With our country constantly rocked by one political scandal after another, no one word has been bandied about as often as “accountability”. “The public must hold politicians accountable,” we often say but what exactly is public accountability? And how do we hold public servants accountable?
This past Saturday, Activate! (a network of young leaders in South Africa that develops skills and connects young people from across the country) sought to answer this very question with their “Activate! Exchange”. Held at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, the event invited business leaders and members of civil society to form a panel that discussed how the youth can hold public representatives accountable.
Proceedings kicked off with a group discussion where audience members and the panel discussed a series of questions. One of the questions: “How do we already hold government accountable?” brought up a series of varying answers. While some advocated for more diplomatic forms of engagement such as public meetings and petitions, others argued that protests are the only genuine way to hold government accountable.
“Sometimes it feels like the only way the government takes us seriously is if we break and burn things,” said an audience member. “The structures government has in place have too much red-tape. Who do I call to lodge a complaint to the Public Protector or Auditor General? Protests are the only voice government takes seriously,” she concluded.
Another equally heated topic was the question of post-election service delivery. Now that we’ve voted, what happens next? Again, the responses were pretty grim and the consensus was that voting was a mere formality that would change nothing.
“For me it’s back to reality and back to a life of poor service delivery,” said another audience member.
After the group discussion, it was time for input from the panel. First up was Sandile Mahlaba – a Services Executive at Microsoft who provides software for government to carry out their work. The gist of his speech was that the only way to hold government accountable is to hold ourselves accountable.
“Holding government accountable is about you,” he began. “You’re the ones who voted them in. Before you complain about service delivery, ask yourself what you’ve done to help government deliver. You say your school doesn’t have toilets, but who broke them,” he asked.
“Twenty years is not enough to change everything. Do your part. Just pass your exams. That’s one way of holding government accountable,” Mahlaba concluded.
Next up was Mzwandile Msimanga – a Political Science graduate and CEO of youth opportunies hub YDIDI (which distributes job opportunities through youth radio station YFM). The general theme of his talk was that you can’t wait for government to help you. Sometimes you just have to get up and engineer your own opportunities.
“Are you ready for the challenge of holding government accountable? Let’s stop waiting for handouts. There are plenty opportunities out there – you just have to seize the moment when they come. If you think money is your biggest challenge, you’re not serious enough,” Msimanga said to deafening appluase.
With South Africa dubbed the “protest capital of the world, it was only a matter of time before the subject of protesting as a valid means of communication came up. The next panelist; publisher and fundraiser at Times Media, Patti McDonald, spoke of how young people need to be more engaged in the politics and civil society’s role in holding the government accountable. “In the 80’s we lost the spirit of civic participation. You [the youth] need to bring it back. We also need to re-understand the idea of protest. Peaceful protests. Understand your history,” McDonald stated.
But the most salient statement came from panelist Ali Sithole (youth development officer at the City of Johannesburg) who highlighted the importance of integrating young South Africans into the political process. “When we speak about holding government accountable, we see ourselves as a separate entity. Young people are part of society. If you treat them like a problem, they’ll act like one. The city must start thinking of young people as assets, not beneficiaries,” Sithole concluded.
All in all, the event was a major success. The fact that it was packed to capacity rubbishes the idea that the youth are disinterested in politics. Dialogues such as these are proof that the youth are willing to engage meaty topics as long as it’s in a space and language they can relate to. Stay tuned to Activate’s website for future events.
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