Batons or Ballots? Pursuing active citizenship and an interactive state

KATE LEFKO-EVERETT reports on a recent public dialogue hosted by the SA Reconciliation Barometer project.

Early last month, government announced that 9–15 November would be ‘Public Participation Week’, marked by an imbizo drive around the country. According to Government Communications and Information Services (GCIS), during Public Participation Week ‘government ministers, provincial and local government leaders’ would ‘mobilise communities around the country to form stronger and active partnership with government’, in order to ‘accelerate the implementation of programming’ and ‘allow communities to suggest solutions to the challenges they are experiencing’. Focus, GCIS reports, was to be placed on ‘reasserting communities as co-creators of solutions with the support of government’.

The launch of Public Participation Week is consistent with an emphasis on revitalising participatory democracy within President Zuma’s administration since the election in April. In his first State of the Nation Address, President Zuma committed government to becoming ‘more interactive’, and called on citizens to become more active as well. Citizenship, he stated, is ‘not only about rights, it is also about responsibility’. The medium-term strategic framework for 2009–2014 proposes that these twin goals should be achieved through, among other strategies, reviewing public participation systems, involving citizens in governance and service provision, and civic education.

However, achieving these goals may prove difficult: the Public Service Commission’s (PSC) 2009 State of the Public Service report raises concerns over ‘inadequacies in the nature and extent of government-citizen engagement in the country’. The PSC has also described service delivery protests in recent years as reflective of ‘chasms in participatory governance’.

The IJR’s Reconciliation Barometer survey has also shown declining citizen confidence in government and public institutions in recent years, and 59% of respondents in 2009 felt those in leadership are ‘not really concerned’ about ordinary South Africans.

Further, since elections, widespread protests have continued unabated, with some turning violent and destructive. Many South Africans appear either unaware of opportunities for the kind of ‘active citizenship’ President Zuma has called for, or unwilling to make use of these opportunities. And given the PSC’s finding that public participation mechanisms remain ineffectual in many government departments, can citizens really be expected to make use of these channels?

These issues were the focus of a public dialogue hosted by the SA Reconciliation Barometer project on 11 October in Cape Town. Edited versions of the panelists’ opening remarks are published below.


Let me start by saying that this topic has much more to do with life than simply a dialogue on the ‘Chapter Nine’ institutions. It’s much more fundamental. It has to do with the bodies South Africa has elevated to constitutional status, and the role they play in ensuring that people don’t consider themselves ‘outsiders’. What we are talking about is a democratic deficit.

In some countries, the democratic deficit results in a frontal assault on civil liberties. The democratic deficit in South Africa is within a specific context. I remember an extraordinary statement that Nelson Mandela once made, over 50 years ago, about treating people like objects – you do things to objects. Now, we must recognise that every person is a subject with a capacity to change his or her environment. In our young democracy, how do we ensure that the individual is not an outsider, and finds his or her worth together with others?

Throughout my whole life I have witnessed mobilisation, wherein people have taken their destiny into their own hands. In 1946, hundreds of Indian women faced the baton charges of the police in opposition to racial group areas. During the Defiance Campaign, more than eight thousand people faced imprisonment – I saw them marching through my own small town, which politicised me. Thousands of people canvassed around the Freedom Charter, and later the founding of the United Democratic Front. And then, the battle to make apartheid ungovernable.

We have lost the élan, the remarkable mood and the special perspective we had in 1994. Now, the important thing is what we do with the fruit of our mobilisation – our representative government.

We don’t have the direct democracy of the Greeks or the Romans, which limited governance to a few hundred people and excluded most. Dr Mamphela Ramphele has argued that sovereignty rests with the citizen, but I suggest that it does not – otherwise, we would have capital punishment, no abortion rights, no real equality and more xenophobia.

In South Africa, sovereignty rests with the Constitution. Citizens are not sovereign, neither are they outsiders, as the Constitution entrenches their rights. Columnist Jabulani Sikhakhane has called the presidential hotline a direct assault on popular participation, because citizens are treated as victims. After apartheid, the proudest thing we have is our treatment as citizens, and that’s why I see the right to dignity as the most important constitutional value.

What we need is more accountability and accessibility, and to be more rigorous. Oversight must be conducted in a way to ensure that government’s actions satisfy people’s trust. One of apartheid’s biggest crimes was geographic separation, and we still can’t reach each other. The challenge to government, and all of us, is to instill a sense of belonging and shared goals. Tackling poor delivery, is not just about water and sanitation, or housing or jobs, it’s a sense that it’s what people say and do which matters and the extent to which we listen.

The path to a peaceful and prosperous society is through the unleashing of the energy of citizens. The Preamble to the Constitution says that we must free the potential of our people. No development can therefore be sustainable unless it involves those who stand to benefit from it.

We know from our own struggle that apartheid said, ‘we will decide for you, one way or another’. So, we owe it to all those who sacrificed so much to enjoy this freedom to work towards a true constitutional democracy – not the people’s democracy, as we believed 25 years ago, which would have resulted in a one-party state, but a constitutional democracy, in which the citizens exercise their rights and express their desires and needs freely, and where they are treated with dignity.


In answering the questions of whether South Africans actively participate in public life and if an interactive state has been achieved, it is important to distinguish between participation in formal policy-making processes and the engagement with citizens on their day-to-day concerns.

Parliament and the legislatures have involved the public in legislative processes, and public hearings are a critical step in the consideration of draft legislation.

Within government, a number of participatory mechanisms have become commonplace, including national and provincial izimbizo, citizen satisfaction surveys, ward committees, integrated development planning forums, and links between communities and government through community development workers.

These mechanisms are largely driven by the executive and not public servants. Research by the Human Sciences Research Council has found that izimbizo are well-received and positively assessed by citizens, although the Public Service Commission (PSC) has also found that insufficient feedback is given to communities about how their concerns have been addressed.

Further, public participation cannot be restricted to these events alone. Service delivery is undertaken by public servants, but often delivery units do not consult with citizens on the specifics of their service area, although there are some exceptions.

Meaningful public participation in policy development also requires access to information. PSC studies show that compliance with basic prescripts, such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act, is inadequate. While many departments adequately communicate basic information through annual reports, media statements and programmes of action – often using the internet – many do not have the necessary systems in place to handle requests from the public for more specific information.

PSC research has also found that government departments’ understanding of the concept of public consultation is not aligned with White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery. Consultation is limited to information-sharing, discussions and conferences, and not the consultation about the level and quality of public services as an integral part of the service delivery approach that the White Paper envisioned.

Among departments, the capacity to facilitate effective public participation is inadequate. In a sample of five national and eleven provincial departments, the PSC found that 38% had no budget for public participation, and none of the officials responsible for public participation in any of the sixteen departments had been trained in effective engagement with citizens on policy development and implementation.

A clear step in improving interactions between citizens and the state would be to ensure that public servants have the necessary skills, capacity and confidence to effectively facilitate public participation. As raised in the 2009 State of the Public Service report, this requires an understanding that: powerful and well-organised citizens may drown out other voices; open engagement processes can lead to polarization; public participation may cause delays in decision-making; and that citizens often have an inadequate understanding of economic realities. Unless public servants are skilled in these areas, public participation may achieve very little.

The PSC has also recommended that government departments develop clear policies on public participation objectives and processes, and establish public participation units that are adequately funded and staffed. Departments should also make use of the PSC’s Citizen Forums Toolkit, and of the findings of citizen satisfaction surveys to review and improve service delivery.

To conclude, public participation is critical to sustainable development and effective service delivery, and deepens democracy by ensuring that citizen views are registered and workable solutions are identified. Participation also fosters a sense of ownership and self-worth. Therefore, it is critical that citizens, as both service users and active role-players in planning processes, are afforded ample opportunity to play a meaningful role.


Advocate Tseliso ThipanyaneThe notions of participatory democracy and an interactive state are rooted in the ancient African principles, morena ke morena ka batho and motho ke motho ka batho. They were captured in the Freedom Charter through the well-known provision, ‘the people shall govern’, and are now entrenched in our Constitution. The Preamble provides for a ‘democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people’, while sections 59, 72 and 118 require public involvement in legislative processes.

The principle of participatory democracy has also been endorsed by the Constitutional Court in two major decisions. In Doctors for Life International v Speaker of the National Assembly, Justice Ngcobo found that ‘our democracy includes, as one of its basic and fundamental principles, the principle of participatory democracy’, and that ‘Parliament must therefore function in accordance with the principles of our participatory democracy’.

In Matatiele v President of South Africa, the Constitutional Court also identified a number of benefits of participatory democracy, including: greater citizen involvement in public affairs; support for government institutions; legitimacy of the law; greater civic dignity when citizen views are taken into account; and a counterweight to lobbying and political influence in a context of high levels of inequality.

Numerous public and constitutional institutions have been established to enable participation in public affairs, including the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Office of the Public Protector (OPP), and the Electoral Commission – which supports multiparty democracy – amongst many others.

However, 15 years into democracy, to what extent are our people actively involved in matters of governance, and is the environment enabling and conducive?

Reasonably high participation rates in three national democratic elections suggest that South Africans are generally active participants in public life. Media participation, including through print and radio, is another good indicator in this regard. Recent public protests over service delivery, labour strikes and unrest, though unfortunate where loss of life or property occurs, are another indicator.

Behind these protests is a lack of confidence among citizens in the institutions meant to address their concerns and  pursue redress. Our people fail to use these institutions and make them work. However, government, especially civil servants, could be more responsive to people’s needs and concerns, particularly over service delivery. The media could also play a better role in this regard.

There is a need to raise awareness of bodies like the SAHRC and the OPP, which were established to be a voice and defend people against rights violations, as well as government failure to advance rights, especially those pertaining to socio-economic rights and safety.

These institutions must be made more effective through public pressure. But it is equally important that they are adequately resourced and supported – there would be fewer violent public protests if these and other bodies were more effective.

Failure to increase appreciation for participatory democracy by government, public institutions, the media and the public poses a threat to our democracy and national security. Our people fought for freedom and democracy and will not sit quietly for long without meaningful and material changes in their lives and their country, and if their views are not taken seriously by those they elected into government. As proclaimed by heads of state at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, ‘Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually enforcing. Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.’


Advocate Mamiki ShaiI wish to discuss three important subjects, which I regard as the basis for active citizenship: wise democratic processes; collective intelligence; and co-citizenship.

Wise democratic processes have been described as those which utilize social diversity to ‘deepen shared understanding and produce outcomes of long-term benefit to the whole community or society’. The Centre for Wise Democracy suggests that public participation can either ‘enhance or degrade the collective intelligence and wisdom involved in democratic processes such as making collective decisions, solving social problems, and creating shared visions’.

The Office of the Public Protector (OPP) and other Chapter Nine institutions serve to strengthen South Africa’s constitutional democracy, and ensure a system of good governance devoted to the rule of law, fair dealing, accountability and transparency, and an effective public administration. A democratic government must operate within the law, promote the rights and liberties of citizens, and encourage public participation. The OPP specifically works to ensure good governance and democratic principles in the public administration.

Citizens who identify maladministration, abuse of power and mismanagement in government can communicate these to the OPP, which investigates and takes remedial action.

The OPP’s constitutional mandate also includes community outreach, although we encounter real challenges related to public participation and active citizenship. We conduct workshops, public hearings, public education and advocacy, and reach out to remote areas through mobile clinics, from almost-forgotten rural border areas, to small settlements, townships and the suburbs.

However, it is painful to observe that in our experience, it doesn’t matter how one approaches communities, or how many pamphlets are distributed, if these do not bring answers to their immediate concerns. A hungry and thirsty person needs food and clean water, then you can discuss shelter, education and health services, then active citizenship and democratic participation. Then he will listen and participate. Communities desperately need an adequate standard of living and guarantees of socio-economic rights. One must ask, ‘What is the value of rights and liberties if you can’t access them?’

It is a challenge to institutions such as ours to see uprisings over service delivery when mechanisms exist to allow citizens to make inputs, participate and reform government. The public may not believe they can influence decision-making, may lack confidence in the responsiveness of government, or may not be well-informed about rights, responsibilities and active citizenship.

I suggest that we need to re-craft our participatory democratic processes, inspired by the theory of ‘collective intelligence’.

We need responsible transformational agencies in communities, to teach people to actively participate, even on a hungry stomach. We need to inspire South Africans to share common concerns, even when we are not directly affected. This is co-citizenship.

At a conference in 2003, I became aware of institutions that provide citizenship education to adults, to develop knowledge, understand public life and inspire critical independent thinking. I would like to share the following principles of public participation developed by the Centre for Wise Democracy: ‘include all relevant perspectives; empower the people’s engagement; invoke multiple forms of knowing; ensure high quality dialogue; establish ongoing participatory processes; use positions and proposals as grist; and, help people feel fully heard.’ [1]

Lastly, I appeal that we all take part in understanding constitutional democracy and its principles, learn and live the habit of transforming others when we are advantaged and empowered – especially with information and education – and encourage active public participation among our fellow citizens.

Kate Lefko-Everett is Project Leader of the SA Reconciliation Barometer project at the IJR.

[1] See A New strategy for social change, Centre for Wise Democracy,

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