Assessing the state of public participation in the Western Cape: the case of Beaufort West Municipality
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It is often argued that public participation is the cornerstone of constitutional democracy especially in countries such as South Africa with the history of segregation which was characterised by the exclusion of the majority of citizens from the decision-making processes of the state based on race, class and gender. As such, following the introduction of the various pieces of legislation in 1994, the dominant narrative was that the progressive laws that were passed would serve as a ‘panacea’ to the challenges of participatory governance in South Africa. It was inconceivable that 25 years into democracy, South Africa would still be grappling with the concept of public participation and the extent to which citizens could influence, direct and own decisions made by and with government especially at a local level. This study assessed the state of public participation in the Western Cape focusing on Beaufort Municipality in the Central Karoo District. It argued that public participation is a prerequisite for democratic governance and that the state could be deemed illegitimate if it does not prioritize the involvement of communities in its affairs. In this context, a particular focus was placed on the effectiveness of the ward committee system (as state sponsored mechanisms of public participation) in enhancing participatory democracy in Beaufort West Municipality. It refuted assumptions on the institutional arrangements made in the legislative framework governing public participation and ward committees – identifying and outlining some of the unanticipated consequences of these pieces of legislation. The study used qualitative research methods to collect data. Primary and secondary data was gathered to assess the state of public participation in the Western Cape with specific reference on the effectiveness of the ward committee system and the role of legislative and regulatory framework governing public participation, the institutional architecture and the roles of various stakeholders involved in public participation. The primary data was gathered through structured interviews and questionnaires while the secondary data was collected the analysis of the literature on public participation and ward committees including municipal reports, guidelines on public participation, legislation and policy frameworks. The research found that it is precisely the state sanctioned ward committee system that has contributed to the collapse of public participation in South Africa. The ward committee system was identified as a ‘poisoned chalice’ - so compromised that it has become an instrument to legitimise predetermined decisions of the politically connected elite, a rubber stamp platform to comply with the policy and legislative framework. To address this problem, the study recommended a number of measures and interventions that could be introduced which entails the reconfiguration and overhaul of the legislative framework governing public participation and ward committees including the review of the role of politicians in public participation, training and capacity building, allocation of dedicated budget for public participation etc.