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A large section of the country’s citizens is excluded from participating in the activities of Parliament and the provincial legislatures during the Covid-19 lockdown because of the cost of data, writes Chabana Chabana. 

The South African democracy is anchored on the pellucid phrase of then American President Abraham Lincoln that democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. And this brand of democracy places a huge obligation on organs of state, especially when authorities exercise power bestowed upon them by the Constitution.

Occupants of positions of power have an unequivocal burden to facilitate public involvement in accordance with Section 72(1)(a) of the Constitution. The democratic institutions are expected to realise the above constitutional injunction through a representative, participatory, as well as deliberative democracy.

Public participation is imperative on Parliament and the provincial legislatures. The effective execution of the mandate of Parliament, as enshrined in the Constitution, is contingent upon public involvement otherwise the end product of such exercise of power will be declared invalid and not in keeping with the prescripts, as was the case in several cases where there was no public participation.

The declaration of the national state of disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this year led to the helter-skelter dash to reduce the rampant spread of the novel coronavirus. In this confusion and uncertainty, Members of Parliament were no exception as the future was not known.

The biggest casualties of the novel coronavirus remain public participation and the oversight work of Parliament.

Oversight work

Though Members of Parliament had permits and could carry out oversight visits under lockdown, there was no visibility or effective oversight work and public participation. In an environment where public participation is limited, you are bound to have poor accountability from leaders.

The oversight work of Parliament cannot be efficient or effective outside of the involvement of the public or society. Members of Parliament were not visible, as far as oversight is concerned, for a considerable time after the state of disaster declaration. The executive went on about its business without due accountability.

Having realised the lacuna, members of the public started calling on their public representatives to go back to work so that there was accountability and answerability by the executive.

The call for the continuity of Parliament’s work was largely informed by a history of corruption and a lack of respect for public assets by some rogue individuals in state institutions. There was a general fear that the billions allocated as Covid-19 relief funds would be mismanaged and misappropriated. This is now under investigation.

Effective public participation shall remain on the back burner for as long as we don’t have a panacea or vaccine to fight Covid-19.

No state institution foresaw the possibility that the virus would wreak the havoc that it has. Parliament’s policies also made no provision for such a scenario.

The new normal of virtual meetings, was not in our offing, hence our policies did not even anticipate such an environment. However, the existence of the virus cannot be an excuse to avoid accountability.

Though public involvement is imperative in our democracy, the material conditions on the ground militate against effective public participation as a cornerstone of our democracy. 

Smartphone penetration

According to the recent State of ICT Sector report by the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa, there is 80% smartphone penetration in the country with 46.9 million subscribers. The figures need to be considered in context as many South Africans own more than one smartphone and many still rely on basic or feature phones.

The above paints a bleak picture in that many citizens do not have access to the virtual meetings currently organised by Parliament or the data to connect to them.

This means Parliament will remain for the privilege of a few who are better off. It is an obvious truth that most smartphones are in urban areas and therefore people in rural areas will remain disadvantaged for the considerable future.

It is time for municipalities to help build the necessary infrastructure for wi-fi hotspots so that people can readily access the internet. The cellphone companies must also stay true to their promise of reducing the price of data to make it affordable.

The national government must work to ensure that we have a local industrial company that will be built to locally produce cellphones as they are no longer a luxury, but a necessity, to give effect to directives of the Constitution.

Public participation should be at the centre of any government activity. The government has the responsibility to provide tools so that the people can be part of the oversight and public participation work.

 – Chabana Chabana is a student of Public Management and an activist based in the Free State. He is a Free State interim provincial co-ordinator for the Labour and Employment Relations Associations of South Africa. He is a former national executive member of the South African Union of Students. He is writing in his personal capacity.

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