Beyond voting, democracy needs ongoing public participation

The National Assembly (NA). Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

For any democracy to work, structures must be in place to ensure good governance.  Governance is the process whereby decisions are made and implemented or not implemented.  Some of the characteristics of good governance are participation, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency and the rule of law.   Good governance also promotes the minimization of corruption, the views of minorities are taken into account and the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making.

The participatory characteristic is likely the most important in good governance.  As without it, the other characteristics will be impacted.  The more participation, the more accountability, transparency, etc.  Participation ensures that citizens are involved in a process of decision making and implementation in some form or the other.

In terms of the Mo Ibrahim Index for African Governance 2018 report, South Africa, ranked number 7 for overall governance.  The Index assesses the performance of all 54 African countries, each year, in categories such as human rights, the rule of law, sustainable economic opportunities and human development.  In terms of human rights and participation, South Africa was at number 4 out of the 54 African countries.  However, in the first five months of 2018, a total of 144 service delivery protests were recorded.  The protests were against the lack of service delivery. 

Of course, not all countries can achieve good governance in totality, however, there must be measures in place to ensure actions are taken to work towards this ideal with the aim of making it a reality in the lives of ordinary citizens. 

In terms of the Constitution, South Africa’s democracy is both representative and participatory.  Voting in elections is important but one must not forget that there is a participatory element as well. As citizens when we vote, we endorse our political office bearers to act on our behalf.  There is this social contract that is established between political office bearers and the citizens they represent.  In terms of this invisible social contract, there is an expectation that the political representatives will do everything within their power to steer government towards the characteristics of good governance.  In that way, potholes will be fixed, social grants will be paid on time, etc.  The social contract does not give political representatives a free reign to make to decisions without consultations.  Citizens must guide them with comments and inputs on law and policy.  

Listening to the Minister of Finance delivering his Medium-Term Budget Policy Speech a few weeks ago, the question that came to mind was, how can the ordinary person become involved in this process of decision-making around fiscal policy?  Is it even possible? 

It may be impossible for a single individual as influencing law and policy is a strategic action that requires resources.  Unless, of course, it is a wealthy individual.  However, if many individuals with similar interest organise themselves, they can find measures of keeping themselves informed and influence decision making.  So too, communities can organise themselves amongst each other on issues of common interests and build linkages and understandings and thereby build social capital.   

Once communities have built these linkages and understandings, they will be in a better position to influence decision making, whether through their Municipal Councils, Legislatures or Parliament.   These three institutions are mandated by the Constitution to be the Voice of the People in the governing and decision-making processes.  In terms of sections 59, 72, 118 and 152 of the Constitution, Parliament, the Legislatures and Municipal Councils, are mandated to conducts its affairs openly and involve the public in its business.  Out of the three branches of government, it is the one that has the role of voicing the issues and concerns raised by the People in the governing process.

For example, it is not impossible for a community to influence fiscal policy.  National Treasury prepares government’s overall macroeconomic and fiscal policy, through coordination with provinces (particularly provincial treasuries) and other departments to compile the national budget.  Influencing this process could take place through a member of the Mayoral Committee, through to the provincial department and then through to National Treasury.

Ultimately, this sort of participation will lead to better governance and subsequently better decision making and implementation.  The drawback to this model, is that many communities and some community organisations do not have the know-how of how the process works and how to influence decision-making.  Nor do they have the necessary resources.

Knowledge of how to influence decision making can no longer be for a select few.  Parliament, the Legislatures and Municipal Councils must see the value in having educational programmes on how the process works and how it can be influenced.  Both short and long term.  For now, and future generations.  So too, business, NGOs and social organisations other than participating in the processes themselves must promote projects in civic education. 

A more active citizenship will lead to activists Municipal Councils, Legislatures and Parliament.  This is in everyone’s best interest as it will enhance the characteristics of good governance and deepen democracy.  Active citizenry and good governance are some of the characteristics potential investors consider before investing.  However, and more importantly, it also has the potential to drive nation building and cohesion that could possibly redefine governance in South Africa and hopefully Africa.


Zelna Jansen is the Chief Executive of Zelna Jansen Consultancy.