The New Age and the commercialisation of accountability

by The Editor


AccountabilityFEATURE: Much has been made of the extent to which corporates and parastatals have sponsored the New Age business breakfasts, and rightfully so. Here, however, is another take on the significance of these occasions: what we are seeing the commercialisation of President’s question time – money in exchange for the chance, seemingly, to interrogate the head of state. It represents the ANC’s ideal response to the necessity of accountability: you can’t have it, but you can pay for the pretence of it.

The New Age and the commercialisation of accountability

By: Gareth van Onselen


22 January 2013

Much has been made of the extent to which corporates and parastatals have sponsored the New Age business breakfasts, and rightfully so. Here, however, is another take on the significance of these occasions: what we are seeing the commercialisation of President’s question time – money in exchange for the chance, seemingly, to interrogate the head of state. It represents the ANC’s ideal response to the necessity of accountability: you can’t have it, but you can pay for the pretence of it.

Seen together with the carefully choreographed, constrained and effectively unaccountable way in which its more formal counterpart is conducted in the National Assembly, it raises some serious questions about the ANC’s and President Zuma’s attitude to transparency more generally.

Section 55 (2) of the constitution states:

“The National Assembly must provide for mechanisms ­ (a) to ensure that all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable to it; and (b) to maintain oversight of ­ (i) the exercise of national executive authority, including the implementation of legislation; and (ii) any organ of state.”

Parliamentary questions are one such mechanism, considered best practice in many well-established democracies. But, for all intents and purposes, the ANC has stripped them of any real power. Oral questions to President must be submitted two weeks before hand, where they are vetted by a bureaucratic and executive-minded questions office. The responses, some two weeks in the making, are rarely honest or forthright and, if questioned in the House, protected by the Speaker who I have yet, in 18 years of democracy, seen say to a member of the executive, “Sorry, that response did not address the question”.

Basically, anything goes; so long as it is a response.

It is true, it is possible for members to ask one, unscripted follow-up question but between the Speaker and the President’s obfuscation, it is a bit like demanding an answer from the speaking clock. Nevertheless, at least there remains this last vestage of spontaneous debate, that is something.

On the other hand, you have the New Age business breakfasts. The paper itself is sponsored by Zuma’s financial acolytes, the occasion by those institutions under his control and the draw card for those in attendance, at some R700 a shot, is an unscripted question to the President which he will answer on national television.

Perhaps Lindiwe Mazibuko should offer R700 to the President, in the National Assembly, for him to take an unscripted question from the parliamentary leader? It can go to a charity of his choice (the New Age is not a charity). Now there’s a challenge, and at least we will then know exactly how much accountability costs in parliament. Around R700 seems to be the going price outside of it.

And one should consider too the environment in which President’s question time takes place. In theory, ANC or DA, a member of the National Assembly is constitutionally obliged to hold the executive to account. I say in theory because the ANC seems have turned the occasion into an exercise to see who best amongst its members can slow-clap any given executive response.

Here is a question: Have you ever, in 18 years of our new democracy, seen a critical question from the ANC to the President? Answers by postcard to Max Sisulu.

And such occasions are few and far between. The President is scheduled to appear before parliament only once a quarter. You are lucky if you get that. President Mbeki often missed question time; the DA has complained recently that President Zuma is not scheduled to appear this term. Other members of the executive are les committed still. I wonder, how many New Age breakfasts has the President attended in the last 18 months?

But regardless of the President’s or the ANC’s attitude to oversight, the parliamentary environment is supposed to be a critical one. At the very least opposition parties try to ensure that. Answers are given in order that they might be interrogated, and the public at large, on the basis of that exchange, empowered to make a judgement call about the executive’s attitude and behaviour, policy and programme of action.

Not so the New Age business breakfasts. Those, much like the President’s attitude to business more generally, are an exercise in sycophancy. He is surrounded by his nearest and dearest and, at R700 a pop, who is going to ask a question that stirs the water anyway? It is true, on the odd occasion a critical question from a journalist is indulged, but only on the President’s terms and certainly without any formal mechanism to demand more honesty, should he simply refuse to answer, or to follow-up, should he obfuscate.

It is, in the ANC’s undemocratic universe, the perfect President’s question time.

Whatever criticism, interrogation, disagreement the ANC has failed to distill from the formal President’s question time, it has managed to dispel almost completely from its commercial equivalent. All the while, making a huge profit for its sympathetic voice in the print media, using public monies to do so, strengthening relations with ANC business supporters and indulging the national broadcaster’s inability to differentiate propaganda from accountability. And the prominence given to it by the media at large is significant enough to fairly make the case it is more important to them.

Do you have a question for the President? Pay the New Age R700 and you can ask it. Do you want the President to answer to Parliament? Good luck with that.

Of course the ultimate loser in all of this is the principle of accountability. If Parliament is bypassed, there exists no formal mechanism to interrogate executive action. The DA fights hard in parliament to hold the executive to account and, through sheer force of will and relentless perseverance alone, it occasionally manages to squeeze from it some truth. You can be sure you will find no truth at a New Age business breakfast. Just business. The business of buying the President’s affections.

So the breakfasts are a powerful metaphor for life under the ANC in general and Zuma in particular: money can buy you anything, even ostensible accountability. It’s fools gold though, in more ways than one.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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