Date added: December 7, 2017

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A growing body of research exists on democratic accountability. Much of this research focuses on citizen strategies for expressing their views, and on efforts to hold politicians and government service providers accountable. Despite this research, little is known about how politicians in young democracies view these aspects of democratic governance.

Given that accountability can be understood as a feedback ‘loop’ between citizens and elected representatives, it is necessary to gain a better understanding of the norms and values of politicians themselves, the pressures they face and the ways that they communicate with their constituents.

This paper details findings from an original survey of approximately 1,000 South African councillors in 2016 and 2017 to explore what representation and accountability looks like from their perspective. How do they understand the various links in the accountability chain, including citizen input and deliberation, norms of good government and pressures from political parties, friends and family? The quality of democratic accountability, and the success of interventions to improve citizen representation, may depend on the norms and beliefs held by elected representatives.

Findings suggest that even in a political context defined by strong parties, the descriptive representation of South African politicians has important substantive implications. Individual-level characteristics such as the race, gender, wealth and age of councillors meaningfully predict attitudes and perceptions on a range of important questions about voice and accountability.

Practically, this suggests that citizens and civil society actors ought to recognise that individual politicians are likely to process information and take action in a manner that is strongly mediated by their own characteristics, social networks and life experiences. Therefore greater sensitivity to politicians’ perspectives may serve to enhance efforts to improve social accountability more generally. Theories and practice of social accountability should also pay greater attention to elected and non-elected actors as human individuals, shaped by life histories and the same types of cognitive and social biases as the people they serve.


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