Upcoming research: Accountability – What makes people do the right thing all the time?

There aren’t too many South Africans in Denmark, so any reminder of my country of birth is a source of comfort. When I heard Nadeem Salie’s voice through my laptop speakers during our Zoom call, it felt a little bit like being back home. Nadeem and I met virtually to discuss his work with the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), where he is currently a guest researcher in the Centre for Global Criminology at the Department of Anthropology. The aforementioned centre is a research organisation independent from policy or law enforcement agencies.

We immediately connected over our shared experience of being South African in academic institutions in Copenhagen. In 2015, Nadeem came to Copenhagen as a Visiting PhD Researcher, and spent seven months at UCPH’s Department of Anthropology. Nadeem returned to UCPH in December 2016 to complete his research. Nadeem was awarded his PhD in Law from the University of Cape Town in 2018 – his PhD thesis served to cast light on how ubuntu could be utilised to promote political accountability in public officials and forge social solidarity in South Africa. Ubuntu speaks to the interconnectedness of people and is often described as ‘I am because we are’. However, this is far removed from a nuanced understanding of ubuntu which seeks to advance the primacy of communal obligations (as opposed to individual wants and needs) as persuasively argued by the political philosopher Leonhard Praeg.

DDRN’s Arne Wangel wrote an article about Nadeem’s PhD, which you can read here.

Despite the fact that Nadeem and I work in entirely different fields, our common background allowed our conversation to depart from a platform of shared understanding of the South African political system and its present day challenges. Nadeem is focused at present on exploring accountability mechanisms and sustainability initiatives as a means to make a meaningful contribution in shaping a better working world. In this regard, the contrast between South Africa and Denmark is quite stark, which is why Denmark is of such interest to Nadeem.

As of 2020, Denmark and New Zealand are tied first place for being perceived as the least corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. South Africa ranks 69th.

Accountability is a complex concept – an anthropological perspective (as part of a multidisciplinary approach) is well suited to providing definitive insights into accountability and the promotion thereof. What makes people do the right thing all of the time?  Nadeem notes that Denmark’s extraordinary social welfare system is underpinned by an enlightened understanding of social solidarity which is routinely described as “we are all in the same boat”. This is key to ensuring that there is ongoing societal buy-in for a social welfare system which is supported in essence by all political parties. The welfare system provides more than a safety net – it provides a platform for people to realise their professional ambitions through free education.

Nadeem’s experience with Danish academic institutions dovetails neatly with his views of the welfare system. He tells me that his work at the University of Copenhagen has been an overwhelmingly positive experience in light of the collaborative and supportive approach of his professors. His professors have routinely doubled as his mentors and their generosity in sharing information (as well as their unwavering focus on knowledge production) has been nothing short of remarkable. Nadeem is working closely with Henrik Vigh (the current head of the Centre for Global Criminology) and Susan Whyte, both Professors at UCPH’s Department of Anthropology, and Inger Sjørslev, a retired Emeritus Professor from the same department, who was Nadeem’s primary mentor during his first visit to Denmark in 2015.

Nadeem is keen to expand on his exploration of the pliability of public officials during his time as a guest researcher at the University of Copenhagen. At present, the project is at the information gathering stage, and the team will submit an application for research funding in due course.

Megan Roux is a Master student of Sustainable Biotechnology, Aalborg University Copenhagen.