Revitalising Public Participation

Wednesday, 23 September, 2009 - 09:38

While public participation in local government would seem the perfect solution for ensuring a real democracy in South Africa, it remains a space for political parties to exert their power. Participation in local government involves development planning, performance management and strategic decision-making, however, in some municipalities input from ward members, let alone citizens, is being stifled

With democracy being relatively new in South Africa, local government has had to undergo much institutional reform between 1994 and 2000. A key part of this overhaul has been the requirement for democratic processes in municipal decision-making methods between elections.

Recently, government has been encouraging municipalities to have public participation units. Local government in South Africa is now required to implement forms of public participation, particularly around development planning and budgeting.

The Local Government Municipal Systems Act of 2000 requires that municipalities “develop a culture of municipal governance that complements formal representative government with a system of participatory governance,” (Carrim, 2001: 14).

Indeed, there is much to suggest that the recent emphasis on public participation in local government has a lot to do with the failure of local politicians to govern as prescribed under our laws. Hence, while institutions of participatory governance were established in 2000, the effort to institutionalise them came some five years later following a spate of country-wide protests.

In the year preceding the 2006 local government elections, the Minister of Safety and Security reported some 5 085 protests against inept and corrupt local government nationwide (Robert, 2007). Recognition by government that this dissatisfaction was justified was implied by ‘Project Consolidate’, an initiative of the then national Department of Provincial and Local Government (DPLG), now Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CGTA), to redress the fact that “modes of interaction, engagement and support to local government are not having the desired impact on local government and communities,” (Joshua, 2007: 29).

Notably, 48 percent of South Africa’s 284 municipalities made this list. In short, if the development of public participation policy in South Africa was motivated by lofty ideals, its recent implementation has been mostly a response to local governance failure.

Basically, public participation is about allowing people to execute their most basic human right—the right to participate in decisions regarding their future, as stated in the South African Bill of Rights. So, what then is participatory governance?

The White Paper on Local Government of 1998 suggests that “municipalities should develop mechanisms to ensure citizen participation in policy initiation and formulation, and the monitoring and evaluation of decision-making and implementation”.

However, it is really only with the Municipal Structures Act of 1998 and especially the Municipal Systems Act of 2000 that participatory local governance was given institutional life. Where the Structures Act sets out the various structures of local government, including ward committees, the Systems Act outlines how they are to be used. More specifically, Section 16 obliges municipalities to “develop a culture of municipal governance that complements formal representative government with a system of participatory governance,” (Municipal Systems Act of 2000: 6).

The most important innovation of public participation at local government level lies in the ward committee system. The Municipal Systems Act provides for ward committees to be established in each ward of a Category A or Category B municipality, if the municipality so chooses. Of late though, government has been suggesting that the ward committee system be made compulsory for all municipalities.

Chaired by the ward councillor, ward committees are intended to consist of up to 10 people representing “a diversity of interests in the ward, with women equitably represented,” (Municipal Systems Act of 2000: 24). Ward committees may make recommendations on any matter affecting their wards. Notably, their primary function is to “create formal, unbiased communication channels between the community and the council,” (Friedman, 2005: 36). They are also required to mobilise the community to participate in service payment campaigns, development planning and budgetary processes, decisions about service provision, by-laws and the like.

Additionally, participatory governance requires involvement of the public in core municipal processes like development planning, performance management, the budget and strategic decisions relating to services. In short, public participation is statutorily injected into the most important municipal processes. Government policy on how to engage with the public on these issues is quite limited, and usually manifests in the insistence of using ward committees. In practice, it seems this happens through the use of public meetings called by the mayor, also known as a mayoral izimbizo (public meeting).

However, both ward committees and mayoral izimbizos are poor representations of the empowered and participatory institutions of this sort. Neither ward committees nor mayoral izimbizos have any decision-making powers, and certainly none over resources. These powers are expressly reserved in law for politicians and may not be delegated to ward committees.

Perhaps more importantly, the deliberative role of both ward committees and izimbizos are practically confined. Although ward committees are meant to identify key issues affecting their ward and deliberate upon them, the failure to integrate ward committees explicitly into the decision-making or delivery processes of the local municipality means that there is little impact that they beyond merely deliberating.

For example, in the Amahlathi municipality where the writer is currently facilitating capacity building workshops of ward committee members, some ward committee members have indicated that they have never attended any of the council meetings. Some of these ward committees have been operational since 2006.

This is tantamount to breaking the law, especially when one considers the fact that the Municipal Structures Act of 1998 highlights that at least 75 percent of council meetings ought to be open to the public. Currently, they have no role in development planning or the budget process at municipal or local level, nor do they have any direct say on how officials deliver on these commitments.

Currently, all ward committees do is to encourage the voice of ward councillors at the monthly council meetings. By design, a ward committee must transfer its deliberations through the ward councillor to the council. Should the ward councillor be incompetent, disinterested, or marginalised for some other reason, the ward committee’s deliberations will count for nothing.

Indeed, a strong case can be made that ward councillors are the weakest of all councillors, due to the fact that the electoral system is only half constituency-based. The other half is proportional representation as guided by party lists. Notably, the senior party politicians in local government are almost always elected by party list and not from wards, so as to ensure their place in government. A consequence of this is that key political players, especially those who sit on the municipal executive, do not have ward committees. In effect then, ward committees are a participation mandate imposed on disempowered politicians.

Arguably, since 1994 an attempt has been made to institutionalise public participation through various ‘invited spaces’. The idea is to complement the system of multi-party representative government with a form of community participation that draws on indigenous traditions of democratic practice. Unfortunately, these invited spaces are not really working. Rather than being forums for genuine community engagement with local leaders, they tend to be at best exercises in public relations, and at worst, sites for capture by political elites.

In conclusion, as long as public participation in local governance remains limited to ward committees and izimbizos in their current form, it will be largely meaningless. With little incentive for citizens to participate in them, these structures will remain another space for dominant political entities to exert their will.

Thabile Sokupa is Project Coordinator at Afesis-corplan. This article was first published in the August-September 2009 edition of The Transformer (link to ) and is republished here with permission from Afesis-corplan.


Carrim Y (2001) ‘Bridging the Gap Between the Ideas and Practice: Challenges of the New Local Government System’ in Umrabulo, 10.

Joshua, C. Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy in David Estlund (ed).2007. Democracy. Maldon and Oxford: Blackwell.

Robert, M. 2007. Democracy Without the People: Economics, Governance, and Representation in South Africa. Journal of Democracy, Vol 13 No 1, pp 5-21.

Section 16(1) of the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000. Department of Provincial and Local Government. Pretoria, South Africa.

Friedman, S. 2005. On Who’s Terms: Participatory Governance and Citizen Action in Post-Apartheid South Africa? Paper presented at International Institute of Labour Studies Workshop ‘Participatory Governance: A New Regulatory Framework? 9-10 December, Geneva.


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