Active citizenry must be developed

Officials of the African National Congress led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, held a Cake Cutting Ceremony and Birthday Celebration yesterday, 08 January 2020 at the Galeshewe Mayibuye Multi Purpose Centre in Kimberley. Seen is President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing residents outside of the building after the event, as the venue was full to capacity inside. Picture: Danie van der Lith 

The African National Congress’s (ANC) January 8 Statement for 2020 lists a number of priorities for the ruling party to deliver on in 2020.  The first on the list emphasises and talks to citizens holding political office bearers (politicians) accountable.  This is mentioned in relation to the loss of the public confidence and trust in public institutions such as state-owned enterprises (SOEs) due to mismanagement, state capture and corruption.  Particular reference is made to the crisis at Eskom and the impact this has had on the economy and transformation.

 This is a welcomed statement, particularly in the light of revelations of alleged corruption from the various commissions of enquiry.  The encouragement of active citizenry in the decision-making processes in government institutions and holding elected political representatives accountable, could be seen as an acknowledgement that better accountability and oversight measures must be put in place to avoid state capture, corruption and wasteful and fruitless expenditure.

The principle element that assures good government is the accountability of politicians and public officials. They must be obligated to inform about and to explain what they are doing with the funds for which they are accountable. However, how is it possible for citizens to know of and hold accountable the myriad decisions taking place in government?

South Africa’s constitutional democracy is both representative and participatory in its nature.  Meaning that, other than citizens voting every few years, citizens can also participate in the making of laws and policies and when oversight is conducted at parliament, the nine provincial legislatures and municipal councils. 

Another key feature of South Africa’s democracy is that it is also based on the doctrine separations of powers.  This means that there are three branches of government, namely, the legislature (Parliament, nine provincial legislatures and municipal councils), the executive (government) and the judiciary (courts).  These branches function independently of each other.  There may be a degree of overlap in functions.  The purpose of this division is to ensure that not one institution holds all the power and to create a system of checks and balances.  The doctrine is important as the political party with the most votes governs the country through the executive and the legislatures either at a national, provincial or local level.  

Checks and balances between the legislature and the executive, come in the form of the executive reporting to the legislatures on how it has used the monies allocated to it.  For example, Eskom would report to the Committee on Public Enterprises.  The process usually involves a department or public entity, referring its audited financial statements to the legislature.  The relevant committee will interrogate these statements, through politicians asking questions.  Committees have to approve for adoption in the National Assembly, budgets allocated to departments and public entities.  Committees also conduct oversight through visiting the premises or projects undertaken by departments and public entities. 

It is said that the true test of any democracy is the extent to which the legislature can ensure that the executive and government remains answerable to the people. No doubt, service delivery protests amongst others are indications that ordinary citizens want to be in a position to hold political representatives across all spheres of government accountable and have a say in decisions affecting their lives.  An invitation to the public for comments on laws is no longer sufficient.  Particularly, where comments are seemingly looked at and exited into an abyss. 

Which brings us back to the question of how citizens can hold politicians and through them public officials, accountable.  Several constitutional courts cases have stated and the constitution itself has obligated legislatures to involve the public in its processes.  In terms of sections 59, 72, 118 and 152 of the Constitution, Parliament, the Legislatures and Municipal Councils, are mandated to conduct their affairs openly and involve the public in their business.  The legislative arm of government is meant to be the voice of the people in the three branches of government in South Africa’s constitutional democracy. 

The legislative arm of government must therefore find ways of involving the public in its processes, particularly when public institutions report to it.  This is not a form of co-governance; however, a social contract is entered into between voters and political parties during elections.  If a contract is breached, voters must be in a position to hold political parties and politicians accountable.  Holding political parties and politicians accountable cannot only happen every few years during elections. 

This is why civic education is vital, as without it, ordinary citizens will not be able to participate fully in South Africa’s democracy.  South Africa, through education, could develop a society with a culture of participation, where citizens are well organised and can have a say in and influence decisions affecting their lives.  Understandings and linkages are established and maintained.  There is transparency in decision-making.  Would transparency and participation not lead to better accountability of politicians and public servants?  

Academics, business and policymakers accept that good governance and accountability are necessary preconditions for successful economic development.  This view is echoed in the ANC’s January 8 statement, that is: “An active citizenry is vi­tal for our country to succeed”.  However, active citizenry will not happen by itself, nor will it happen overnight.  Participation models need to be developed and tested.  Relationships, understandings and linkages with stakeholders need to be established and nurtured.  This will not only provide citizens with the opportunity to hold politicians accountable but also an opportunity to have a say in and influence decisions affecting their lives.


Zelna Jansen is the Chief Executive of Zelna Jansen Consultancy, a lobbying and advocacy firm bringing people together to find solutions.