Over the past decade, South African media outlets have been filled with superficial appeals to the public to hold our elected leaders “accountable”. As ANC cadres devoured the country’s future at the trough of corruption and patronage, commentators worked themselves into an apparent frenzy, calling for “accountability” at every turn. On occasion, some even summoned up the courage to politely suggest that the ANC should hold its leaders “accountable” for Nkandla, Life Esidimeni, and Marikana.
Yet when the DA became the first political party in post-apartheid South Africa to voluntarily commission an independent review panel that actually held its leaders accountable for a disappointing election result, the instinct of the likes of Adriaan Basson was to immediately declare that the DA “will not survive”. Basson’s News24 website even carried a banner enthusiastically proclaiming the “Death of the DA”. It is telling that this is the gut reaction of leading commentators to seeing actual accountability in action.
This apocalyptic hyperbole was triggered by something that should be utterly common and mundane in a democracy: the resignation of top leaders following a thorough assessment of the party’s shortcomings leading up to the 2019 election. In most established democracies, party leaders would routinely resign after an election where a party only achieved 25% of its stated objectives.
In societies with consolidated democracies, informed commentators do not interpret such resignations and accountability as weakness. On the contrary, they recognize that honest reflection and internal renewal are in fact the greatest strengths of any democratic organization.
This is precisely what unfolded in the DA over the past few months. The party embarked on a frank and sincere quest to introspect. Over 200 party members submitted detailed analyses to a panel composed of an internationally renowned communications strategist, a party stalwart, and a globally respected business leader. All three members of the panel were personally appointed by the leader of the party.
When the review panel concluded its work and recommended that the leader, CEO, and chief administrator should resign for their respective roles in the party’s decline, all three immediately acquiesced without one brown envelope being exchanged, without a single chair being thrown, and without a single shot being fired. Instead of trying to cover up its faults, the DA also took the public and voters into our confidence by making the review report public.
Moreover, in the subsequent internal election to replace the DA’s chief administrator, James Selfe, the party’s highest ordinary decision-making body democratically elected Helen Zille. In spite of all the conspiracies peddled in the pages of some media publications, Zille’s election to the DA’s key administrative post simply signals that, based on her indisputable record as the most successful governor and administrator of the post-1994 era, party delegates trust her as the safest pair of hands to guide the party through its process of administrative and structural change.
When you cut through the silly hysteria, it is clear that since the May election, the DA has done nothing but hold itself truly and practically accountable. The party did not call for endless consultation and meaningless talk shops to try and sugarcoat or deflect from its problems. It took bold and decisive action in the wake of a 1.46 percentage point decline at the polls.
Contrast this with the ANC, whose share of the vote has declined by 12.19 percentage points since 2004 without a single sincere acknowledgement that it had to practically confront its problems. Or look to the IFP, UDM and COPE – parties that all but collapsed without so much as feigning accountability. The DA does not only talk about accountability when it is fashionable. It demonstrates and takes accountability even when it is uncomfortable – for real accountability is, by definition, uncomfortable.
Like many times before, Basson and Co’s reports of the DA’s demise are greatly exaggerated. But the next time these same commentators bemoan the lack of “accountability” in South Africa, readers would do well to remind them of their hysterical reactions when the official opposition demonstrated its resolute commitment to real accountability.
As the party continues to implement the recommendations of the review by holding a policy conference and electing new leadership over the coming months, South Africans will come to see that the DA is in fact the only party that acts decisively to fix its mistakes and walk the talk on accountability. Far from being the kiss of death, the DA’s unwavering commitment to true accountability is the only remedy that can bring South Africa back to life.
** Dr Leon Schreiber is the DA’s shadow minister of public service and administration.
** Adriaan Basson responds: “I never wrote the DA ‘will not survive’, as you quote me. I wrote: ‘In Zille’s words, the plane had crashed again, and she had no small part to play. She was probably right in her biography, that the DA will not survive again.'”