Courts and accountability in South Africa

Geoff Budlender is a human rights lawyer who helped found South Africa’s Legal Resource Centre (LRC) – a public interest law firm that has served the country’s poor and indigent, particularly in the face of apartheid legislation.

In his Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture last week, he responded to ongoing struggles concerning the separation of powers in government. In a characteristically fair-minded manner, he challenged the current president’s  seeming assault on the judiciary, while also conceding that the government has a “legitimate complaint” in pointing out that the process of enforcing rights may sometimes undermine its ability to deliver services. In an era in which courts are playing an important role in forcing governments to live up to the social and economic rights enshrined in their constitutions, circumscribing appropriate roles will continue to be a matter of negotiation and conflict.

The dilemmas of democracy for service provision are profound – at times, democratic institutions help facilitate delivery that almost certainly would not have occurred in its absence. But those same institutions can sometimes produce sub-optimal outcomes. These are the costs of fairness and accountability that can seem quite frustrating to pay, but as Budlender suggests, the alternatives would be worse.

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