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Democracy must be from the ground up, not from the top down

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Most community protests are as a result of residents demonstrating because of a lack of consultation by the government before carrying out projects, despite officials submitting reports claiming that there has been a consultative meeting.


The phenomenon of “shutdown movements”, which have seen communities revolt against the government of the day, symbolise a trust deficit. Communities rightly feel they do not have a voice in the government.

Violent disruptions of Integrated Development Plan (IDP) meetings in communities such as Alexandra in Johannesburg are an indication of simmering anger among residents that has been brewing for some time.

The cornerstone of a thriving democracy rests on a government that is in a constant consultative mode with the people it serves. A public consultation process has to be authentic. It should not be a box-ticking exercise by public officials. Public participation is a two-way communication and collaborative problem-solving mechanism with the goal of achieving mutually acceptable decisions.

At the heart of this mechanism is the principle of inclusivity: it should afford all citizens who have a stake in the matter a chance to make input irrespective of their social or economic status.

Our history is one of minority interests excluding the majority, and it is this context that led the writers of the Constitution to embed public participation as a vital mechanism of government processes.

Most community protests are as a result of residents demonstrating because of a lack of consultation by the government before carrying out projects, despite officials submitting reports claiming that there has been a consultation meeting. The problem lies in the fact that the numbers are often not representative of the targeted population, and communication around scheduled meetings is often poor.

It is an undeniable fact that without the proper application of a deep and meaningful public consultation process, all that will come out is a greater breakdown of trust between communities and the government, who will be seen as trying to impose its will on the people.

It should never happen that there are more officials than community members in IDP consultation meetings.

Public participation is anchored on key principles of democracy: that government is of the people, by the people and for the people. When a government does not consult adequately or consults only to achieve compliance, it has effectively broken its contract with the very people it is supposed to serve. Such a government has no business being in power.

The intention of public participation provisions in the Constitution is clear: to influence government policy outcomes so that they reflect “the will of the people”. A vibrant civil society therefore plays an indispensable role in a participatory democracy. It facilitates public engagement between government entities, legislative bodies, and ensures that institutions, policies and laws enjoy legitimacy among citizens.

Consultation on a municipal IDP has to be sincere and not reduced to mere compliance through a box-ticking exercise. The voice of citizens ought to be reflected in the programmes of government.

IDP consultations are critical in nature as they deal with matters that directly affect residents including tariffs and budgets. The IDP process remains one of the most powerful spaces which communities can use to influence the direction they want their government to take and to influence service delivery imperatives.

In order to ensure rapid progress in service delivery, community-based planning needs to be the focus. A government’s priorities should be guided by the mandate of the people on the ground.

For this to work, councillors should hold regular meetings with all residents in their wards that ensure a constant dialogue between the people and their elected representative. This will ensure that the municipality’s programmes and projects are in tune with the needs of the community. It should never happen that the municipality priorities a community hall while the community’s immediate need is a clinic.

All of the efforts mentioned above would be futile in the absence of a properly functioning legislature that can hold the executive to account and ensure that proper service delivery is taking place.

Another piece of the puzzle is to ensure that ward committees are functional and serve their intended purpose. These structures need to be composed of a variety of community members who effectively represent all facets of the diversity we find in our country. Without this diversity of representation, ward committees are rendered ineffective and will never be able to serve their intended purpose.

Public participation, consultation and effecting the people’s wishes, within reason, of course, are the key ingredients of a thriving and responsive democracy. This is an ideal the Government of Local Unity in the City of Johannesburg is striving towards.

First published in the Daily Maverick of Johannesburg
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Nonceba Molwele is Speaker of Council in the City of Johannesburg. She has previously worked as a financial manager for Woolworths.
 

© Democracia Participativa / Participatory Democracy