We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Saturday, August 2, 2008

South Africa: Participatory Democracy Must be Deepened

Citizens of South Africa face similar problems to many countries around the world in the respect that although constitutions may provide for public participation, the way our governments actually function is often far from being in line with founding constitutional principles and mandates. -Editor

The people must participate

Published:Jun 17, 2008


Photo: POPULAR STRUGGLE: The goal of a ‘deep democracy’ was conveyed symbolically by the posters of the liberation struggle — they often showed people marching under banners and flags

A lack of effective, democratic engagement is destabilising our democracy, writes Frank Meintjies

Much of the current political uncertainty in South Africa — the lack of focus, a sense of crisis on many fronts, large areas of misalignment between leaders and the population, a resurgence of street protests — can be explained by a lack of effective democratic participation.

South Africa’s struggle was a popular one, and the intention was always to construct a society in which democracy meant more than taking part in periodic elections.

The goal of a “deep democracy” was always part of liberation discourse. That intent was conveyed symbolically by the posters of the liberation struggle — they often showed masses of people marching under banners and flags. It was also captured in a Freedom Charter clause, “The people shall govern”, and expressed through the grassroots education we undertook in the struggle.

Our constitution calls for citizen and community participation as elements of a vibrant democracy. Fourteen years after the advent of the new South Africa, that vibrancy escapes us and the lack of participatory democracy is visible at all levels.

Effective participation is either absent or deficient in the practice of politics , leading to a troubling disconnection between political parties and the people.

In the ANC, this rupture was clear at its Polokwane conference where there was a horizontal split (ANC vs ANC) and a vertical split (bitter conflict between the base and bigwigs).

For other parties the estrangement is indicated in low voter support and a limited role in filling in the cracks in our society.

Participation is largely absent or completely marginal to the operations of national and provincial government. National and provincial government are relatively distant from the people, as are their policy development and review processes.

Early in the new democracy, and especially following the completion of the first round of policy development after 1994, officials took the view that the ANC had a clear mandate to govern and ought not to waste time with wide consultation on policy. W hat was needed for revved-up delivery was a strong government acting decisively.

And so, with limited participation, many government decisions are based on internal conversations, on an over-reliance on technical knowledge and on input from formal interest groups; there is little space or time for community-level engagement.

Technocrats, who by and large do not see public consultation as a core part of their duties, drive decision-making at programming level.

Government imbizos began as a good idea, but they are clearly inadequate. Many burning issues are taken to the streets instead. It is also not clear if, and how, imbizos affect policy making or review processes. Thus, at national and provincial level, the systems exclude the poor and marginalised.

At local-government level, the problem may be worse and has more drastic implications since local government is meant to be most accessible and attuned to citizens and poor communities. Despite various laws calling for effective participation in local governance, indications are that local governments have failed to ensure participation and, in many cases, lack the political will to deepen participation.

For many years, concern has been expressed about the lack of meaningful participation in the drafting of integrated development plans. Usually drawn up by consultants , the plans, in the words of Stephen Friedman, emerge from a simulation of democratic participation rather than the real thing. The thousands of service delivery protests each year testify to an alarming gap between local government and poor communities.

The lack of effective democratic participation is destabilising the new democracy. F or many in society, the sense of shared goals between government and themselves has become weak. We see the fracture of political parties, a breakdown of communication between leaders and people, as well as regular protests (including the current wave of deplorable xenophobia).

With regard to the xenophobia, indications are that the communities concerned had nowhere to raise their frustrations, discuss their perceptions of their foreign neighbours and explore urgent solutions to poverty.

In the last decade or so, meaningful citizen and civil society engagement would have provided us with more robust and sustainable solutions on foreign policy, including responses to regional instability; apart from the greater consensus on how to handle the Zimbabwean crisis, the government would benefit from “intelligence” about attitudes at grassroots level.

Civic engagement may have also circumvented Eskom’s electricity crisis; given the choice, citizen groups may well have opted for gradual increases in the past and expansion of generation capacity instead of initiatives such as Coega and the pie-in-the- sky pebble-bed reactor.

With respect to HIV-Aids; active engagement and true partnership with civil society in the last decade would have ensured a less fragmented national response and more effective rollout of prevention, treatment, care and support.

Our leaders must acknowledge that meaningful and sustained participation does not happen naturally or automatically in formal democracy (regardless of the democratic ideals and struggle credentials of the people involved), but with political will, planning and commitment. If the government’s reward system prioritised it, it could be achieved.

It is time our leaders realised that even though many citizens were initially inclined to leave it to government to deliver us from various evils, many are now reverting to active citizenship and are demanding participatory democracy. — SACSIS

Meintjies is a freelance writer and author of the blog Sideview

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