South Africa's Democracy Problem
15 September 2023
First published as an opinion piece in News24, South Africa's most-visited news publication. Later featured as a discussion topic on SA.fm, a prominent South African radio station.
Today is the International Day of Democracy, and it’s time we admit that South Africa has a democracy problem.
The vast majority of South Africans are unhappy with the way democracy is working, while our trust in public institutions and government officials continues to decline. Political participation (especially among the youth) is also at an all-time low. On the eve of our seventh general elections, which will also mark the 30th anniversary of the advent of democracy in this country, we seem to find ourselves in a particularly sorry state.
But to address these problems and to begin to fix our democratic process, I argue that South Africans first need to believe in that process. This means that ordinary people - regardless of their income bracket, race, or proximity to power - need to believe that their voice matters. They need to be shown that South Africa’s democracy is not just a political arena for mouthy politicians, but that it is an opportunity for any willing citizen to help chart the future of their country.
How do we accomplish that? How do we get everyday South Africans to believe in the democratic process when the only feasible participation options open to them are to either vote (which many have simply decided is not worth their time) or to protest (which seems to achieve little but destruction and anger)? It’s quite simple: if South Africans are given the opportunity to meaningfully participate and have their voices heard, then we might just start believing in our democratic process again.
There’s one idea, which has been slowly making its way around the world and demonstrating its impact, that I believe might help. That idea is the Citizens Assembly, in which a group of regular people (and not career politicians) come together in an organised way and with the help of experts to talk about important issues and put together recommendations for their community or government. Citizens assemblies are thus a way to involve everyday citizens, representing the diversity of interests and perspectives of the broader population, in important political decisionmaking.
Take a recent citizens assembly in Fracisco Morato, Brazil. Faced with issues of waste disposal made worse by climate change-related flooding and landslides, the city’s Mayor and Councillors put the question to the community: How would you like us to fix this? Forty citizens, representative of the community in terms of age, gender, income, location etc, were randomly chosen by lottery. These citizens then participated in a series of five full-day gatherings during which time they learned from local experts and engaged in facilitated deliberation.
These deliberations, the goal of which was to reach a shared group understanding of the issue and the most viable ways to address it, ultimately led to the creation of a citizens’ recommendations report. The report was officially presented to the public during a press conference attended by the local Mayor and Councillors, as well as representatives from collaborating organisations. With a little bit of innovation and effort, the citizens of Fracisco Morato were given a voice.
The evidence backs up the effectiveness of this democratic innovation. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds that a well-designed citizens assembly helps improve trust in government decisions and democratic institutions, leads to better decisionmaking due to the informed input of a diverse group of people, helps prevent disinformation and corruption, and leads to improved personal empowerment and thus greater participation in political affairs.
A South African citizens assembly would follow a similar blueprint to the one in Fracisco Morato. The organisers (which can be an NGO, government department, or any other civil society group) begin the process by inviting a random group of participants who are broadly representative of the general population in terms of age, race, gender, education, income, and so on. This is our assembly of everyday citizens, whose backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions would match the diversity of South African society.
Once gathered together (virtually or in person), the assembly spends a number of full days learning about and deliberating an important political question. In our case, this might be something like: How should South Africa address its electricity crisis in both an equitable and sustainable way? The assembly can also be smaller and more focused, with a niche topic relevant to a specific community, such as was the case in Fracisco Morato.
With the guidance of invited experts (academics, community stakeholders, and so on), the assembly members first build up relevant and accurate knowledge on the topic. For instance, they’d learn about the various renewable electricity options available to us, the importance of coal mining in financially supporting certain communities, the climate dangers of gas expansion, etc. Then, with the help of trained facilitators, the assembly will begin to deliberate on the topic with the goal of reaching a shared group consensus.
The aim of a citizens assembly, at the end of the day, is for a group of representative citizens (now armed with accurate knowledge and supported with expert guidance) to draft recommendations on a political topic that is usually subject to some disagreement in society. If the assembly is to be effective, however, these recommendations must then be officially received by government representatives and ideally go on to inform policy decisions.
That last bit is easier said than done, I’ll admit. However, even in instances where recommendations are ignored, the benefits of running a citizens assembly endure long after the fact. Previous participants celebrate a new political awareness and empowerment, with many of them going on to serve as advocates who use their newly acquired knowledge and voice to pressure government to act on the people’s recommendations. In a country where many people feel powerless, this may be invaluable.
How do we start? By sharing stories of successful democratic innovations, just as I’m doing here. By admitting that South Africa’s democracy is far from perfect but recognising that there are tools that can help us make it better. By reaching out to your community and the civil society groups within it and urging them to help you organise a citizens assembly, regardless of who or where you are. By embracing our power as citizens and changemakers.
In South Africa, many of us feel voiceless. But it doesn’t have to be this way.