Open Parliament to the people
Parliament and the provincial legislatures are democratic spaces that belong to the people of South Africa.
Our elected re-presentatives are required to consult with citizens to give reality to their rights. This extends to the municipal level, through structures such as the ward committees, which must enable meaningful engagement on matters affecting people's lives at local level. But is this happening?
In its vision for 2030, the national planning commission raised "serious concerns about whether Parliament is currently fulfilling its role adequately in the building of a capable, accountable and responsive state" – one that can address poverty, inequality and provide public services.
As South Africans we have to admit the enormous challenges inherited from both apartheid and colonialism, which the legislatures are duty-bound to address, and the shortcomings of our legislatures in addressing these stubborn legacies.
To investigate the effectiveness of South Africa's public participation and accountability processes in Parliament and the provincial legislatures, a group of civil society organisations will host a conference with the theme People's Power, People's Parliament from August 13 to August 15 in Cape Town.
The elements of our constitutional democracy include elected representation, public participation, rule of law, separation of powers, accountability and legitimacy. What is critical are the prescribed processes for legislatures to uphold the Constitution, develop law and provide oversight of service delivery to the public, as well as facilitate public involvement in legislative and oversight functions.
The Constitution requires participation in the legislative and oversight functions of the legislatures, but public consultations tend to focus only on the function of law-making and rarely on the implementation of laws and policies in advancing service delivery and rights.
Examples of how participation can be fostered in the oversight function include the country's open budgeting process, which provides citizens with enough information to understand the national budget. It is hoped that this consultative budgetary process will ensure a more accurate allocation of resources as measured by its effect on living standards.
Another opportunity for engagement in the oversight function is through building greater public engagement with the reviews of government departments' annual reports and strategic plans.
In South Africa, where the right to public participation by all was legally entrenched only 18 years ago, a huge premium is placed on democratic engagement with policies and laws.
By building Parliament and the legislatures so that they are empowered to fulfil their constitutional mandate and ensuring that they are accessible and responsive to the public, we advance our democracy. Strong legislatures that perform their oversight functions are an essential part of improving people's quality of life.
Public consultation is a crucial determinant of the consolidation of democracy. The question is: What is the nature and extent of public participation and to what extent are opportunities and processes for public participation accessible? Another significant question is: How are civil society and the public more broadly making use of these opportunities?
Motivations for public participation can vary, and uneven levels of involvement by different groups mean that people's needs and interests are not equally represented in policymaking, implementation and outcomes. The challenge lies in ensuring that public participation processes reconcile competing demands while preserving the legitimacy of democratic institutions in the eyes of the public.
Anecdotally, the impression gained by speaking to ordinary citizens seems to be that influential policies are not seen as initiated by the public at large. Rather, they originate with elites in political parties, the government bureaucracy, business and other interest groups. Citizens presume that the political motives underlying these policies are often hidden from public attention, or inadequately presented during the prescribed public hearings facilitated by committees of the legislatures. Indeed, whereas the intention of public participation provisions in the Constitution is clear – to influence government policy outcomes so that they reflect "the will of the people" – the adequacy of the forms it takes is debatable. So is the influence of public participation over policy outcomes.
Political participation most commonly plays out as an indirect form of participation: citizens cast votes to elect political parties on the basis of mandates that, if the party is elected, inform public policies. Yet a significant impact on policy outcomes can be achieved by people's direct engagement with democratic processes in written and verbal interactions with legislatures that provide feedback, based on lived experiences, on how to realise the many exemplary rights-based policies and laws adopted since 1994.
A vibrant civil society plays an indispensable role in a democracy. It facilitates public engagement with government organs, including legislatures, and ensures that institutions, policies and laws enjoy legitimacy among citizens.
The People's Power, People's Parliament conference aims to address the realisation that a lot more must be done to ensure the public knows what is to be expected of all levels of government. It will allow communities to express their concerns and make demands for accountability.
Better-resourced individual citizens, civil society organisations and business representatives can make their voices heard through petitions and submissions to Parliament and the legislatures. But the participation of most citizens in our democracy depends on collective action.
South Africa faces the challenge that, for poor people, what is legally defined as citizenship often fails to translate into reality when measured in terms of the government's prescribed duties, or the fulfilment of individual freedoms and equal access to basic human rights. The unfortunate result is that governmental welfare provisions to the poor are often inadequate and frame the poor as entitlement-claiming populations rather than as rights-bearing citizens.
Poor people routinely negotiate and confront property laws and other rules to obtain shelter, earn a livelihood, or merely to survive, yet their voice on public platforms is mostly silent. Political mobilisation by these groups lacks the legitimacy enjoyed by other actors.
If we agree that the state has a duty to promote quality of life and human rights for all, we must understand how these obligations overlap with the imperative that those in power ensure the popular legitimacy of constitutional institutions, including the legislatures and Parliament.
What we need as a country is a robust debate and united action to ensure that Parliament and the legislatures are more than symbolic. They must extend to meaningful interaction that will affect government policy in a way that makes human rights real.
Nkosikhulule Nyembezi is advocacy programme manager at the Black Sash. Sam Waterhouse is parliamentary programme co-ordinator at the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape. For more information on the conference, visit peoplesparliament.nu.org.za or follow proceedings on Twitter #pplpower
The conference is an initiative of Black Sash, the Community Law Centre, Corruption Watch, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Ndifuna Ukwazi, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, Section 27, Social Justice Coalition, the South African Council of Churches, the Treatment Action Campaign and the Women's Legal Centre.