Citizens’ Recall


Who is accountable for the mess South Africa is in today?

Nobody! That’s our problem. We have very limited mechanisms for holding the incompetents and crooks accountable, so our problems continue and escalate.  Our much touted constitution has let the people of South Africa down badly in the area of official accountability.

As a citizen you get ONE chance every FIVE years to hold the current government responsible for EVERYTHING they have done, good, bad, and forgotten. That is such a dumb system I am amazed that anyone can be persuaded to fall for it.  Can you imagine if a supplier like Pick ‘n Pay opened its complaints department for ONE complaint per person, once every 5 years? Can you imagine a business that allowed its shareholders to vote only once in 5 years?

Accountability is essential for good governance.  The success of America, it has been said, was built on two words – “You’re fired.” In much the same vein, Dr Samuel Johnson said “Nothing concentrates the mind like the threat of a good hanging.”  If we are even remotely serious about improving our country, fighting corruption and crime, delivering services, then we must start holding the officials responsible for these tasks accountable to the people who elect and pay them.  This is simply done. You don’t need to setup a conference, or hold a commission of enquiry, or hire extra consultants.  Just implement the concept of a “Citizens’ Recall”.

Many states in the U.S. allow a citizens’ recall, under varying conditions, although there is no federal equivalent. Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor of California after his predecessor was successfully recalled by popular vote.  No politician or civil servant can feel safe in office, protected for at least 5 years, when faced with the threat of a citizens’ recall.
In our recent past, the president of South Africa was recalled, not by popular vote, but by political skulduggery. Nevertheless, the sky did not fall in, there was no more chaos than usual. A replacement was found, and the business of government continued. In fact, our democracy improved as a direct result of this recall. And, by all accounts, so did our governance.

I propose the following plan for a citizens’ recall in South Africa:

  1. Any elected official or civil servant paid from taxes is subject to recall.
  2. In the event of a successful recall, as defined below, the recalled official is immediately removed from office. A recall is a punishment for an official judged to be incompetent by a significant number of the citizens who pay the official’s salary. The official receives one month’s salary in lieu of notice, only. The official is not placed on suspension, there is no appeal, no labour or other employment regulations apply, no prior contractual agreements may be invoked. The effect, for legal purposes, is as if the official had died in office.
  3. For an elected official, a recall succeeds if the number of recall ballots exceeds 25% of the votes cast for that official in the last election. A by-election will be called to replace the recalled official. The recalled official may not stand in this by-election.
  4. For an official elected by proportional representation, the number of votes cast for that official is calculated as the total number of votes cast for the official’s party divided by the number of officials actually elected.  For example, if party X receives 100,000 votes, resulting in 10 officials getting elected, then the votes cast per official is deemed to be 10,000, and the recall target is 25% of 10,000, or 2,500.
  5. For an appointed civil servant, the recall succeeds if the number of recall ballots exceeds 10% of that official’s basic monthly salary in Rands, before any extras or incentives. The official may not re-apply for the same position.
  6. A recall ballot may be initiated by any South African citizen against any specific official.
  7. Any South African citizen who is eligible to vote (name appears on the voters roll) may vote on a recall ballot.
  8. A citizen may vote on an authorised ballot issued by the initiator of the ballot, at any state office (Post Office, SARS, Home Affairs, Police Station, etc), through ATMs managed by participating banks, through an authorised website, or by cellphone sms to an authorised service provider.
  9. In all votes the voter’s identity will be confirmed and will be validated against the voters roll, as for any ordinary election. Thereafter, the vote will be anonymous (i.e no record of the identity of the voters on a ballot is kept.) Only one vote per citizen per ballot is allowed.

What would be the effect of  instituting a citizen’s recall?  The performance of every government official from the humblest to the mightiest, would be subject to review, not by a toothless audit committee, nor a bunch of like-minded cronies, nor loyal members of the official’s own party, nor an equally incompetent boss, but by an independent group of  citizens interested only in getting value for their hard-earned tax rands.  The civil servants would quake in their boots. They would wet themselves. They would instantly focus on how to please their constituents, instead of their boss, or their party. They would know that corruption and incompetence could actually cost them a seat on the gravy train. They might even start serving the community instead of themselves.

Would this lead to chaos in a civil service already stretched to breaking point? Would civil servants leave government employ in droves? Would the unions never allow it? It is the incompetent time-servers already in government who are responsible for the current crisis. Getting rid of them could only improve the situation, like removing poison from your body.   South Africa’s problem is unemployment – there are literally millions waiting for a chance to prove themselves by taking over the jobs of departing civil servants. Even if the new guys are useless, at least we now have a mechanism for sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Of course the unions would oppose such a proposal. They oppose anything that threatens their comfortable stranglehold on the country and the economy. But nothing worthwhile is achieved without effort.

As a South African citizen, you get one chance in 5 years to make your voice heard! With a citizens’ recall you would be heard every day!

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