The Root of Our Political Crisis Lies in Our Government Undermining Public Participation

By Frank Meintjies · 6 Jun 2008

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Picture credit: Editor Tupp
Picture credit: Editor Tupp

Much of the current political uncertainty in SA - lack of focus, a sense of crisis on many fronts, large areas of misalignment between leaders and the population, a resurgence of street protests - can be explained by a lack of effective democratic participation.

South Africa’s struggle was a popular one, and the intent was always to construct a society in which democracy meant more than taking part in periodic elections.

The goal of a ‘deep democracy’ was always part of liberation discourse. That intent was conveyed symbolically by the posters and media of the liberation struggle – they very often showed masses of people marching under banners and flags.

It was also captured in a Freedom Charter clause, namely, "The people shall govern". It was also expressed through the grassroots education and conscientisation work we undertook in the struggle, drawing on the work of, for example, Paulo Frere, Julius Nyerere, Ivan Illich and Amilcar Cabral.

Our constitution calls for both citizen participation and community participation as elements of a vibrant democracy. Community participation would form part of citizen participation. But if one achieves citizen participation without active grassroots input, such participation would be weaker and - in relation to the challenge of inequality - counterproductive.

Fourteen years after the advent of the new South Africa, that vibrancy escapes us and the lack of participatory democracy is visible at all levels.

Effective participation is either absent or deficient in the practice of politics and the workings of political parties, leading to a troubling disconnect between political parties and the people.

In the ANC, this rupture was graphically expressed at its Polokwane conference; there was the horizontal split (ANC vs ANC) and the vertical split (bitter conflict between the base and bigwigs in government). And while the ANC rekindles some sense of a party working towards a participatory society around election times, for other parties the estrangement is indicated in low voter support and a limited role in overcoming the stubborn and deeply set cracks in our society.

Participation is largely absent or completely marginal to the operations of national and provincial government. National and provincial government are relatively distant from the people, as are their policy development and review processes. 

Real participation, we should know by now, is part of the picture only if it is embraced as an explicit priority.

Public consultation in the legislature operates better than citizen participation in the work of the executive. Where the law clearly tells lawmakers what is required, it generally leaves it to the executive to set out how citizens will engage at different stages of planning and review.

Early in the new democracy, and especially following the completion of the first round of policy development post 1994, officials took the view that the ANC had a clear mandate to govern and ought not to waste time with wide consultation on key policy issues. Government knew what needed to be done - what was needed for revved-up delivery was a strong government acting decisively.

And so, with limited participation, many government decisions are based on internal conversations, on an over-reliance on technical knowledge and on input from formal interests groups; there is little space and time for community-level engagement.

Technocrats, who by and large do not see extensive public consultation a core part of their day-to-day duties, drive decision-making at programming level.

Government imbizos began as a good idea, but they are clearly inadequate since popular anger and many burning issues are taken to the streets instead. It is also not clear if, and how, imbizos feed into policy making or review processes. Thus, at national and provincial level, the systems exclude the poor and marginalized.

In both national and provincial government, participation is uneven, and in many cases well-meant examples are merely consultation, where officials are merely seeking further data and information from stakeholders, but are not open to being influenced on core ideas.

At both these levels of government, formal participation processes are sometimes undermined by political arrogance. Political Arrogance is conveyed through views such as "we know what we need to do and won't be deterred", "we have a mandate to govern" and "the developmental state needs to give strong leadership". It seems to me that Ministers such as Essop Pahad and Alec Erwin are key exponents of such views.

Finally, in national and provincial government, the opportunity to participate, whether in the development of new legislation or major changes to delivery approaches, is often provided to stakeholders at a late stage rather than early in the process.

At local government level, the problem may be worse and has more drastic implications since local government is meant to be most accessible to, and highly attuned to citizens and poor communities. Despite various laws calling for effective participation in local governance, indications are that local governments have failed to ensure participation and in many cases, lack the political will to deepen participation.

For many years, concern has been expressed about the lack of real participation in the drafting of Integrated Development Plans (IDPs). Usually undertaken by consultants and presented to stakeholders in pro forma consultation process, the IDPs, in the words of Stephen Friedman, emerge from a simulation of democratic participation rather than the real thing. The thousands of service delivery protests each year testify to an alarming gap between local government and poor communities.

The lack of effective democratic participation is having a destabilising effect on the new democracy. We witness how, for many in society, the sense of shared goals between government and them has become diluted and weak. We see the fracture of political parties, a breakdown of communication between leaders and people as well as regular outbreaks of protest action (including the current wave of deplorable xenophobic attacks).

With regard to the explosion of xenophobia, indications are that the communities concerned had nowhere to go to raise their frustrations, discuss their perceptions and misperceptions of their foreign neighbours and explore urgent solutions to poverty.

Many civil servants do not believe that more citizen involvement will make a difference. However, as ANC parliamentarian Lechesa Tsenoli has argued, through active citizen participation in democracy, "the quality of decisions is enriched and there is a smoother implementation process".

In the last decade or so, meaningful citizen and civil society engagement would have provided us with more robust and sustainable solutions on foreign policy, including responses to regional instability; apart from the greater consensus on how to handle the Zimbabwean crisis, government would benefit from "intelligence" about attitudes at grassroots level, from the awareness raising and conflict resolution in local communities that partners could b ring.

Civic engagement may have also circumvented Eskom’s electricity crisis; given the choice, citizen groups may well have opted for gradual increases in the past and expansion of generation capacity instead of initiatives such as Coega and the pie-in-the-sky pebble-bed-reactor.

With respect to HIV and AIDS; active engagement, and true partnership with civil society in the last decade would have ensured a less fragmented national response and more effective rollout of prevention, treatment, care and support.

Adopting a participatory approach will also be vital for formulating an effective response to informal settlements. Government is concerned that – even with greater effort – it cannot foresee eradicating informal settlements in the foreseeable future. Yet by engaging with residents in informal communities it will be able to tackle that long term goal and, at the same time, implement meaningful interim responses that would be begin making a positive difference in the lives of the poor.

Government, with the best intent and with extensive achievements to show for it, has maintained a strong focus on addressing backlogs and scaling up delivery of physical and social infrastructure. In comparison with the requirements for that daunting task, issues related to effective participation seem to be "the soft stuff" - aspects, which don't need to be prioritized or mainstreamed. But events in the last few years and the recent outbreak of militant mob action demonstrate that the soft issues are often the hardest ones. They are also the most important, especially if we are building a sustainable democracy based on inclusion and inclusiveness. They are critical if we are to account to and engage with, in any effective sense, the millions of people who live in undignified circumstances and edge of destitution.

Participation is part of the leadership questions facing South Africa today. He or she who has the strength to lead will also have the insight and political confidence to deepen leadership. They would know that uniting the energies, commitment and ideals of South Africans - using more effective participatory methods - are key to solving the key challenges the country faces.

Government and leadership need to urgently reengineer our democracy so that participatory democracy is again given pride of place. In doing so, they need to recognize that participation should not be a sham or aimed at co-option; political leaders must ensure that an openness and willingness to truly engage lies behind mechanism for participation.

Our government must also recognise that effective delivery and participatory democracy are not mutually exclusive and there is no evidence that effective participation necessarily equates with paralysis in decision-making.

Our leaders must acknowledge that meaningful and sustained participation does not happen naturally or automatically in formal democracy (regardless of the democratic ideals and struggle credentials of the people involved), but with political will, planning, commitment and if the government’s reward system prioritized it, it can be achieved.

Finally, it is time for our leaders to wake up to the realisation that even though many citizens were initially inclined to leave it to government to deliver us from many evils (including poverty), many are now reverting to active citizenship and are demanding participatory democracy.

Meintjies is an independent consultant and a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public & Development Management.

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Efrain M. Martresa
10 Aug

Re-engineering of Democracy

Re-engineering means a radical change. I am for re-engineering of democracy and by that I mean a real change. Let's prepare our youngsters to manage our countries in the different areas and as they get more knowledge and experience they go up the ladder and assume more responsibilities. We then vote for issues, and where our vote is worth as much as our knowledge of the question is, i.e., ignorance can have no weight in a democracy.

Surely enough, it will take decades to properly design and implement a new system, but in 30 years we should have something new and better. And as in any major change, we will find resistance, but isn't that the way that all disciplines work?

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