Adv Tseliso Thipanyane, CEO, SA Human Rights Commission

Advocate Tseliso Thipanyane

Adv Tseliso Thipanyane addresses Public Dialogue

The notions of participatory democracy and an interactive state are rooted in the ancient African principles, morena ke morena ka batho and motho ke motho ka batho. They were captured in the Freedom Charter through the well-known provision, ‘the people shall govern,’ and are now entrenched in our constitution. The Preamble provides for a ‘democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people,’ while sections 59, 72 and 118 require public involvement in legislative processes.

The principle of participatory democracy has also been endorsed by the Constitutional Court in two major decisions. In Doctors for Life International v Speaker of the National Assembly, Justice Ngcobo found, ‘our democracy includes, as one of its basic and fundamental principles, the principle of participatory democracy,’ and that ‘Parliament must therefore function in accordance with the principles of our participatory democracy.’

In Matatiele v President of South Africa, the Constitutional Court also identified a number of benefits of participatory democracy, including: greater citizen involvement in public affairs; support for government institutions; legitimacy of the law; greater civic dignity when citizen views are taken into account; and a counterweight to lobbying and political influence, in a high levels of inequality.

Numerous public and constitutional institutions have been established to enable participation in public affairs, including the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Office of the Public Protector (OPP), and the Electoral Commission – which supports multiparty democracy – amongst many others.

However, fifteen years into democracy, to what extent are our people actively involved in matters of governance, and is the environment enabling and conducive?

Reasonably high participation rates in three national democratic elections suggest that South Africans are generally active participants in public life. Media participation, including through print and radio, is another good indicator in this regard.  Recent public protests over service delivery, labour strikes and unrest, though unfortunate where loss of life or property occurs, are another indicator.

Behind these protests is a lack of confidence among citizens in the institutions meant to address their concerns, and find redress. Our people fail to use these institutions and make them work. However, government, especially civil servants, could be more responsive to people’s needs and concerns, particularly over service delivery. The media could also play a better role in this regard.

There is a need to raise awareness of bodies like the SAHRC and the OPP, which were established to be a voice and defend people against rights violations, as well as government failure to advance rights, especially those pertaining to socioeconomic rights and safety.

These institutions must be made more effective through public pressure. But it is equally important that they are adequately resourced and supported – there would be fewer violent public protests if these and other bodies were more effective.

Failure to increase appreciation for participatory democracy by government, public institutions, the media and the public poses a threat to our democracy and national security. Our people fought for freedom and democracy and will not sit quietly for long without meaningful and material changes in their lives and their country, and if their views are not taken seriously by those they elected to government. As proclaimed by Heads of State at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, ‘Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually enforcing. Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.’

Advocate Tseliso Thipanyane is Chief Executive Officer of the South African Human Rights Commission.

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