Voice of people must be heard

01 October 2013

South Africa has been free for the past 19 years, allowing participatory democracy to flourish. Over the years, one of the country’s achievements has been the regular interaction with citizens on issues that affect them through public participation forums - izimbizo.

This is in line with the country’s founding democratic principle of participatory democracy and listening to people’s opinions. In terms of our Constitution, the three spheres of government- national, provincial and local are mandated to ensure that South Africans have a say in the way they are governed. Section 195 states that "people's needs must be responded to, and the public must be encouraged to participate in policy-making”. Through public participation all of us can ensure that government delivers on its promises and is held to account.

Shortly after assuming office, President Jacob Zuma urged the public sector to rise to the challenge and communicate with the citizens on a “daily basis”. “The defining feature of this administration will be that it knows where people live, understands their needs and responds faster”, he said.

President Zuma has been at the forefront of this initiative and with his ministers he regularly visits communities through the Presidential Siyahlola Monitoring Programme to get a first-hand feel of issues that affect people. According to the Presidency, officials from the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation and offices of the Premiers have in the past year undertaken more than 300 visits to their respective communities.

The Cabinet also encourage members of Executive to undertake at least 10 public participation engagements in a year. These interactions have resulted in interventions in the lives of many, as issues raised by communities are attended to with a sense of urgency.

Since South Africa emerged from apartheid, it has introduced platforms in an effort to consolidate, monitor and respond swiftly to public concerns. Notable interventions include the Presidential Hotline, Public Liaison Offices, Community Development Workers (CDWs), outreach activities and various access points across the country, including Thusong Service Centres.

In addition, Parliament consults the public and invites them to speak their minds without fear or favour. Through the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), two weeks ago embarked on a preliminary oversight visit to the City of Tshwane - one of the many it undertakes from time to time. The visit were part of the Taking Parliament to the People programme that is aimed at getting first-hand information on what the Executive has accomplished in the area.

They visited programmes and projects in Garankuwa, Winterveld, Hammanskraal, Kameeldrift, Cullinan, Silverton and Soshanguve and held a public meeting in Hammanskraal.

Urging the public to speak out, NCOP chairman Mninwa Johannes Mahlangu said: “We are interested to hear from you what you think has been achieved and also where there are still challenges. As you know, development is a process. Transformation and development is even a much more complex process. We want to hear from you because as Parliament we represent your interests.”

The Taking Parliament to the People programme began in 2002 and based on the premise that the NCOP is crucial in overseeing a responsive government. This visit will be followed by a formal sitting of the NCOP in Tshwane this month, at which national, provincial and local government will be invited to engage with citizens.

This will coincide with the public participation programme of government, which will run from October 7-13 as the second National Imbizo Focus Week this year. It provides a platform for government leaders to engage with the public face to face, celebrate successes and to address challenges on the implementation of government programmes.

During this Imbizo Focus Week the government is expected to showcase its successes in transforming South Africa. This imbizo will carry the message that “working together we have changed lives in South Africa”. It is with conviction that the people of this country can stand up with pride and celebrate 20 years of freedom, under-standing that South Africa is a much better place than it was in 1994.

The National Imbizo Focus Week serves as a pre-eminent communication platform providing leaders of the government with an opportunity to assess progress on programmes. One should, however, hasten to say these initiatives will be meaningless without the participation of all South Africans. We thus encourage everyone to engage public officials in their communities.

This month’s Imbizo Focus Week comes just less than a year before South Africa celebrate 20 years of freedom. We should use it to reflect on our achievements and highlight what still needs to be done to improve the lives of all South Africans.

It will deepen our understanding of where we come from, how our democracy was achieved, and celebrate the progress that freedom brought. The involvement of all South Africans is critical if the country is to address the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty facing the country.

The government cannot achieve this on its own and it is up to all of us to play our part. The range of platforms to make our democracy work, in particular izimbizo, were created to give citizens a voice and allow the government to address their concerns. Working together we can ensure that a better life for all becomes a reality.

Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)