It is either “not my fault” or “not my responsibility” or “I did not do that”. There is seemingly no sense of consequence, not for actions nor for lack of action. Even amongst some of the whistle-blowers there is now an attitude of “I was always against state capture and corruption”, “I never knew or met any Gupta” or “I warned them against this or that”. It is clear that even some of these seemingly laudable actions may be a way of escaping responsibility of what was done or not done – now that it is clear that the tide is turning. It reminds us of the fact that it is not possible to find many white South Africans who ever supported apartheid.

With regard to national Ministers, the Constitution in section 92(1) states: “Members of the Cabinet are accountable collectively and individually to Parliament for the exercise of their powers and the performance of their functions.

And in section 195, the following basic values and principles governing public administration are given:

“(a) A high standard of professional ethics must be promoted and maintained.
 (b) Efficient, economic and effective use of resources must be promoted.
 (c) Public administration must be development oriented.
 (d) Services must be provided impartially, fair, equitably and without bias.
 (e) People’s needs must be responded to…
 (f) Public administration must be accountable.”

It is clear that in the cases of Ministers Brown and Dlamini, individual accountability was (and is) not given the high priority warranted by the Constitution. They act as if there are and will be no consequences, in the process shunning Parliament.

In the case of Dr Manamela, it is clear that there was almost no adherence to the six constitutional principles in the Life Esidimeni decision. There is also no individual accountability from the person who signed the orders for the psychiatric patients to be moved. It is “lost” in the group. “I was part of the group, but it is not my fault”. As a senior public official, Dr Manamela clearly did not understand what she was signing (already a gross dereliction of duty), or did not care. She saw it as a purely administrative action – with apparently no consequences. But there were consequences: more than a hundred people died. More than Marikana, more than Sharpeville. Dr Manamela’s actions are a classic example of malicious compliance – where she ticked the legal and administrative boxes with nary a thought as to the consequences.

It is worthwhile noting that the age of no consequence has also impacted organs of state. The NPA is yet to act on the well-detailed prima facie allegations of state capture in the Gupta Leaks.

Do we have a new generation of senior civil servants, who although not necessarily corrupt, simply do not understand what their responsibilities are and what individual accountability means? Public servants who act at a purely administrative level, without counting the human cost and the possible consequences? If yes, we are in real trouble. In the Life Esidimeni case, the consequences were stark and horrible. People died. In other service delivery decisions or lack thereof, the negative consequences may not be that starkly visible or immediate. It may be that people fall ill because of contaminated water, that they starve because their grants are not paid out in time or that they suffer because no maintenance was done to hospitals in which they are treated. But there will always be consequences. It is, however, often the helpless, the poor and the destitute, the faceless ones who suffer or die – forgotten by almost all. Until a Life Esidimeni erupts. Only then the consequences are clear.

Our politicians and public servants should pay heed. There are always consequences. If not immediately, then later. The Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings and the parliamentary inquiry are proof of this. Accountability does not evaporate into thin air because of your important position, your fancy car and good salary. According to the highest law of the land, the Constitution, you remain servants of the people and should act accordingly.

By Theuns Eloff: Executive Director, FW de Klerk Foundation
29 November 2017