People must participate in governance

Government and political parties have a history of doing whatever they want. (David Harrison/M&G)

Government and political parties have a history of doing whatever they want. (David Harrison/M&G)

Recent developments in the government’s approach to the people of South Africa raise many questions. It is common cause that we are living through a phase of major reform and reconstruction in South Africa after the “wasted years” that President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken about. This reform period provides the country with an opportunity to revitalise many of the key institutions that suffered damage during the Zuma administration — the National Prosecuting Authority, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks), the South African Revenue Service and others.

Revitalisation means much more than trying to return the institutions to their perceived past glories.
It is essential that these institutions — and the state as a whole — are recalibrated to meet the demands of the next phase of South Africa’s democratic era.

Thinking and planning for the long haul in this reform phase raises key questions to confront as a country. Does government really listen to the people of this country? How do we recalibrate the relationship between government and the public so that it reflects a progressive and transformative state? In other words, how do we begin to redevelop meaningful participation by people in critical decisions that fundamentally affect our lives?

The past two decades, especially the latter, have yielded a sense that government does what it wants and takes little heed of the voices of people who do not occupy elite positions in society.

It has taken immense effort to get the government and political parties, especially the ruling ANC, to take note of the public’s views and to change course when these view differ from those in the centres of power. Government and political parties have a history of doing whatever they want — from the nuclear deal, laws vesting untrammelled powers in traditional authorities, and selling municipal land to private property speculators to keeping Jacob Zuma as president of the country. They ignore people’s outcries. Or they generate selective evidence to support their narratives and contradict lived experiences.

There’s another set of questions. Does government take organised civil society seriously? What is, and should be, civil society’s role?

It has taken extraordinary effort — marches, litigation, reports — to get the attention of the powerful. Organisations such as Right2Know, the Land and Accountability Research Centre, Section27 and numerous locally based organisations and movements have played a critical role in speaking truth to political power, and sometimes representing those who are ineligible to state power.

We are now faced with the same questions. Will governments at national, provincial and local levels change their attitude towards people? Will they make an effort to understand the people living in this country and the civil society organisations that try to amplify people’s voices —the ones that government often chooses not to see or to hear?

In his 2018 State of the Nation address, Ramaphosa quoted Hugh Masekela’s song Thuma Mina, portraying himself as a president who goes door to door listening to the people’s grievances. In this spirit, he signalled the intention to hold a civil society summit, which never materialised. In the 2019 State of the Nation speech, he made a strong call for civil society to continue to play its role in holding government to account and to “join us in practical actions to achieve our common goals”.

These are promising gestures, yet government’s actions suggest that it considers consensus between itself and the private sector sufficient to move the country forward. Investment and other summits between government and business are important. The danger is that they may quickly become self-serving and self-righteous echo chambers where the voices of most South Africans will never be heard. The National Economic Development and Labour Council — the government’s vehicle to promote co-operation between business, labour and the public — is not working.

Under-resourced and shrinking as they are, civil society organisations have been and will continue to hold a mirror to government and business. They reframe how issues of poverty, inequality, equitable access to resources and to being seen and heard are legible to those who hold public power. They try to offer alternatives to solutions developed in echo chambers and reach their hands out to government to offer partnership.

The civil society conference on October  23, organised by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and the Public Affairs Research Institute (Pari), is an attempt to offer a view from civil society’s perspective on what needs to be done to overcome state capture and to reform the state in key areas; to build resilient institutions that will more effectively serve the needs of the country, especially its most vulnerable people.

Civil society is hoping government will take the extended hand of partnership. For too long, discussions that affect the lives of all South Africans have been made by a small elite, and decisions are presented to us as final. We can no longer continue to allow governments to render us spectators in decisions about our lives. We must reclaim meaningful participation in our democracy.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Tracy Ledger are researchers at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI).

Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi
Dr Tracy Ledger

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