a defence is both democratic and in the interests of the citizenry; indeed, it ensures the state is able to protect the national interest while at the same time, through other mechanisms in the bill, account for its decisions in this regard.”

Now, that might be an entirely disingenuous, even factually inaccurate statement (no doubt the reason the ANC wanted to avoid making it), but its meaning is clear. And one can then engage rationally with the argument it presents.

But who can dispute an idea like “proper accountability” or generalisations like, “the construct of the legislation”,  “in the interests of all South Africans” or “international best practice”? At best, one could produce a lengthy exposition on each, but even then, because the ANC has not made it clear to what exactly it is referring, it is difficult to argue about what exactly is wrong with it.


In his essay ‘Concerning Human Understanding’ [1689], John Locke discusses the misuse of words and language. On the abuse of words, he the following to say:

“Besides the imperfection that is naturally in language, and the obscurity and confusion that is so hard to be avoided in the use of words, there are several wilful faults and neglects, which men are guilty of, in this way of communication, whereby they render these signs less clear and distinct in their signification, than naturally they need to be.”

Later, he talks about those who intentionally exploit words to conceal or obscure meaning:

“Other there be, who extend this abuse yet further, who take so little care to lay by words, which in their primary notation have scarce any clear and distinct ideas which they are annexed to, that by an unpardonable negligence, they familiarly use words, which the propriety of language has to very important ideas, without any distinct meaning at all.” Wisdom, glory, grace, etc. are words frequent enough in every man’s mouth; but if a great many of those who use them, should be asked, what do they mean by them? They would be at a stand, and not know what to answer: a plain proof, that though they have learned those sounds, and have them ready at their tongues’ end, yet there are no determined ideas laid up in their minds, which are to be expressed to others by them.”

And that was in 1689. One could well argue that, in South Africa today, there are a great many democratic ideas, frequently used but seldom well understood: accountability being a powerful example. In fact, one could take that point further still and argue a great many of them contested and so, without an explanation, from first principles they are ambiguous. This confusion is often exploited, sometimes overlooked and with the result that it is quite possible for two people to talk about the same idea and yet to hold in their heads entirely different meanings. The abuse of language does little to help.

Further Reading:

• Of the Abuse of Words [John Locke; 2009]
• Weasel Words: Contemporary Clichés, Cant and Management Jargon [Don Watson; 2004]
• Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write and Why it Matters [Simon Heffer; 2010]
• On Bullshit [Harry G. Frankfurt; 2005]