Twenty-eight years since the first democratic Parliament sat in Cape Town, we continue to have a Parliament that is activist, responsive and determined to make a difference in the lives of our people.
As our democracy has matured, there are a number of facets of our political life that we often take for granted. One of these is the principle of participatory democracy, where every South African is able to meaningfully participate in the decisions that affect their lives.
A great example of this principle in practice is the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) annual programme of ‘Taking Parliament to the People’, which was held last week in the Ugu District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal.
During the week, NCOP members held public hearings on issues affecting communities in the district, ranging from crime and safety to housing to water to economic development. The programme ended last Friday with a formal plenary sitting of the NCOP opened by the President and attended by hundreds of community members.
Last week’s programme showed how effective the NCOP is in coordinating between the three spheres of government.
Representatives of national, provincial and local government were involved in the community interactions and were able to assist with many of the issues raised.
In this way, Parliament is contributing to the building of participatory democracy. Not only are citizens able to vote every five years for their representatives. They are also able to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.
In South Africa today, no law can be passed or amended, no development can proceed, and no policy can achieve consensus without the input and participation of the South African people.
This is premised on the understanding that those who are affected by a decision have the right to be involved in the decision-making. Community members are able to engage directly with government officials and other stakeholders and challenge them on decisions that may adversely impact them.
Public participation in our democracy is not done in a superficial manner.
This is evident not only in the substance of the laws that are passed, but also in the manner that laws are considered and debated.
Before any law is passed, parliamentary committees invite submissions from the public and hold hearings – often in communities – to gather people’s views on the proposed legislation.
In recent times, we have seen communities asserting their rights in various ways. The environmental impact assessment process, for example, requires meaningful consultation with a range of interested and affected parties before an authorisation for a development is granted. This provision has supported grassroots citizen activism seeking to protect their communities and the environment against harmful practices.
This year I have led five Presidential Izimbizo, in North West, Free State, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Northern Cape. Through these izimbizo, citizens have an opportunity to engage directly with mayors, Premiers, MECs, Ministers and the President.
These engagements are interactive and at times robust. They are an important tool of accountability because the respective officials are expected to report back directly and in public to the people on what they are doing to fix their challenges.
As we work to implement the District Development Model across the country, platforms for public participation help to make citizens partners in their own development.
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We are trying to move away from ‘parachuted’ development, where projects are planned in offices hundreds of kilometres away from communities and do not take into account the particular needs of those communities. There is a complaint in some quarters that public participation in decision-making is cumbersome, protracted and holds back development.
To the contrary. We come from a past where citizens were completely disempowered by a repressive order that had no regard for the impact of its laws on those most affected by it. We come from a past where companies could build factories and industries with no regard to whether they would damage people’s health, endanger their lives or pollute their environment.
We should be proud that in South Africa today, every citizen has a voice and has ways to hold decision-makers to account, be they lawmakers, businesses or the President.
Public participation enables the state to make better decisions. It builds trust between the government, communities and stakeholders. It empowers citizens with the knowledge that their voices are heard.
Public participation in decision-making is democracy itself.