Power without Responsibility

By Dale T. McKinley · 10 Aug 2012

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Picture: The Presidency South Africa/Flickr
Picture: The Presidency South Africa/Flickr

If we take the most common dictionary definition of the word ‘power’ – “possession of control, authority or influence over others’ – then we all, in one way or another, have degrees of power.  But besides degrees, the contexts, forms and uses of that power invariably change over time, connected as they are to the shifting patterns of social and economic relations. The older, (hopefully) more mature and more societally integrated we become; the more such power is directly linked to the respective responsibility - whether at an individual or collective level - that flows from it. Or so it should be.

Unfortunately in our South African case, the overwhelming balance of contemporary evidence strongly suggests that the vast majority of those who hold (and exercise) the greatest power – predominately in the political and economic realms – have forgotten or simply abandoned this basic tenet. Indeed, they are showing themselves to be like spoiled children; always wanting everyone to listen to them, to be the centre of attention and demanding constant affirmation but refusing to take responsibility for actions, words and events that flow from their personal and/or collective positionality of power.

The most recent and obvious example of this is the Limpopo textbook fiasco. It is hard to imagine any other Minister of Education in a democratically elected national government retaining his/her job after such an outrage. But in South Africa, our Minister tells us that she “can’t take responsibility” and that it is “not fair” to blame her. Then, in steps her boss – President Zuma - who declares without a trace of contradiction that; “you can’t say that the Minister, who is sitting in her office in Pretoria, is responsible”.  A few days later and the NEC of the ANC offers up this ‘don’t blame us’ gem after emerging from its annual Lekgotla: “the NEC considered the lack of delivery of books in Limpopo as shocking and unacceptable and believes that whomsoever is found to be responsible must face stern action …”

Well of course; how silly can we South Africans be for even thinking that a Minister of Education (alongside the national government and political party in power that she represents) should actually take responsibility for things that happen in our educational system, whether in Limpopo or any other part of our country? How completely unfair of us to see through the scapegoating and thus not lay the main blame on ‘corrupt’ local service providers or low-level provincial educational officials. How totally outrageous of us to expect that the main feature of a Minister’s office should not be a sand pit into which heads can be consistently buried and sand thrown out in every direction.

No, in South Africa we have a fast-gathering ‘tradition’ that involves a conscious denial of the responsibility that comes with power. Here are a few more contemporary examples.

Almost two years ago, the Department of Cooperative Governance & Traditional Affairs released its own study showing that a large number of local government/municipalities were in a virtual state of managerial and financial disintegration. Many hands were wrung, strong statements and speeches of intent made and a host of corrective promises and ‘turn-around’ strategies proffered by senior politicians. Yet less than a year later none of the responsible politicians and officials had been effectively disciplined and/or replaced and things had escalated into multiple provincial crises. Fast forward again to last month and the Auditor-General’s report confirmed the increasing depth of the all-round crisis of local government while highlighting the intensified levels of impunity and lack of effective remedy and counter-action. How else can we explain this other than that those in/with power clearly believe they are immune from taking any meaningful responsibility?

A similar culture of impunity pervades private sector economic elites. Hiding behind what Ann Crotty has so incisively described as the “pseudo-science of executive remuneration”, corporate Boards and big-time South African CEOs continue to award themselves (and vigorously defend) outrageous pay packages and perks at the same time that many of the entities which they so self-glowingly lead are squeezing already desperate employees and destroying the lives of thousands of workers and their families through cynical, profit-taking retrenchments. No place for any real responsibility here; it’s far easier to put it all down to the magical workings of the ‘uncontrollable market’ or assuage whatever tiny slice of conscience still exists through the crumbs of ‘corporate social responsibility’.

Or what about those paragons of historical social virtue, South African gold mining houses? Even as they have raked in super-profits over the last decade, they continue to fight tooth and nail to avoid any responsibility for what has become an epidemic of silicosis amongst mine workers. Not long ago the National Institute for Occupational Health revealed that over the last several years deadly silicosis has almost doubled among South Africa's gold miners. As for the hundreds of workers who have died working in the gold mines since the turn of the century (thousands if one includes other mining sectors) self-centred rationalisations about the ‘nature of the industry’ just don’t cut it.

When it comes to taking direct personal responsibility, the levels of disassociation are fast becoming legendary. Take Dudu Myeni, the chairperson of the Mhlathuze Water Board in KwaZulu-Natal. Earlier this year she was reinstated as a result of a political directive days after her very own Board ruled she should not be reappointed because she had been “at the centre of the current crisis and disharmony” at the utility which included “alleged maladministration, abuse of state resources, unfair dismissal of staff as well as noncompliance with procurement and tender processes”.  Or the case of  former Crime Intelligence boss Joey Mabasa who last year, while under police investigation for bribery, corruption and links to organised crime, was given and (of course) accepted a R3,5 million pay-out along with a pension-boosting credit for an extra fourteen years of service.

And, my personal favourite – the awarding this year of a salary increase to Johannesburg Municipal Manager Trevor Fowler  (accepted in golden silence) that will see his annual pay come in at R3,23 million a year. This, in the context of a municipality - the richest in South Africa – where the average municipal worker earns less than R5000 a month; which has recently received another in a long lineage of qualified audits and, which has continually failed to sort out one of the most central elements of its relationship with residents – the billing system.

No, this is not the Twilight Zone. Here in present day South Africa the avoidance of responsibility associated with varying positions and levels of power is habitually ignored, often rewarded but rarely punished. Go figure?

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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