SPII Talk II: Mpho Mhlongo, on Civil Society Organisations and Public Participation
The role of civil society organisations as it relates to the public participation at local government
Civil Society Organisations (“CSOs”) often work closely with members of communities that often fall through the cracks of Government’s socio-economic development plans. Such organisations have taken on different roles, including, but not limited to, being the last line of defence for most people in the battle of the realisation of basic human rights and the delivery of basic services.
In this way, Civil Society Organisations sometimes function as a bridge between local government and the people; empowering local members through workshops that aim to educate them about their rights and responsibilities so as to be able to hold their respective leaders accountable; and promoting public participation in local government.
Active public participation lies at the heart of a participative democracy. In the South African context, this is a requirement of many processes that have to be implemented by all spheres of government, national, provincial and local. At local government level, which is closest to the people, this is captured in the provisions of the Municipal Systems Act.
The Act compels all municipalities to engage members of their communities in public participation, thereby democratising their institutions. More importantly, public participation forms part of the Integrated Development Plan of every Municipality. This process is a combined process between the public and local government whereby the former has an input in development and budget decisions that have an impact on their lives in their local communities.
Stakeholder and public involvement is crucial, and should form the core of the public participation. People should be able to influence and direct the development processes in their municipalities to the extent that it relates to development. Despite this, a great deal of disunity amongst the communities still exists and members are not often aware of the existence of structures that exist to allow them to fully participate in local affairs which could be used to mediate dissent. This has manifested in countless public protests which many people feel is indicative that the local government is failing to fulfil its mandate of fulfilling community development.
SPII has for the last three years worked closely with the Chiawelo and Dlamini community in Soweto. Within those communities, SPII aims to educate and to increase awareness and consciousness by providing skills development and training.
At a local level, SPII supports community processes that encourage good governance – which, primarily, is about creating strong relations and partnerships between the government and its citizens. Without strong relations, let alone good relations, it is difficult to imagine a situation where developmental challenges would be addressed.
In May of 2021, SPII held its third instalment of the budget training workshop where members of the respective communities mentioned above were taken through the IDP process and what it meant for them. The session started with a brief overview of what the government is and the various spheres and levels of government.
The overall feedback from the sessions was positive, and this is an example of an initiative that was successful in educating people of their rights and responsibilities, and the partnership between SPII and these communities is worth replicating.
In conclusion, the run up to the coming local government elections presents an opportunity for CSOs to play a vital role of supporting local government in the capacitation of local municipalities, which in turn would have a positive impact on communities. Active public participation is crucial to a functioning municipality as it forms a part of all municipal IDPs. When public participation becomes more than just a tick-box exercise and community members attend meetings to genuinely participate and engage with local government, relations between government and communities will most likely be strengthened.
CSOs could assist in this regard by assisting local government with public participation strategies. Furthermore, CSOs could provide specialised training to municipalities without discounting the efforts that the latter had made. For this to be successful, however, municipalities would need to develop a learning attitude and not see CSOs as overstepping boundaries or interfering with the work of municipalities which often leads to conflict between the two.
CSOs should rather be seen as agents who have interacted with communities and have often been closer to the people than government has, and have enough evidence to show that communities are best placed to have answers for the problems that they face and should therefore be the one to guide the IDPs. This has the potential of unleashing a bottom-up approach in the development process.