South Africa: If Those in Power Do Not Listen Nor Care, They are Failing the Constitution

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Aug 3 14:37:58 UTC 2007


*If Those in Power Do Not Listen Nor Care, They are Failing the Constitution

*Cape Argus* (Cape Town)
2 August 2007
Posted to the web 2 August 2007

By Raenette Taljaard
Cape Town

In 1976 Soweto erupted. Violent protests and flying bullets robbed young
lives of their hopes, ideals and dreams. As images of Khutsong and
Kliptown's social unrest against slow service delivery flash over our
screens, they evoke painful memories. These incidents are not at all
comparable from a moral stand point, as they are taking place under the
tenure of a legitimate, elected government. But the imagery is alarmingly
similar and their message of mobilisation is the same. Whereas 1976 was
about the entire edifice of apartheid, albeit focused on language policies
in schools, 2007 is about aspirations and impatience with the government's
sluggish service delivery. Gauteng local government MEC Qedani Mahlangu,
though initially suggesting that people wanting to sow division were behind
these incidents, was at least asking the correct types of questions: "Are
they frustrated at the slow pace of delivery? Is it the work of agitators?
Is it because of ineffective councillors? Is it because of a lack of
communication by the government?"

These events are a clear call to action and an injunction to listen to what
people want from their government. These protests must lead to speeding up
delivery, solidifying the state structures to deliver services effectively
and - perhaps more fundamentally - enhancing a renewed commitment to a
culture of public participation and participatory policy-making. South
Africa's new laws contain a plethora of public participation provisions. The
entire slate of local government laws - the Municipal Systems Act, the
Municipal Structures Act and the Municipal Finance Management Act - all
|contain clear injunctions. Building such a sense of public participation is
not only about public relations. It is about the more substantive mechanisms
of building popular mandates for action and, in the case of our severe
inequalities, a passionate plea for patience.

The vision in our constitution cannot be real to people if public
representatives cannot persuade the people that they listen and care about
them. If this does not happen the politicians fail the constitution.
Sometimes the only thing that stands between violent protest and peaceful
policy discourse is the willingness to listen and subsequently implement -
not vice versa. Gwende Mantashe's recent call for better communication with
communities in the aftermath of these events is apposite. In the case of
Khutsong, even the highest law-making institution, our Parliament, had to
learn a lesson on public participation and its importance in ensuring laws
will pass constitutional scrutiny.

With the government having lost the Matatiele case, and confronted with the
Constitutional Court's |ruling that public participation processes were
deficient in the passage of the 12th Constitutional Amendment Bill,
parliament has called for submissions on the 13th Constitutional Amendment
Bill. This clearly leaves the option open for communities that reside in
cross-boundary municipalities, and who may be affected by changes, to
effectively mobilise and ensure their voices are heard in parliament this
time. Public participation is two-way traffic, after all. We need to
re-learn how to listen to each other and learn from one another if
governance is to be strengthened beyond the arguably effective but limited
tool of presidential imbizos. It is now the very seeds of apartheid civil
disobedience that are still alive as a mode of legitimate protest against
service delivery failures. Though the government is now a legitimate one,
the frustrations too are legitimate.

In placing questions of social cohesion squarely on the table at this week's
cabinet sessions, the government is behaving responsibly. But it is only by
combining |public participation, faster change and a clear vision of social
cohesion that crises can be averted. The cabinet statement on a new language
policy could become an effective tool in building cohesion - and in ensuring
that all communities are able to understand policies, spelt out in their
mother tongues. If South Africans cease believing in the dream that was
promised with freedom, and see it as a dream forever deferred, civil
disobedience will grow and become the only form of political expression.
This is a threat effectively highlighted by former MP Colin Eglin in his
recent memoirs and one vividly captured in this year's State of the Nation
address. This threat is real and we need to address it actively.

Growing civil disobedience and dissatisfaction is a scenario we can all ill
afford and one that must be avoided at all costs.

We must put "the people" back into "the people shall govern" and ensure that
our democracy lives up to the many protections for public participation that
have so carefully been crafted into all our laws and so clearly laid down in
the Constitutional Court's ruling on the Constitution 12th Amendment Bill.

We must pick up the pace of delivery and ensure that patience does not run

Only when people stand centre stage in policy and are regarded with priority
by civil servants at the coalface of delivery will social upheavals subside.

The need for consultation, public participation and real performance is writ
large over the imaginary bridge that links the issues in Khutsong, Mamelodi
East and Kliptown.

*Raenette Taljaard is the director of the Helen Suzman Foundation and a
part-time lecturer at the Wits Graduate School of Public Development

Copyright (c) 2007 Cape Argus. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica
Global Media (

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