Parliament, in its own words, “is the place where the members of Parliament [MPs] look after your interests.” It is only just, therefore, that Parliament allows public participation and oversight so that people can rest assured that MPs do indeed have the nation’s interests at heart.
This is vital in a well-functioning democracy, because MPs are elected to represent the people of the country, and act as the voice of the people. “Parliament, therefore, is accountable to the people of South Africa.”
In the Journal of Public Administration, Sonwabo Stuurman of the Nelson Mandela University writes: “In the context of South Africa, public participation is a critical and most essential tool that is used to foster good governance, accountability, and transparency that inevitably leads to better and efficient service delivery.”
True public participation, Stuurman adds, becomes a cornerstone and a significant pillar of democracy, especially in the South African context where the majority were excluded for so long. It is essential that people have a say in governance matters which affect them.
There are various ways in which citizens can get involved with the various structures and institutions of democracy; these include voting, contacting a political representative such as a ward councillor, campaigning or demonstrating around issues that concern them, and taking part in political processes such as calls for comment on legislation.
Parliament’s own public participation model reflects on the principles of public involvement as having the following benefits:
- Promotes active and representative participation towards enabling all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives;
- Engages community members in learning and understanding community issues, and the economic, social, environmental, political, psychological, and other associated courses of action;
- Incorporates the diverse interests and cultures of the community in the development process, and disengages from support of any effort that is likely to adversely affect the disadvantaged members of a community;
- Actively enhances the leadership capacity of community members, leaders and groups within the community; and
- Utilises a community’s diversity to deepen shared understanding and produce outcomes of long-term benefit to the whole community or society.
The People’s Assembly (PA) website, which works in conjunction with the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), provides five easy ways in which you, the public, can exercise your democratic and constitutional rights to hold our government to account, some of which were already mentioned. They are informatively described in a PA infographic:
- Write to an MP or write to a committee. Committees are an important venue for parliamentary activities. They are the site where most of Parliament’s business is organised. They provide a platform for the public to engage with lawmakers directly. Members of the public can influence committee programmes as citizens have a right to proactively lobby for their concerns to be included in the programme and to highlight what issues should be prioritised. Further, they can provide parliamentary committees with on-the-ground feedback and expert information. Write to a committee or write to an MP who is mandated to a committee that deals with your particular issue.
- Visit a constituency office. All members of Parliament are required to be present in their assigned constituency offices on Mondays, and all week during constituency periods when Parliament is on recess. Constituency offices exist so that members of the public can talk directly to their representatives regarding service delivery issues. Members of the public can find out where their local constituency office is by using People’s Assembly’s RepLocator. The RepLocator is a geolocator that finds the nearest office to you when you input your address.
- Follow social media accounts like PMG Twitter, PA Twitter, and PA Instagram. There are many ways to keep track of Parliamentary activities and politics. The more traditional route is to read government gazettes, regularly check Parliament’s website and read the latest political news. Another more accessible route is to follow relevant social media accounts where updates are provided and shared regularly from a variety of sources. For example, you can find helpful information on People’s Assembly’s Twitter and Instagram, as well as the Parliamentary Monitoring Group’s Twitter.
- Respond to calls for comments. When Parliament considers legislation, the Constitution dictates that they are required to consult with the public. Citizens can voice their concerns with, or support for drafted legislation by making written submissions to Parliament. You can find calls for comments on PMG’s website, and you can find guidance on making submissions on People’s Assembly’s blog.
- Start a petition. A petition is a written complaint or request to Parliament or a provincial legislature seeking its intervention or assistance. Most petitions relate to service delivery issues. There are two types of petitions: public petitions and special petitions. A public petition is when a group of citizens with similar interests request general relief or redress of a grievance. A special petition is when an individual makes a specific request or asks for personal relief from the State, which is not authorised by law, such as access to a pension. Find out more on People’s Assembly’s blog.
The People’s Assembly website aims to “promote accountability and bridge the gap between ordinary people and their elected representatives. It seeks to promote a greater public voice and enhance public participation in politics by providing information about our elected representatives and the institutions they serve, and even allow you, the citizen, to provide feedback”.
A sixth way to get involved
Corruption Watch (CW) adds a sixth way to get involved: follow parliamentary proceedings such as portfolio committee meetings and interviews with candidates for leadership positions as part of the appointment process. All of these are streamed live on Parliament’s YouTube channel and Facebook profile, and allow members of the public to immediately pick up on anything they think might be questionable.
With so many people in South Africa having access to data and mobile devices, a plan can easily be made to follow the proceedings.
Since 2016, CW has advocated for transparent and fair appointment processes, specifically in the appointment of leaders to key crime and corruption fighting institutions in South Africa. It is partly due to our advocacy work around this matter that such interviews, which take place in Parliament, are now streamed for all to scrutinise.
The objectives of this work are largely to ensure that candidates are appointed in a transparent manner, assessed against clear merit-based and objective criteria, and that avenues for public participation in appointment processes are available. For instance, we wanted candidates’ CVs (redacted where necessary) to be published online so that the public could scrutinise and vet them.
It was during the appointment process for the fourth public protector that we launched this campaign, and while we supported the process itself because the outgoing public protector Thuli Madonsela had set a high standard and we were of the view that it should be maintained, we were not involved in the actual selection of a candidate and consequently did not take a stance on that specific aspect.
Since then we have conducted extensive public awareness and advocacy campaigns around transparency and merit-based selection in the appointments of the public protector, the national police commissioner, the executive director of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the inspector-general of intelligence, the deputy public protector, the auditor-general, the National Lotteries Commission board chairperson, South African Human Rights Commissioners, board members of the National Youth Development Agency, and members of the Commission on Gender Equality.
Keeping abreast of the daily happenings in Parliament through any or all of the methods outlined, especially when it comes to issues that interest or affect you, will ensure that you are aware of the latest developments and can participate fully in the democratic process. This is not only your right, but your duty as a citizen or resident.