Wednesday, March 30, 2011

South Africa: Challenges to Public Participation in South Africa’s Parliament

Source: ISS
Challenges to Public Participation in South Africa’s Parliament
Hopolang Selebalo, Junior Researcher,

ISS Cape Town Office

In his 2011 State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma thanked South Africans who have used various social media platforms such as facebook and twitter and direct contact to communicate their concerns and needs. However, does this go far enough? Increasingly public participation in South Africa is being viewed as a dialogue between the Executive and the people. However a modern constitutional democracy should rather promote participatory governance between the electorate and their representatives in Parliament, provincial legislatures and local councils. This would break a growing tendency where the President and his cabinet alone are seen to be a voice of authority which can address the problems of ordinary people.

As a platform for public participation, Parliament should lead the way in taking forward the concept of public participation with more rigour in 2011. At present the institution’s efforts appear to have stagnated. This despite specific initiatives and programmes designed to ensure that Parliament facilitates public involvement in all its functions in order to best represent the people of South Africa, as enshrined in the Constitution.

Public participation is imperative in facilitating Parliament’s role of oversight within the Executive – it allows citizens to put to practise their Constitutional right in holding government departments and parastatals accountable for their actions. This means that Parliamentary committees need to inform the public of the outcomes of their oversight visits, take into consideration input from the public about any discrepancies within their constituencies and ensure that civil servants responsible for mismanagement and corruption are held to account. Numerous challenges exist in terms of public expenditure (including qualified audits by the Auditor General and chronic under and over spending in some instances) with Ministers often reluctant to disclose or unable to explain how funds have been spent within their departments. One example is Minister of Defence, Lindiwe Sisulu, who was recently rebuked for her non-attendance at committee hearings with the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, to clarify on the dire state of her department’s finances.

Janine Hicks, of the Centre for Public Participation states that, public involvement is strengthened through various means, such as the deployment of Members of Parliament (MPs) to constituencies, convening public hearings on legislation being debated by portfolio committees, and calling for oral and written submissions. Parliamentary Democracy Offices have also been created to facilitate the process of active participation. Public events such as the ‘Taking Parliament to the People’ programme are also convened, in order to enable dialogue between citizens and their representatives.

The primary factors that hinder the effectiveness of initiatives are the socio-economic conditions of a large proportion of South Africans, and the manner in which these initiatives are implemented. Disadvantaged communities are often marginalised from decision-making processes due to various factors such as, time constraints, limited access to the media, and lack of education.

In terms of socio-economic factors, time plays a crucial role in the lack of public involvement in parliamentary processes. As the Report of the Independent Panel Assessment of Parliament states; time is an important cost to poorer sections of the population, especially to women and those who are employed. Onerous time obligations preclude active participation in anything beyond basic survival and the maintenance of livelihood. This situation is further exacerbated by the institution’s inability to provide sufficient time to allow the public to prepare oral and written submissions- often providing them with three weeks or less- which affects their capacity to make significant inputs in any legislative process. This was best exemplified by the short window period given to the public to make submissions on the Protection of Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill), which was timed to coincide with the 2010 FIFA World Cup when national attention was distracted from pressing long-term issues. The lack of public consultation only exacerbated resistance to the Bill amongst community organisations who saw it as an attempt to stop the free flow of access to information by poor communities.

In some instances it is perceived that the public is deliberately excluded from the legislative process by Parliament. Out of exasperation, civil society organisations and ordinary members of the public turn to the Constitutional Court for remedy, where laws are passed without thorough public consultation. An example of this is the 2004 Communal Land Rights Act. In this case four rural communities argued that not only had they been excluded from the law-making process, but that the outcome was unconstitutional. The Constitutional Court invalidated the means in which the law was passed as provinces were excluded from playing a role that the Constitution assigns them in passing of legislation that affects their constituents.

Limited access to the media has also impacted negatively on some communities’ ability to access information regarding Parliament. Rural communities are in dire need of information regarding their rights and any new legislation that could have an impact on their lives. Accessibility to resources, such as the internet, remains limited. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that parliamentary events, such as public hearings, are often poorly advertised, once again, leaving insufficient time to allow public participation and thorough debates.

The establishment of constituency offices and Parliamentary Democracy Offices (PDOs) to enhance public participation and bring parliament to the people have had mixed results. Janine Hicks states that constituency offices do not liaise adequately with communities, and are ineffective in gathering and channelling community concerns to designated MPs. In addition, the role of constituency offices is politicised because of their links with political parties, making them inaccessible to certain groups within communities.

Parliamentary Democracy Offices are situated in relatively under-resourced areas to ensure that marginalised groups are also able to take part in parliamentary processes. However, these offices also face some problems. One of these includes the overlap of roles and responsibilities between the constituency offices and the PDO’s. This will most likely lead to a waste of state resources due to the duplication of work.

Participatory events such as the ‘Taking Parliament to the People’ programme are vital in bridging the gap between the institution and its citizens, reaching rural communities and those who would otherwise be unable to participate in law-making and oversight processes. It is imperative that the contributions made by the public during these events are taken into account and communicated to the committees themselves, a dimension that is currently missing.

While it is evident that Parliament has made attempts to contribute in creating a ‘Parliament for the People’ these initiatives become meaningless if there is no will from parliamentarians to enhance public participation through active example. This is exemplified by MPs visiting their constituencies, but not sharing the feedback with the relevant government departments. There are several issues in terms of implementation that need to be examined in order to make these effective. Parliament should strengthen these initiatives to ensure broader public participation if it is to play a meaningful role in promoting accountability.