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The dual nature of public participation: State regulated or people–driven participation – whiter away? Part 1

The end of Apartheid overwhelmed mass political activity                                      

During the struggle against Apartheid ordinary people were highly involved. Highly inspired by an ideal of a democratic order, individuals involved themselves in mass activity. The mass democratic movement, though coordinated at national and regional level, was deeply rooted in township neighbourhoods. Street committees and civic associations played a vital role at local level.   

The grassroots organizations have slowly faded away, and in many cases have also been actively demobilised, after the fall of white minority rule. Popular participation in the social and political life of our communities was soon replaced by trappings of regular elections. Voting has been structured to take place nearly after every two years. It has shifted our focus from active involvement in politics and issues affecting us. We have now placed our hopes in political parties and charismatic personalities. Our aspiration for social equality has been quelled to a large extent. Democracy is no longer regarded as a means to an end, but an end in itself.


The true meaning of democracy

The term democracy is derived from the Greek word demos kraft. Demos refers to ordinary people; and Kraft means rule. Democracy therefore means rule by the common people. The word carries with it revolutionary undertones. In the proper historic context in which it was first conceived, the concept implied the overthrow of dictators and aristocrats.  It was a call for a system of government of all the people by all the people.  

The people of Greece, in comparatively small cities such as Athens, were physically able to come together at once to manage their common affairs. Democracy was rendered impractical by the increased populations, geographic areas and commercial scales of modern states.  It was no longer possible to practise democracy in its pure form, as it was done in ancient Greece, because it was not practical for such large populations, over much bigger areas, to come together to discuss common affairs and make decisions.  A method of representation was put forward to replace direct democracy. 

Failures of the Representative Method

History provides evidence on the misleading notion of representative democracy. Public representatives have a tendency of yielding to powerful forces in society. The elites, including the wealthy and civil servants, capture representative democracy to advance their own material interests. Accordingly, our government abandoned the RDP; and adopted a neoliberal policy of GEAR.

Even the most ideologically adept parties, once in power, tend to lose touch with their ideologies and succumb to pragmatism.  Political parties normally gravitate towards the centre. They are quick to reach consensus. The dishonesty of politicians leads to the displeasure and apathy of the general public.  More often than not, a new party with promises of radical change emerges ― as seen with the appearance of the EFF. More often than not, however, these new parties abandon promises of radical change one in power – as seen with the practice of the EFF after it won seats in Parliament. 

Voting does not guarantee that those we vote for will deliver good governance. In the twenty-three years of democracy, our public representatives have dismally failed to keep their promises.  Therefore, it is required of citizens to monitor, and hold accountable, those they elect to positions of authority. To complement representative democracy a notion of participatory democracy was later conceptualized.  

Participatory Democracy

Section 152(1)(e) of the South African Constitution guarantees involvement in political processes. Besides, almost all laws on local government support participation. The Municipal Systems Act, as an example, emphasizes a shift from strict representative democracy to a participatory one. Notwithstanding, an HSRC survey revealed the low level of participation in South Africa. It showed that 40% of people participate in religious organisations; 15% in political organisations; and only 3% in civic associations. Even the voter turn out is dwindling.  As according to an IEC report on the 2014 general elections; only 18 000 000 out of 31 400 000 eligible voters actually participated in voting.   

The so-called advanced democracies are characterized by some levels of active citizen participation. The most innovative experiments have been in radical settings. In Brazil, the Worker’ Party (PT) won elections in the 1990s.  Mass assemblies played a crucial role in cities such as of Port Alegre. The people were encouraged to decide on the budget of the city. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez initiated participatory institutions. Because of the fact that such structures ran parallel to representative councils; the approach was known as parallelism.

The dichotomy of State regulated and people–driven participation


Democracy entails the involvement of ordinary citizens in decision making. It makes it possible for people to reclaim their power. It is realized when people play a meaningful role in the governance. The issue is what approach is best to sustain mass participation. The point being what works between the bottom-up, and the top down approaches; or to be more precise, between people-driven and state regulated participation.

State- regulated participation

The state – sometimes confused with government, territoriality or parliament – is comprised of a number of institutions of power in society.  It has three main components, namely; the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The army, the police and the prisons are the main pillars of control. The state has been historically viewed as an instrument of domination. It evolved concomitantly with systems of oppression; from feudalism, through to slavery, and ultimately capitalism.  Modern states are themselves agents of globalization. They compete with one another for investments, and, as a result, are made vulnerable to manipulation by international capital. 

The South Africa state, just like other liberal democracies, regulates participatory processes. It makes use of elections; councillors; ward committees; IDP sessions; Imbizos; and other consultation processes. The top-down approach of state-coordinated participation, irrespective of the ideology of the government in power, is inherently flawed, and some of its disadvantages are as follows:

-Policy formulation is unofficially regarded as competency of experts and civil servant, and in this way major decisions are taken by the state.


-Councillors, MPLs and MPs are accountable to their political parties, and not to the constituencies that elected them.

-Participation processes are unsustainable because of over reliance on political will; should a political party change its policy, or is voted out of power, then participatory processes are discontinued.

-The state machinery infested with entrenched interests of capitalists, employs all means at their disposal to thwart effective participation.

The vicious circle of state-coordinated participation

In our country, the vicious circle of state-coordinated participation began with enfranchisement of the ‘black’ majority in 1994. Change was brought about by a combination of violence, pressure and negotiations. By taking part in voting the people surrender their power to politicians, who then in turn assert authority over them. 

Having been elected into the corridors of power politicians regard themselves as the only ‘public’. The real public is stripped of its title and reduced to a mass of individuals. As result of disappointment owing to corruption, inefficiencies in the system and the incompetence of bureaucrats the masses find themselves at a point in which they were before 1994. 

People driven participation

Based on principles of self-help and self-advocacy, and highly regarded as a therapy in community psychology, people-driven participation is a most progressive and empowering process.   All over the world people are disillusioned with state regulated participation. They have generally lost trust in political parties.  

Through struggles, people realize a need for creating their own spaces of participation. In most cases what sparks popular participation is either opportunity or threat. Once motivated to participate, people will have a deepened understanding of socio-economic issues. In the course of action, they will strengthen their social and class consciousness. They then realize the contrast between their interests and those of the state. 

As much as the state exercises its power by means of its own officially authorized institutions, the masses, for all intents and purposes, express their will through organs of the peoples’ power. In all cases so far observed, the organs of the peoples’ power turn out to be horizontally organized voluntary associations. Such structures run across hierarchical, segmental, clientalistic and single-issue based organizations. 

The main tools for popular participation include citizen monitoring, holding accountable sessions for public officials and conducting participatory researches. Fostering social change necessitates mobilization for social action, community empowerment and policy advocacy.  But, for people to participate effectively, they will surely need some form of empowerment. The role of empowering organizations such as NGOs and CBOs come in handy in this instance.

People–driven versus state regulated participation

People-driven participation may take part alongside state regulated participation. It runs alongside the state, but independent from the state. It may successfully or unsuccessfully influence policies and the political agenda of the government.

At the local and neighbourhood level people driven participation will, as a short term measure, empower communities to solve problems and engage in building sustainable local economies. In the medium and long term, the organs of the people’s power, operating parallel to state power, may provide a powerful extra parliamentary opposition to the whole system.

In this manner therefore, by employing tactics of non-compliance, defiance and resistance, the people will liberate themselves from the excesses of state power. They will seek to replace state power with peoples’ power ― rendering the whole system superfluous.


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