Citizen participation should not be limited to voting, strikes

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 17, 2024



After the 2024 elections, South Africans are not optimistic about a coalition government.

The former leading party, the ANC, is no longer in the lead. The uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MKP) has stated that as long as President Cyril Ramaphosa is in power, it would not consider a coalition with the ANC.

Then there are disputes about how fair and accurate the elections were, despite the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) declaring the election fair.

But central to it all was the growing mistrust among politicians and citizens. The coalition negotiations were taking place in an environment of growing mistrust of politics and the state, said Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, pointing to the fall in turnout to 58.6% from 66% at the 2019 elections.

A coalition government needs more than just an agreeable stance to work together. The challenge is that our parties are built on different ideologies but now must look for ways to co-operate and govern collectively.

I question how realistic the approach is in a climate where the IEC’s accountability is questioned. Some South Africans genuinely believe the elections were rigged to improve the number of votes parties received. They associate the rigging with an electricity outage, which was experienced on voting day. Others believe it was just a coincidence.

The behaviour trajectory of politicians and their parties in the provincial and national government has not encouraged any public trust in recent years. Public trust is contestable. This has been evident in the low voter turnout statistics in 2024 compared to previous years. In 1994, 87% of South Africans voted, and since then, there has been a steady decline. In 2024, as reports have indicated, only 58% of South Africans opted to vote.

Central to the lack of public and political trust is how we interpret and analyse a democracy. We were declared a democracy with a central aim to facilitate equality, national economic growth and long-term sustainability for all South Africans.

Developing and building a democracy is also intrinsically linked to citizen participation. Citizen participation derives from the Constitution of South Africa, which states that the citizens should not only be consulted on issues that affect them but should also be given the opportunity to become actively involved in the decision-making process.

Citizen participation should not be limited to voting and strikes. It should instead involve active participation in the daily upheaval of the community for a sustainable future and ensuring that the community goals are achieved acceptably.

Taking into consideration the numerous incidents of the lack of municipal services of basic resources, the reported incidents of criminal offences, and various types of corruption that politicians have been embroiled in growth and sustainability are questionable in South Africa.

Based on the experiences, we can clearly articulate that voting and protests do not constitute sufficient participation. People need to be adequately informed of citizen participation, its value and its dire need within the political context of South Africa.

The process of voting and protests has limitations, and protests have become a means of communication in South Africa, especially among the lower-income groups. The purpose of the demonstrations was to take a stand against political and racial injustices and inequality.

In democratic South Africa, protests have become communication tools to demand better and improved support and services from governmental sectors. Can we, therefore, insinuate that other communication tools are ignored?

Media reports and journalists disperse relevant statistics and information, but it does not elicit an immediate or remedial response from South African citizens. The grievances and reports of lack of support and services have often fallen by the wayside without timeous responses and urgency when required.

When voter participation declines, democratic accountability is weakened. Ideally, communities should be more impactful by communicating their needs through more than one avenue and not just voting and protests alone.

Some countries optimise communication and mobilisation through civic organisations and institutions, improving citizen participation quality. The decisions made through multiple citizen participatory initiatives can be far more effective in meeting the needs of South Africans.

South Africans need to realise that we have concerns about superficial participation, which is not purposeful and effective. Purposeful citizen participation, however, calls for citizen involvement, with the citizens having genuine intent to work with the government rather than against it. Through this approach and greater citizen involvement, political and public trust can be rekindled and developed.

The recent events of the election have caused South Africans to feel very disturbed about their future. Still, a key player in the process is greater involvement and multiple initiatives to be more aware of governmental policies, procedures, and decision-making processes.

A coalition government can be effective through transparency and accountability, but an effective communication channel is required for South Africans to access and lodge concerns. When public participatory movements are increased, the ideologies and values of democracy can be brought to the fore once again.

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale).

Daily News