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COLLECTIVE ENGAGEMENT OP-ED

Citizens’ assemblies empower exploration of new ways to develop a more authentic democratic spirit

Citizens’ assemblies empower exploration of new ways to develop a more authentic democratic spirit
Community members listen during a community imbizo on 27 October, 2023 in Bloemfontein. The imbizo was held as part of efforts to establish a strong partnership between the police, residents and various community structures. (Photo: Gallo Images/Volksblad/Mlungisi Louw)

The popularity of citizens’ assemblies continues to grow across the democracies of the Global North. From Ireland to New Zealand, citizens are increasingly being given the opportunity to directly involve themselves in democratic decision-making.

Much has been written about the sorry state that democracy finds itself in globally. Democratic backsliding — the weakening of democracy in favour of authoritarianism — is prevalent. The climate crisis, this century’s greatest challenge, continues to stump democratic governments.

The voting public globally seems to have lost trust in their representatives and the decisions they make. Far-right populism has returned, indicative of a sizable portion of society feeling underserved by mainstream politics. South African democracy has proven immune to none of these developments.

In response to this global crisis of democracy, a host of potential remedies have been suggested. Citizens’ assemblies, forming part of a larger movement to help citizens reclaim their democratic power, are one such remedy.

Emphasising inclusion, informed discussion, and consensus-based decisions, citizens’ assemblies are a new sort of democratic process that gathers together a representative group of citizens over a number of days to learn about, deliberate on, and put forward recommendations on a policy issue affecting their community.

As in the case of Ireland’s assembly on gender equality, participants are guided throughout the process by trained facilitators who help ensure quality deliberation, and subject experts who inform citizens on the issue at hand. Advocates of citizens’ assemblies argue that they provide a platform to engage ordinary citizens, reflecting the diversity of interests and perspectives of the general public in decision-making processes which are usually the exclusive domain of politicians and lobby groups.

Democratic innovation

Citizens’ assemblies are often referred to as a “democratic innovation”. That’s an instructive phrase if we want to think about their relevance for South Africa, given that we don’t tend to think of innovation as having a role to play when it comes to the institutions that govern our society.

Thirty years on from the advent of democracy and little has changed in the fundamental nature of South African democracy, other than a waning belief and interest in it among citizens. Given our own local crisis of democracy, it does seem strange that we devote such enormous effort to innovating in other domains but reserve so little time and energy for thinking about how we can improve the democratic system that, in the end, governs it all.

Beyond what they offer as a novel method to improve democracy, citizens’ assemblies also offer a new way to think about democracy: as something to innovate, improve, and expand.

Some gentle words of caution to those proposing citizens’ assemblies as a pre-packaged solution to South Africa’s predicament. Like the roll-out of any innovation into a new context, the implementation of citizens’ assemblies in South Africa requires careful consideration and planning. We can’t simply copy and paste a democratic process developed in and for the countries of the Global North to the unique political, socioeconomic, and cultural context of South Africa and expect it to go well. As enthusiastic as we might be, we must first confront several challenges.

Challenges

Firstly, there is a balance to be found between a kind of neocolonial interference and the glorification of our local experience. On the one hand, we cannot allow citizens’ assemblies — a process developed primarily outside of Africa — to be naïvely imposed on a uniquely African context.

But on the other hand, we don’t want to exceptionalise our local context to such an extent that we close ourselves off to new ideas. What’s required is a process of transformation: the citizens’ assembly design must be taken apart, examined, and reassembled featuring local adaptations to South Africa’s particular context.

Secondly, we must reckon with South Africa’s multidimensional inequalities and how these would impede the success of a citizens’ assembly. Inclusion, a guiding principle of any assembly, requires that every person affected by a public decision has an equal opportunity to influence that decision.

Our extreme income inequality, however, means that a sizable portion of the public might be unwilling to participate in lengthy assemblies because it would mean sacrificing work income. Unequal access to education, technology, and childminding are other issues that must also be taken into account.

Thirdly, we must guard against the risk of assemblies falling prey to capture by political elites who find their influence challenged. Citizens’ assemblies, whose recommendations to policymakers tend to challenge the status quo, are uniquely vulnerable to being distorted to suit the dominant agenda.

France’s recent national Citizens’ Convention for the Climate, for example, concluded with most of its recommendations being ignored by the government, despite President Emmanuel Macron committing before the start of the assembly to uphold its outcome. In the case of South Africa, where our institutions are prone to capture or castration, clever thinking is thus required.

These challenges are not insurmountable, however. In fact, they may even serve as an opportunity in and of themselves: in South Africa, we have the chance to test out a promising democratic innovation in a uniquely challenging democratic landscape and enhance it in the process. We can inform the global development of citizens’ assemblies not only with the lessons of trial and error over difficult terrain, but with insights from our own history of traditional governance and community decision-making.

This transformed and uniquely South African citizens’ assembly can then be returned as a gift to the world, much in the same way as it was originally offered to us.

Opportunities

Despite these challenges and uncertainties, citizens’ assemblies offer a host of promising opportunities for South Africa that necessitate their investigation as a viable addition to our democracy.

To begin with, citizens’ assemblies have compelling emancipatory potential: they gather and articulate the considerations and grievances of the public in a more bottom-up, systematised, and democratically inclusive manner than existing processes.

Once gathered, these public considerations can then be fed directly into the policymaking process, bypassing those standing as intermediaries between citizens and their policymakers. Importantly, these assemblies may substantially improve the inclusion of the minority voices so often excluded from spaces of political influence.

Secondly, by establishing effective mechanisms to include the interests of young people and future generations in their deliberations, citizens’ assemblies can help centre anticipatory governance within South Africa’s democracy. In a world increasingly buffeted by crises which find their origins in the short-termism of electoral politics, citizens’ assemblies can inject a much-needed dose of long-term thinking.

The many future-orientated climate assemblies convened worldwide, which focused on how present-day decisions will affect future generations, are a prime example of this anticipatory governance in action.

Lastly, the introduction of citizens’ assemblies can serve as a motivator to reflect on the participatory processes that citizens have available to them. The mood in South Africa is often one that laments citizens’ lack of interest in politics, or their supposed inability to participate in political decision-making with any degree of sophistication.

But as evidence from citizens’ assemblies continues to show, this is simply not true. Instead of spending our time doubting the interest and ability of the public to meaningfully participate, citizens’ assemblies empower us to explore new ways to develop and channel a more authentic democratic spirit.

Research

Rather than being a one-size-fits-all solution, the future of citizens’ assemblies in South Africa is uncertain, characterised by both challenges and opportunities. It’s precisely because of this uncertainty that the Centre for Research on Democracy (Credo) at Stellenbosch University has launched a major research project to investigate the relevance of citizens’ assemblies for the future of South African democracy and to design and convene the country’s first pilot assembly.

Envisioned as an interdisciplinary research group drawn from South Africa and the larger African continent, the Citizens’ Assembly Working Group is the first African-led initiative of its kind and one of the few Global South projects to emerge in a field otherwise dominated by scholars and practitioners from Western Europe, North America, and Australia.

It’s our hope that through rigorous research and a decolonial approach which emphasises the importance of Africa’s existing knowledge and practises, we’ll lead the way in the local development of this promising democratic innovation.

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of South African democracy, the time has come to ask a fundamental question: what is missing in South Africa’s democracy, and how can we realise a more inclusive, deliberative, and participatory democratic future for our country?

We call on this country’s scholars, practitioners, and everyday citizens to join us in finding answers. DM

Damien du Preez is a Research Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Democracy (Credo) at Stellenbosch University. He is the initiator and co-chair of Credo’s Citizens Assembly Working Group, the first African-led research initiative on citizens’ assemblies. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter/X: https://twitter.com/DamienJDP

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