How are South African prosecutors, who call others to account for wrong doings, held accountable? Moreover, to whom and for what, according to which standards, with what mechanisms and with what effects and consequences? These are the questions that lie at the heart of my PhD project. Interest in and demands for accountability are particularly urgent in a context like the new democratic South Africa, which still has to grapple with the legacy of an – for the most part entirely – unaccountable apartheid state.
Accountability is a variable social relationship and its terms are often vague, fiercely debated, and associated with diverse practices. It can be formal and informal, public and private, grounded in professional discretion and expertise, or with standardized routines and protocols. It has been associated with elections and electoral recall; rationalized, professionalized, and bureaucratic frameworks; judicial review; open and transparent government; market like mechanisms to enhance efficient, effective, and economic public services; or with being more responsive to or respectful of, the needs of the public.
For many years, though, the dominant version of accountability has been linked to quantification and measurement. The increasing use of formal quantitative measures and verifiable accounts in many settings has been criticized for shifting the standard of accountability to performance as a ‘bottom line vision of accountability’; in other words, for narrowing down the understanding and practice of how accountability is defined and demonstrated.
This PhD project focuses on how the recent emphasis on quantitative accountability has shaped and influenced criminal legal practice in South Africa. Rather than treating quantitative forms of accountability as something inherently good or bad this project contributes with its in-depth empirical analysis of ‘what numbers do in organizations’ and ‘what people do with numbers in organizations’ to a more nuanced and critical understanding of their role and consequences.
While exploring the normative, social and political dimensions of quantification and classification practices within South African criminal justice institutions, the project is at the same time critical of the view of numerical omnipotence and the numerical rhetoric of control and dominance. Instead, it carefully describes the various webs of accountability prosecutors have to attend to as well as how they translate these diverse organizational demands into practice.
By using accountability relationships and quantification as a lens to understand how complex social projects, like ‘delivering justice’ are accomplished, the study brings the everyday work of regulatory authorities – particularly institutions of punishment in post-autocratic settings – into focus.