South Africa


Public participation: It’s more than just elections (Part 1)

Guests listening to former US President Barack Obama speak during the annual Mandela Lecture to commemorate Mandela Day, Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 July 2018. EPA-EFE/STR

The social, economic and environmental justice challenges we face today can be addressed – provided that citizens actively promote the type of society they want to live in and pass on to future generations.

This is the first of a two-part feature

Delivering the 16th Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg on the eve of the centennial of Madiba’s birth, former United States President Barack Obama focused his speech on “promoting active citizenship in a changing world”. How topical the issue of participatory democracy is in South Africa, and the world over, is both reason for concern and for hope.

Concern that in many countries, the pendulum seems to be swinging (back) towards greater inequalities, discriminations and denial of our “common humanity” despite more and more countries being considered “democratic”. Hope, knowing that societies that foster participation and inclusiveness in the exercise of power have proven, time and again throughout history, to be better able to bring about positive change for all their citizens.

The social, economic and environmental justice challenges we face today can be addressed – provided that citizens actively promote the type of society they want to live in and pass on to future generations.

Madiba reminds us that democracy is about more than just elections,” President Obama said. By electing representatives, citizens determine who is going to exert power on their behalf. It is one of the ways popular sovereignty is expressed… but it is not the only one. With the 2019 election already looming large on the government’s agenda, it is essential that all citizens remember that elections are but one of many avenues through which the people can influence decisions that will affect their lives.

The South African Constitution is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. One of the reasons is that it strikes a balance between representative and participatory democracy. The Constitution gives each South African citizen the right and opportunity to get involved, during elections (representative democracy) and beyond (participatory democracy), in deciding upon matters that concern them or the society they live in, and to hold authorities to account.

The Constitution entrenches public participation as a crucial element of the country’s democratic governance, to overcome the flaws inherent to representative political systems. It recognises that when citizens delegate the conduct of the country’s affairs to elected representatives, they tend to distance themselves from decision-making. What’s more, these elected representatives are technically under no obligation to uphold the promises that got them elected.

In the interest of democracy, public participation fosters more inclusive and legitimate decision-making through the involvement and input of citizens. It enables civil society to contribute to the laws and policies of the country, and to monitor and influence governmental action. It should also enable those members of society whose voices are traditionally less heard to make their needs and opinions known.

The state cannot merely act on behalf of the people – it has to act with the people, working together with other institutions to provide opportunities for the advancement of all communities.

National Development Plan, 2011

This is why the legislative and the executive powers are required by the Constitution to ensure public participation takes place in all governmental decision-making and oversight processes. Sections 59, 72 and 118 of the Constitution enjoin the National Assembly (NA), the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) and the provincial legislatures respectively to facilitate the involvement of the public in their proceedings. The legislature plays a critical role in ensuring that “government is based on the will of the People”, as stated in the Preamble of the 1996 South African Constitution. Thus, it is quite logical that legislative institutions ought to be fostering public involvement in the execution of their mandates; which are to represent the people, make laws, scrutinise the actions of the executive arm of government, and hold them to account on behalf of the people.

Public participation in law-making, oversight and other processes of the legislature is an important constitutional provision of our democracy. The premise is that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process, and implies that the public’s contribution will have a direct influence on the outcome. Public participation also assists the authorities in fulfilling their mandate, including recognising and redressing injustices.

Government by the people means that citizens must be able to monitor and influence the behaviour of their representatives and officials, to ensure that they are actually working for the public good. This implies that the citizens should have access to information, that they have the knowledge that enables them to part take in decision making, and that they can peacefully organise themselves to promote their interests if need be.

During his speech, Obama took the crowd on a journey through the last century. He described moments in history when there was international concern about violence and coercion being the primary basis for governance; and moments of profound hope, when the world watched as Madiba emerged from Robben Island.

We don’t just need one leader, we don’t just need one inspiration, what we badly need right now is that collective spirit,” said President Obama – a sentiment he shares with our former leader. Fostering more effective public participation in South Africa is key to inclusive and fair governance; the question that leaves us with, is how? DM

To follow: part two – Public Participation: A How-To Guide

With a background in political science and human rights advocacy, Noelle Garcin has been working with the African Climate Reality Project since 2016 on growing the mobilisation in Africa to tackle climate change. The project is linked to Action 24, which is a 30-month initiative action co-funded by the European Union, aimed at strengthening environmental governance and civic participation, in order to advance decarbonised sustainable and inclusive development in South Africa.


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