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J February: The missing link of accountability

Here we go again with talk of rolling black-outs and inconsistent power supply causing chaos around the country.

The one thing we cannot accuse our government of is panic. A post-cabinet meeting saw Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa meeting a rather hostile and inquisitive media contingent determined to seek answers for the outages.

No President, no Minister of Public Enterprises, no Minister of Energy, just Molewa, exposed. Firstly, Molewa said there would be no 'negative impact' as a result of the rolling black-outs and then came the famous 'wet coal' explanation.

It seems a somewhat lame excuse for what is, in effect, a lack of proper planning by the state and power utility Eskom.

Not that this can solely be laid at the door of this administration. As far back as 1998 there have been reports that our power supply was fragile. Yet, in 2002 then Minister of Minerals and Energy, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said there was no looming power crisis. And then of course came 2008 and the new era of rolling black-outs.

Since then the problem was always going to have to be managed or 'spun' in such a way as to not cause general panic. But we South Africans are a skeptical bunch and so we just cannot be convinced by Eskom or Molewa or, subsequently, Malusi Gigaba who hinted at additional challenges to wet coal.

Of course, the building of power station Medupi has been mired in controversy, from labour issues to questions related to patronage politics.

After all, the ANC's investment arm Chancellor House owns a stake in Hitachi which supplies the boilers for the Medupi and Kusile power stations.

And so as the middle classes rant about power cuts and business issues dire warnings, what we can say about the unsatisfactory state of affairs is that at the very heart of it all is a lack of accountability by those in power. Very few explanations given and where they are, they seem wholly unsatisfactory.

It takes one back to the recent past and the security cluster and Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi's frankly ludicrous explanations for the excessive expenditure on Nkandla. We were told that the pool was actually a fire-pool, a much-needed security feature and then we were told that the cattle needed to be secured in a particular way. And so the farcical explanations went on. On 19 March the Public Protector will release her final report and hopefully more convincing findings will present themselves.

It also feels like the time the ministers in Thabo Mbeki's cabinet tried to convince Parliament - and all of us - that the arms deal was worth the while because of the off-set programme. Their explanations did not hold water then and still don't.

So this past week was just not a good week for accountability. Annelize van Wyk, chair of the Portfolio Committee on Police at Parliament, lost all patience with the police reporting to Parliament on various issues. The meeting started badly when Commissioner Schutte, clearly having to take the fall for National Commissioner Riah Phiyega, announced that she was 'abroad' and could not make the briefing. Van Wyk rightly saw red. The meeting had been set down months ago and Phiyega ought to have been there.

"This is Parliament!" van Wyk said, visibly angry. And then followed what was described by committee members as a waste of time as members of the SAPS continued to provide basic answers to crucial questions regarding firearms lost and stolen, leases on building, the role of the inspectorate, amongst others. The answers provided no information and were simply restating facts the committee already knew.

Van Wyk and her committee are asking all the right questions and deserve to be commended for their thorough grasp of the issues. Yet, scanning the ANC's candidate list released this week, van Wyk makes the list but only just, scraping in at number 200. Her chances of returning as chair of a portfolio committee are slim. Yet, former Minister of Communications, Dina Pule, she of the Christian Louboutin heels and unethical (perhaps even illegal) conduct during her time in office, makes the list at number 70. Surely there is something wrong? But then perhaps not. Perhaps this is all we need to know about the ANC's commitment to clean governance.

The 'missing link' of accountability and answerability can only be restored if citizens demand it. An election year perhaps provides an opportunity for extracting some levels of accountability from those in power. The outcome of 7 May will tell us something about the attitudes of South Africans towards accountability and transparency.

Last week a former colleague passed away far too soon. Nathi Nomatiti had come to the then Idasa as an intern, later becoming a political researcher. More recently he worked in government. Nomatiti had, like so many, risen above the difficulties of his circumstances where his mother survived through the expanded public works programme. He was perspicacious and his love for politics consumed him.

This week's thoughts on accountability are therefore dedicated to Nomatiti who never lost his ability to question and, as he so often said, to be a 'disciplined force of the Left'. The left sorely needs young Nomatitis, people of promise and integrity. Your former colleagues at 6 Spin Street salute you Nathi for the person of promise that you were and for your commitment to the battle of ideas and Constitutional values.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

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