Public participation: more than a tick-box exercise

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[av_heading heading=’PUBLIC PARTICIPATION’ tag=’h2′ style=’blockquote modern-quote modern-centered’ size=” subheading_active=’subheading_below’ subheading_size=’18’ padding=’10’ color=” custom_font=” admin_preview_bg=”]
It’s more than a tick-box excercise
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By Gillian Hamilton

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In our previous feature ‘Public Participation: more than just elections’, we provided suggestions of how South Africans can be active citizens and take part in the decisions that affect the future of our society. In this feature, we explore whether public participation in South Africa is meaningful and effective, and we consider what the climate crisis has in common with the state of democracy in the country.

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As part of the Action 24 ProjectBroader and effective participation of South African Civil Society in Environmental Governance’ implemented with co-funding from the European Union, a situation analysis was conducted on public participation within the Parliament of South Africa as well the Provincial Legislatures of Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Western Cape. This study explores the various mechanisms that exist for public participation in the South African legislative sector, and examines how well the public is able to engage in law-making and oversight processes.

Public participation in democratic processes is primarily aimed at influencing decision-making so that the outcome ultimately reflects the will of the people. This implies that public participation isn’t just a tick-box exercise. It must be meaningful and inclusive to really serve its purpose.

The South African legislative sector has adopted a public participation framework that gives structure and guidance on how to foster, in practice, public involvement in its work. However, the results of a 2016/17 independent survey on public participation cited by the Parliament of South Africa are rather disturbing. They indicate that only 9.5% of South Africans are aware of the processes of Parliament and only 8.7% of the population participates in parliamentary processes. Our experience so far is that even fewer South Africans are aware of the processes at their Provincial Legislatures and only a handful of citizens engage with these provincial institutions – although we don’t have statistics to corroborate this.
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The Action 24 research identified a number of challenges in terms of how public participation is being implemented in a meaningful way in South Africa. They include limited resources on the Legislature side, lack of public interest or knowledge, insufficient information shared with the public to allow them to make decisions, poor communication by the Legislatures regarding public participation opportunities, inadequacy of some engagement platforms, and poor feedback from the Legislatures. For example, the Gauteng Provincial Legislature reports that it had 305 unresolved petitions by the end of financial year 2016/2017, of which 182 were a backlog from the period 2008-2015. Petitions are one of the most advertised forms of public participation by the legislatures, perhaps because they provide a relatively accessible and direct mechanism for South Africans to raise grievances or request assistance on issues of public interest. Such a backlog is therefore symptomatic of the limitations of the most “popular” avenue for public participation with the Legislatures.

The literature review and interviews conducted for the Action 24 situation analysis reveal that there is a (perceived) disconnect between participation and the public’s contributions actually influencing government decisions and actions. In fact, public participation is frequently seen as window-dressing in South Africa. This is likely to create a vicious circle, where public engagement with Parliament and the Provincial Legislatures drops as people feel that their opinions aren’t taken into account.

If public participation in South Africa is not influencing decision-making processes, it is likely that decisions are not reflecting the will of the people and so it stands to reason that our current state of democracy is questionable. Two examples spring to mind here.

The first one is related to the draft Integrated Resource Plan 2018 update, recently released for comment by the Department of Energy. The previous iteration of the draft released last year was met with discontent and extensive input from civil society, local government and industry. While the most recent draft somewhat reflects some of these comments, we believe it still does not fully align with the will of the people and will have devastating impacts on the environment.

The second example is a finding from the report by the South African Human Rights Commission on the socio-economic challenges of communities affected by mining in South Africa. It delves into the damage that mining activities in the country are posing to both human rights and the environment, and the role government plays in perpetuating these human rights abuses.
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[av_heading heading=’“Meaningful participation must, both through process and outcome, seek to legitimise process and ensure that needs are understood and addressed between all stakeholders, creating accessible open, representative and inclusive platforms through which consultation occurs for impact driven outcomes. Meaningful consultation should not be confined to a tick-box exercise.” ‘ tag=’h5′ style=’blockquote classic-quote’ size=” subheading_active=’subheading_below’ subheading_size=’15’ padding=’10’ color=” custom_font=” admin_preview_bg=”]
– South African Human Rights Commission, 2018
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Public participation is a building block of South Africa’s democracy. It is crucial to ensure that it is meaningful in order to address the social, economic and environmental challenges we are facing today. However, the current public participation processes and mechanisms in South Africa are proving insufficient to tackle paramount challenges such as climate change. As former US Vice President Al Gore says, “To fix the climate crisis, we need to fix democracy”.

For meaningful public participation on environmental issues, the provision of adequate and accurate information coupled with the necessary budgetary support from government are necessary. In the meantime, Action 24 project partners and other civil society organisations will continue to educate and inform the public on sustainability issues and engagement opportunities. Both are essential to empower citizens to participate meaningfully.
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