South Africa boasts a constitutional democracy founded on a dual yet complimentary approach to governance. The first pillar involves elected representative governance and the second, participatory democracy.
Each is constitutionally entrenched yet neither can operate in isolation. The dualism should ideally manifest as a harmonious continuum where we, the people, are not only able to elect our representatives but equally to inform, lobby and interact with them - and allied officials and bureaucrats - during their terms in office.
But we need to ask how well this plays out in reality.
In common with most nominally democratic dispensations, ours provides a necessarily short-term mandate to our representatives. The underlying concept is that if our leaders fail us, we vote them out.
There are two major shortcomings to this approach. Firstly, many governance problems are not short, but long term. Consider complex issues like land reform, climate change and food security policy; these require on-going policy adjustments and interaction, allied to institutional memory.
Secondly, and possibly more importantly, it is difficult to build institutional memory in local, regional or national governance when there is rapid turnover in personnel. Who recalls the solutions and mistakes of a decade or two ago, ensuring continuity? This falls less to our elected representatives than our citizens, who in turn inform administrators, bureaucrats and officials.
In South Africa, there is the additional drawback of our nascent democratic dispensation, still in the process of developing new policies and institutional models. Institutional memory is further impaired by changing political factions changing administrators and officials, which further erodes institutional memory and experience.
Public participation ranges proponents and citizens at two extremes of a continuum. Politicians and officials are required to hold a neutral centre and impartially implement policy.
However, they are directly informed by proponents and their lobbyists or consultants, undermining their neutrality. There is usually far less countervailing influence from the public, marginalised through insufficient resources like time, expertise, financial or legal clout.
Even at the basic level of citizen budgeting, South Africa lags way behind the rest of the world. More than 1500 towns and cities in developing nations engage in participatory budgeting processes.
These involve active citizen participation to both set and oversee transparent budgeting. But in South Africa, the opposite applies: If we wish to gain oversight of public financial information we must apply through the arcane Public Access to Information Act (PAIA) processes to gain even basic information. In many cases applications are either refused or strung out for so long that they simply give up in frustration.
How can citizens find the resources to engage with local, let alone national government while struggling to put food on the table? This inequality is central to conflict around public participation.
Communities are suspicious and feel they are either being co-opted or are legitimising a flawed process. Public participation risks becoming a buzzword, a sham, with symbolic desultory consultation and preordained outcomes.
These dynamics are further obscured by the malign influence of party political funding. The ruling party, either the DA in the Western Cape or the ANC nationally, fail to facilitate sufficiently transparent, non-partisan participatory frameworks. Both parties have scrapped environmental public participation by shutting down both National and Provincial Environmental Advisory Forums (NEAF and PEAF).
The consequences of diminished public oversight litter our political landscape. The infamous arms deal continues to reverberate. The current political insistence to construct an expensive fleet of nuclear reactors, Nuclear One, could eclipse the scandals of the arms deal. The lack of transparency, coupled to political expedience, materialises a trillion Rand black hole.
A recent parliamentary portfolio committee meeting to discuss the Nuclear One deal was salutary. After lengthy industry inputs, public interest representatives were permitted only a one minute response.
Muna Lakhani, who responded on behalf of Earthlife Africa at the meeting afterward remarked, "It would be fair to say that our consultative and participatory democracy has been reduced to being informed of decisions that have been made, regardless of what inputs civil society may have taken the trouble to make.
A genuine participatory democracy begins by asking people what they want, and then crafting policy to respond, not to generate drafts in elite groups meeting in secret, without the presence of democratically selected civil society representatives. We are far from that."
These sentiments are especially relevant to issues around local planning. Despite established participation processes, actual participation remains marginalised.
Yet local development processes carry significant implications for communities and individuals because they affect us where we live, work and recreate. The experience of the Chairman of the Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance, Len Swimmer, mirrors that of Lakhani. He feels that public participation is a sham, saying, "Not only is it choreographed to look like proper process, but the comments are then not properly considered by authorities."
Public participation is determined by power. Not only are development proponents substantially better resourced but they appoint and brief development consultants. Conversely, citizen responses are seriously constrained in their ability to engage a similar level of expertise and legal clout.
These imbalances play out in many ways from corporate influence in GM food labelling, to how political interference trumped HIV and AIDS policy implementation. Our lives are affected when municipalities fail to transparently budget for community needs.
The examples of public participation failure are myriad yet the process continues to become increasingly constrained. Proponents increasingly control both funding and the consultation processes while shrewdly misrepresenting self-enrichment programmes as public interest projects.
However, the law strongly supports public participation. Numerous Constitutional and Appeal Court judgements reinforce this perspective. The Biowatch case, the Grootboom judgement, Earthlife Africa, Doctors for Life, South African Property Owners Association; each of these judgements demonstrate legal support of citizen activism and participation in governance.
So how can civil society rectify this imbalance and pursue their civil and legal rights to public participation in active self-governance? Because of the prohibitive costs of legal action only well-resourced groups such as the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance can engage, often at significant personal risk to members.
However some legal assistance channels, such as the Centre for Environmental Rights, the Legal Resources Centre, Section 27 and ProBono.org can provide assistance. Many larger legal firms will also assist worthy causes capable of establishing beneficial legal precedent.
This support needs to be coupled to legislative reform for the formation of citizens' budgeting processes, for improved resource allocation for interaction in planning processes to gain access to consultants that can assist public interest groups, civics and NGO's.
This cannot happen in a vacuum - legislative reform must recognise issues such as the social value of land and resources, not only capital or extractive valuation. Yet while the law can provide public benefit, the dominant commercial model tends to introduce inordinate bias into the decision making process. This is reinforced by political processes that are themselves compromised by our opaque party political funding system.
Public participation processes could, and should, serve as a counterweight to powerful interest groups, restoring the equilibrium between representative political power and citizen rights. Failure to craft responsive and inclusive participatory processes threatens to worsen already simmering social tensions.
Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org.