The public? Sorry, but who is that?

2015-04-17 16:41

If anyone were to spare a moment to think about the ill-fated and agonising past where the majority of South Africans were treated like animals under apartheid, we would all have reason to become anxious when leaders in the current government and society would seem to make utterances that suggest that they can make or break any law at ease.

Under apartheid, various laws were passed so that the government of the day legalised treating the majority of people with disparagement and derision.

South Africa’s history was characterised by high levels of state authoritarianism and state-societal conflict.

As a result of this, social movements opposing the oppressive state started to mobilise the communities in the advancement of the concept of “people’s power” towards a “people’s government”.

It is for this reason that the 1994 evolution will forever be regarded as the beginning of a new chapter in the new South Africa; a South Africa which is in par with countries of the world which are observing basic fundamental rights. In this “new South Africa”; the people (rich and poor) are at the heart of governance.

Public participation is a fundamental dimension of the South African democratic set-up, and an important factor in the strengthening and maturing of democracies all over the world. The intention of public participation provisions in the Constitution is clear – to influence government policy outcomes so that they reflect “the will of the people”. Legislatures are, as a matter of fact, meant to be people-centred; hence a “people’s Parliament”.

Notwithstanding this unambiguous and explicit constitutional imperative, we still have occurrences in South Africa where the government and the leaders charged with the responsibility to protect, promote and respect the Constitution would seem to disregard this all-important process of public participation. This is evident in the many reported Constitutional Court cases where various pieces of legislation were challenged.

The government, through the department of transport, is currently considering a bill that seeks to change how the Road Accident Fund (RAF) operates. And this the government seeks to do by introducing the “no fault” Road Accident Benefit Scheme. The transport department’s public participation process on the benefit scheme is a distinct example of the government’s intention to disregard the importance of involving the citizenry in making laws.

The process was so flawed, so much so that anyone who is concerned and affected by the benefit scheme would make a foregone conclusion that if it were to be passed into law, it would be challenged in the Constitutional Court. The basis of such challenge would largely be on the noninvolvement of the public – a suggestion that the Constitution has been shunned and eschewed.

The government’s attitude, approach and perceptions on the benefit scheme is a tell-tale of an authority that does not have any regard for its people – a government that firmly believes that only it would know what the people want; and the people must just “follow”.

When explaining the rationale for a 50 cents-a-litre increase in the Road Accident Fund (fuel) levy, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene (in his 2015 budget speech) said: “The increase is required in order to finance the progress made by the RAF administration in clearing the claims backlog. But it also reflects that the current compensation system, which has accumulated a R98 billion unfunded liability, is not sustainable.

“Legislation to establish the new Road Accident Benefit Scheme will be tabled this year, to provide for affordable and equitable support for those injured in road accidents. Once the legislation has been passed, the levy will be assigned to the new scheme”.

The comment by Nene seems to suggest that the benefit scheme is a predetermined and ordained conclusion; forget the parliamentary process.

Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi was more intent and direct when he expressed his views on the benefit scheme. When addressing the Medico-Legal Summit in March this year, Motsoaledi is understood to have expressed his support for the “no fault” benefit scheme bill.

You need only to look at the public comments made by and articulated to the chief executive of the Road Accident Fund, Dr Eugene Watson, to construe that he is fully in support this bill. This is notwithstanding the fact that Parliament is still to consider the bill; and consult the public on this bill.

It may come out as though I’m being unfair to the ministers and the RAF chief executive to expect them not to have views; or not to make their views known, but these are very senior public officials and their sentiments may have an influence (desirable or undesirable) on the outcomes of the legislative process.

Parliament is still to consider this bill and consult the citizens on it, but we already know that the government wants this to be a law. Forget about what Parliament will learn from its mandatory public participation process. Sure, this would then be indistinguishable to undermining the role of Parliament and the South African legislative process.

*Mohlaloga is a businessman

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