Asking MPs to listen to voters is likely a waste of time – survey

The voice of the people? (David Harrison)

The voice of the people? (David Harrison)

As individual voters take to the internet to urge MPs to remove President Jacob Zuma, a survey by a parliamentary monitoring organisation says MPs rarely listen — and even trying to convince them of anything may just be a waste of time.

Because, said one respondent, there is “a penchant for embracing the views of those already powerful”.

Among organisations and individuals who made submissions to Parliament in the past two years, 70% either said Parliament does not take input seriously at all, or were not satisfied that their submissions had received due regard, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) reported last week.

Some of those who made submissions described it as “window dressing”, the PMG said. Others were of the opinion that “a decision had already been taken that the view of the dominant political party would be adhered to”.

There were similar grumbles from those who had lobbied beyond formal presentations, with one respondent saying it was “absolutely pointless”, and another saying that “ruling party MPs do not take positions outside the caucus”.

The PMG survey drew responses from a third of the 235 groups and individuals identified as having made submissions to committees, ranging from the Commission for Gender Equality to audit company KPMG.

A strong, sometimes overriding, allegiance to the party — to the detriment of the public interest — came up again and again.

But although those surveyed by the PMG are disillusioned with public participation in Parliament, the response received by one website suggests that citizens still have faith.

“We have a lot of people coming back with positive feedback,” said Dale Williams, the creator of RSAvoices.org.za.

“The overwhelming sentiment is one of ‘hey, we can do something about this!’”

RSAvoices is Williams’s hobby project to encourage individuals to lobby MPs to vote yes on a motion of no confidence in Zuma. The online entrepreneur and business coach’s site goes so far as to pick a random MP for each visitor and provides sample letters, in various languages, that can be sent to them by email or directly to their cellphones, using a public database of contact details.

His wish to encourage such lobbying predates plans for the Zuma vote, Williams says. But he took advantage of public interest in that vote to launch the site. “It is not a Zuma-must-fall initiative; it is intended as something that says it would be great if we could have some way to have our say other than protesting in the street.”

The site was attracting about 100 visitors a day, Williams says, though he hopes for an uptick once he puts more work into it, including making it easier to share on Facebook.

Letter-writing campaigns of the RSAvoices type are not common, and have a very poor track record in modern South Africa. That may be because MPs do not read their mail.

In two recent instances, lobbying emails sent to every member of Parliament were opened by just under one in 10 of the recipients, data from the campaigns shared with the Mail & Guardian show.

The PMG hopes to make its survey of public participants an annual one, the researcher responsible for it, Monique Doyle, said this week, and to track changes over time.

Though Williams does not see how it could ever happen, he hopes that at some point South Africa adopts a constituency-based system to replace the party-list system for appointing MPs.

Then, perhaps, “those MPs who respond to the public will do better in the elections”, he says. 

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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