Opinion Piece

MUKELANI DIMBA: How can open government help renew democracy and rebuild people’s trust?

The Open Government Partnership is hosting side events at the United Nations General Assembly next week. This is an important occasion to engage with heads of state and government. The high-level meeting will mark the handover of the chairpersonship of the steering committee from the government of France to the government of Georgia and from the US’s Manish Bapna to me. Open Government Partnership is an essential tool of bringing into reality that vision of government I held as a 17-year-old Mandela supporter.

As I prepare for the Open Government Partnership events which takes place at the UN in New York on 19 September I find myself having to think about what this all means for me as the new co-chair. Questions such as “what skills, expertise, experience and baggage do I bring into this role?”; “What does Open Government Partnership mean to a black Zulu-speaking South African born in the 1970s?”

It is trite to say that how we view things is based on our upbringing and previous experience. My view of what governance in general or open governance in particular are or what they should be is informed by my experiences as a Zulu-speaking South African born in the apartheid era.

When I was growing up my people used the term “uHulumeni” to refer to “government”. Growing up, I heard about relatives that had disappeared without a trace after joining the fight against uHulumeni’s policies of racial discrimination. Whole families of neighbours disappeared into exile after having taken a stand against “uHulumeni”. A year before I was born “uHulumeni” had killed hundreds of schoolchildren in Soweto who had dared to challenge its education policies. Constant surveillance meant that in my school playground we were not allowed to mention the name “Mandela”, who had been in prison for 15 years before I was born and who would spend another 12 years there for taking a stand against “uHulumeni”.

The same system of surveillance meant that at home my mother would play Mariam Makeba’s melodious yet revolutionary songs at a low volume because Makeba’s music had been banned by uHulumeni. Makeba had also spoken loudly against uHulumeni’s policies. Free press, where it existed, was a privilege and not a right. Newspapers were shut down at the stroke of uHulumeni’s pen. Human rights civil society formations could easily be closed down for supposedly furthering causes that were against the government of the day. Human rights activists could easily end up detained without trial for alleged terrorist activity.

More than uHulumeni being a structure of control, the government became personified as a mysterious, feared and savage being, all-seeing, omnipotent and which determined the course of our lives unseen and unspoken of.

Imagine then the sense of wonder of a 17-year-old on the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. The liberation movement, supported by the international community, had defeated uHulumeni and the apartheid system, Mandela had been released from jail after 27 years and was now going to do something even more incredible: form “uHulumeni oMusha”, form a new government.

This new government was going to be different. It was going to be chosen by the people and its sole role was going to be to cater for the needs of the people. Understanding that millions of previously oppressed South Africans depended on it for preservation of life, livelihoods and human dignity, this government would be accountable for its actions and was not going to hide mistakes and wrongdoing like the apartheid governments did.

While the apartheid governments were loathed and feared, the new government was going to enjoy the trust of the people.

As a 17-year-old I was going to be part of this effort. I was going to help Madiba do it by giving him and the African National Congress (ANC) my vote, regardless of a minor technically that, at 17, I did not qualify to vote. On the day of South Africa’s first democratic elections, I took a taxi into central Durban to vote. Unfortunately, the electoral officials were quite vigilant and caught me out. I never did make it to the voting booth.

Despite my failed attempt at breaking electoral laws, my vision of what government should be is the one that has driven my adult life and working life. For 15 years I have played a small role in helping advance the principles of transparency and accountability – through promoting the enactment and implementation of freedom of information laws and whistle-blower protection laws – and linking these to the realisation of socio-economic justice.

For transparency is not good in and of itself, but it finds real meaning in how it fundamentally changes the nature and process of service delivery to those most in need of government support for their survival and dignity. It finds meaning if it facilitates honest delivery of public services. It finds meaning when it is used as a shield to protect those most in need from unfair or unjust allocation of much-needed public resources and services.

This is what attracted me to the Open Government Partnership. I see it as an important platform for creating a critical dialogue between government as provider of public services and the public as the intended beneficiaries. The Open Government Partnership is that essential tool of bringing into reality that vision of government I held as a 17-year-old Mandela supporter.

The 3,000 Open Government Partnership commitments that have been developed by 75 Open Government Partnership countries and 15 subnational pioneers are building blocks for that vision.

It is simply unbelievable to see the types of innovations that have been created by OGP governments and civil society working together to change the nature and quality of governance in the participating countries.

However, there are worrying signs too. Some developments among Open Government Partnership participating countries fill me with a deep sense of worry as they create a montage of visions not of what we want to be, but of what we thought we had left behind.

Unfortunately we see from some Open Government Partnership participating countries instances of cracking down on civil society activists and the media, some being imprisoned, some disappearing and some having to flee into exile, the shutting down of civil society organisations and media outlets, threatening of human rights activists with death, and surveillance of the activities of civil society organisations.

All of these are acts that are in total dissonance with the vision that the Open Government Partnership is working towards. They further entrench the trust deficit that exists between governments and the public. They are a major stumbling block in building the partnership between government and civil society that is needed to develop and implement reforms and innovations that make Open Government Partnership a truly inspirational global coalition for enhancing governance and a force for good.

Open Government Partnership participating countries and their governments simply must refrain from action that brings doubt to the international community about our commitment to making Open Government Partnership a force for good.

In New York City, I will appeal to all Open Government Partnership participating countries and champions to begin to consider how Open Government Partnership can speak to the needs and wishes of those not fortunate enough to occupy these platforms and positions.

I think it starts with the Open Government Partnership’s unit of life: the national action plan commitments. Open Government Partnership participating countries have to raise the prominence of national action plan commitments that address socio-economic needs of our communities. My appeal to Open Government Partnership governments and champions is: “Place the daily needs and concerns of your people at the forefront of your Open Government Partnership innovations”.

This is consistent with the Open Government Partnership steering committee’s stated intention of linking the Open Government Partnership closer to the Sustainable Development Goals agenda.

This work was initiated by our former co-chairs; the governments of Mexico, South Africa, France, and the civil society co-chairs Alexandro Gonzales (Mexico) and Manish Bapna (USA).

I, together with the government of Georgia, have committed that this is work that we are going to build on. The course has been set on linking Open Government Partnership to climate justice issues. We need now to bring other aspects of the SDG agenda into play, focusing particularly on aspects that relate to anti-corruption, access to justice and public service delivery. That last aspect, public service delivery, is a major priority for the government of Georgia and myself as co-chairs. We intend to use the year of our co-chairing to encourage Open Government Partnership member countries to link the Open Government Partnership to the Sustainable Development agenda by encouraging the development of national action plan commitments that relate to realisation of better outcomes in governance, access to justice & socio-economic rights.

This is informed by the analysis of national action plan commitments made thus far. It is noted with concern that commitments that relate to realisation of socio-economic rights, development and protection of civil and political rights form the smallest category of commitments being made by Open Government Partnership countries, constituting about 10% of 2,722 commitments that were analysed.

It is clear that we still have a huge task ahead of us to make Open Government Partnership the great enabler of efforts aimed at meeting ordinary people’s needs. As we craft these innovations we ought to be clear what they are for and how they enable government, as chief implementer of these commitments, to fulfil its mandate. Perhaps this is when we can use Franz Fanon’s reminder about what government is for. Fanon, in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth, enjoins the people to “realise that … the government(s) are at their service” and not the other way round.

When heads of state and governments, ministers, senior government officials and civil society activists meet I will appeal to all of them to put differences aside and commit to a true partnership that will enable us to, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “secure our people’s freedom from want, from hunger and from ignorance”.

When Nelson Mandela spoke at the United Nations, addressing the UN General Assembly for the first time as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, he said:

“… the society we seek to create must be a people-centred society. All its institutions and its resources must be dedicated to the pursuit of a better life for all our citizens. That better life must mean an end to poverty, to joblessness, homelessness and the despair that comes of deprivation. This is an end in itself because the happiness of the human being must, in any society, be an end in itself.

At the same time, we are intensely conscious of the fact that the stability of the democratic settlement itself and the possibility actually to create a non-racial and non-sexist society depend on our ability to change the material conditions of life [of] our people so that they not only have the vote, but they have bread and work as well.

We therefore return to the United Nations to make the commitment that as we undertook never to rest until the system of apartheid was defeated, so do we now undertake that we cannot rest while millions of our people suffer the pain and indignity of poverty in all its forms.

At the same time, we turn once more to this world body to say we are going to need your continued support to achieve the goal of the betterment of the conditions of life of the people.”

What Madiba said at the UN 23 ago still holds today and can be said to the Open Government Partnership. DM

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