UP EXPERT OPINION: Taxpayers must bargain for accountable governance

Posted on May 18, 2023

South Africans know that governance, while supposed to pursue societal wellbeing, can in fact make life hard – even in a democracy, where the people theoretically have the power and mechanisms to constrain their elected representatives in a principal-agent-type social contract. 

Although far from the South African reality, the executive and the policymakers actually do work for us, the people. They owe us much by way of transparency – explaining themselves and spending our hard-earned taxes carefully, in the interest of the people. 

Our government’s duty of accountability far exceeds their understanding of it; not being corrupt, for instance, is not an achievement. It is the lowest bar. 

Responsive and good governance requires performance and results. It achieves service delivery and investment in essential infrastructure, and it supports inclusion, growth and development. 

Even amid modest expectations, some success should be visible over time in the uphill battle against poverty, inequality and unemployment.  

The literature on the deleterious effects of self-enriching states that prey on society, whose effects are on broad display in South Africa, emphasises that “good” states – good in the sense that they govern capably towards their societies’ progress and development – are constrained states. 

Democratisation does not guarantee accountability

Generally, it is assumed that democracy does executive constraint better than other forms of government through democratic mechanisms of accountability. 

Social contracts characterised by accountable and responsive governance, however, do not materialise easily in fragile and complex and relatively newly democratised societies like our own. Democracy may be thought of as a stock variable — it is not the newly established level of constitutional democracy that drives democratic (or not) behaviour, but the distal long-standing, deeply institutionalised democratic history that shapes a liberal, democratic society. 

Democratisation on its own does not guarantee accountability. Despite much unconvincing spin, our democratic government dodges accountability and violates its obligations in terms of the democratic social contract. 

There are primarily two forms of accountability: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal accountability refers to the checking mechanisms built into the architecture of democratic government. These formal institutions then exercise oversight and enforce rules to detect executive overreach and institutionalise accountability without the need for much civic action. 

The public protector, parliamentary oversight functions, municipal audits, National Prosecuting Authority, and so on, come to mind. As proven by cadre deployment and state capture, and perhaps especially by the mockery that former president Jacob Zuma is making of the central democratic principle of equality before the law, horizontal accountability is easily frustrated if it serves an extractive agenda. 

The ANC government’s deliberate erosion of horizontal accountability is predictable in an environment where politicians scheme toward self-enrichment. 

Targeting established democracy-sustaining institutions

Political science scholars are familiar with this phenomenon; they call it executive aggrandisement. They describe it as the “systemic dismantling of checking mechanisms that liberal democratic constitutions typically put in place to ensure the accountability of the political executive”. This aggrandisement is effected by an elected executive leadership that seeks to defang independent checking institutions or pack them with the cadre of their political party, which, in turn, has already been captured by the leadership. 

To this, political sciences scholar Nancy Bermeo adds that executive aggrandisement constitutes the “state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy … justified using the rhetoric of democracy even as the executive targets established democracy-sustaining institutions: the political executive is identified as the sole repository of the democratic mandate and checking institutions are seen to constitute the anti-people establishment”. 

Recall Zuma’s statements that the judiciary – approached after other avenues to hold him to account had failed – is anti-transformation? Or Busisiwe Mkhwebane describing the inquiry into her fitness to hold office as an attack on a black woman seeking transformation? 

These are hugely expensive processes funded by the taxpayer, while failing to enforce horizontal accountability.

Vertical accountability, also referred to as bottom-up or social accountability, is where people power matters. This is when the citizenry insists that their elected leadership be answerable to them. 

Although universal franchise is the avenue of accountability from which democracy derives its universal appeal, elections have been shown to be a blunt instrument in fragile democracies. 

Leveraging rights of empowered citizenry

Political participation requires an empowered citizenry able to leverage their rights and programmatic support in ways that would serve them best over time. Marginalised citizens who have lost all sense of agency and feel powerless to participate meaningfully to improve their existence risk being co-opted to vote to uphold an inherently exploitative system through the promise of a grant or a small clientelistic reward. Or they become apathetic and disengage from formal political participation, resorting to increasingly violent protest action as the only voice they still have. 

A disempowered citizenry is less likely and too under-resourced to credibly challenge an elite favoured by the power imbalance; disempowerment therefore suits a political agenda aimed at circumventing accountability. 

There is a further, potentially more powerful, mechanism to enforce social accountability: tax bargaining. 

South African taxpayers are accustomed to minimal rights. They face a well-fanged revenue administration that collects revenue effectively. Non-compliance has severe repercussions, as it should. 

South Africa is often acclaimed in development-policy circles as a successful fiscal state, because of our high rate (as a percentage of our GDP) of tax collection. 

Paradoxically, the successful tax collection does not translate into reduced poverty or inequality, or electricity and water supply, or proper transport infrastructure, or quality public health and education. 

Unaccountable spending of taxpayer money is the primary reason for this. Taxpayers’ obligations in terms of a social contract that urgently necessitates development, greater equality and poverty reversal, are enforced mercilessly, and no negotiations tolerated. 

The government, however, reneges with mostly impunity on its commitments in terms of this asymmetrical contract, prioritising the now-familiar self-enrichment schemes of the politically connected. 

Shifting consequences on to the culprits

Apart from elections, proven to be ineffectual instruments of accountability in these contexts, taxpayers have no avenue to object against the conspicuous misuse of tax revenue. Objections are condemned as a tax revolt and get a bad rap because of its potential to fundamentally destabilise and derail everything we have tried to accomplish since 1994. 

This is wrong; there is a space between being coerced to fund a near-mafia state that fails the poor especially, and a tax revolt. In this space, the reciprocal nature of taxes offers taxpayers a bargaining tool to insist on accountable use of their hard-earned money. 

The literature is clear on the governance dividend of tax bargaining. There are limits to what may be negotiated should taxpayers organise and mobilise in a representative civic organisation: taxpayers cannot dictate social policy and torpedo the tax-and-transfer project. They can, however, insist on enforced rules of accountability, like clean audits and transparency, for instance, and a penalty system for non-compliant public officials. 

In essence, tax bargaining shifts the consequences of non-performing officials funded by tax money on to the culprits. Although we legally enforce fair labour practice and sanction organised labour action, taxpayer action to demand accountability is not tolerated precisely because it threatens extractive politics directly. 

It is a daring proposition in an environment where whistleblowing invites assassination. The government will predictably be vociferous in their objections that taxpayers are sabotaging transformation, the tired old argument whenever they are faced with accountability. 

South Africans know, however, that it is our tax-funded and wealthy governing elite that fundamentally thwarts our transformation project. Imagine what we can accomplish if taxpayers could leverage their bargaining power to negotiate a symmetrical and productive social contract, one in which our tax-funded political leadership also must perform or else.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 11 May 2023. Dr Sansia Blackmore is a Senior Lecturer at the African Tax Institute in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Dr Sansia Blackmore

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