Public engagement is what is needed, so that citizens can help government make laws that better suit citizens' needs, writes Patricia de Lille.
Throughout the history of the democratic process, the importance of public participation has always been paramount. Public consultation engenders transparency, which is a key characteristic of an accountable representative government.
The two, transparency and public involvement, help in the attainment of democratic objectives, thus assisting in generating better, more advised policy resolutions.
That is what happened with the Land Expropriation Bill of 2020, the legislation regulating land reform - including expropriation at nil compensation, to accelerate the land redistribution programme, redress historical injustices of land dispossession and displacement and make more land available for cultivation towards food security, rural development and poverty reduction whilst equally responding to equitable spatial planning and settlement.
Public consultations and law-making process
For more than two decades, there have been various forms of public consultations seen as mechanisms for land reform, remaining true to our Constitution. After all, the advantages of political public consultations raises the quality and lawfulness in the law-making process.
Indeed, for democracy to function in a vibrant and sound manner, citizens should be well-informed about politics and public policy in any number of ways and there is no doubt that public consultation is among the strongest influences on the political knowledge of citizens.
All democratic institutions only really work if they genuinely represent the views of all groups in society, and this is at the heart of land reforms to continue to ensure that citizens' voices are heard and acted on in our political system. Ultimately, this is what is needed, so that citizens can help government make laws that better suit public needs.
Sequence of expropriation bill consultation process
We have come a long way to the finalisation of the current land reform Expropriation Bill.
Here is the sequence of events of the Expropriation Bill consultation process:
· The Expropriation Bill [B4D- 2015], was rejected by Parliament in September 2018 after the President sent the bill back to Parliament to deal with procedural defects by the National Council of Provinces after it was discovered that there had not been enough consultation between the NCOP and National House of Traditional Leaders.
· After the rejection of the bill, the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure revised it, including a new policy shift from the previous Expropriation Bill of 2015.
· The rejection of the Bill coincided with the appointment of a Presidential Advisory Panel on Agriculture and Land reform, chaired by the late Dr Vuyo Mahlati, to provide a unified perspective on expropriation for the land in the wider context of persisting land inequities, unsatisfactory land, agrarian reform and urban land development and distribution. The panel noted that the previous expropriation laws did not align with the transformative mandate of our Constitution and proposed a new policy shift;
· The new Expropriation Bill of 2019, was on the Compensation part for Expropriation. This part presented circumstances which may be just and equitable to pay nil compensation for expropriation.
· The new 2019 Expropriation Bill, which was gazetted for public comment in December 2018 for 60 working days, covered circumstances within which nil compensation could be paid;
· The 50 000 public comments on the new 2019 Expropriation Bill received were considered and contributed in enhancing clause 12(3) & 4 of the Bill dealing with nil compensation for Expropriation;
· Over and above 50 000 public comments received, as the executive authority, I consulted with different stakeholders on the nil compensation clause for expropriation.
Amongst the stakeholders I consulted with, included:
- Forum of South Africa Director Generals;
- Economic Sectors, Employment and Infrastructure Development Cluster;
- Department for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation;
- Departments of Justice and Correctional Services, South African Police Service, Environmental Affairs, Rural Development and Land Reform and Human settlements;
- Inter-Ministerial Committee on Agriculture and Land Reform;
- Women chapter of the Presidential Advisory panel on Agriculture and Land Reform;
- Office of the Chief State Law Advisor;
- Constitutional expert, Advocate Geoff Budlender;
- The National Economic Development and Labour Council; and
After consideration of all the inputs and comments made on the bill, the Office of the Chief State Law Advisor certified the Expropriation Bill as constitutional and it is now known as the Expropriation Bill 2020. I presented the bill to Parliament for parliamentary processes, where, amongst other processes, Parliament shall conduct more public hearings, as well as consult with different stakeholders that it shall deem fit.
Transparency and lawfulness in law-making process
The above public engagement process proves that transparency is directly conducive to lawfulness in the law making process.
We have never wanted any group to feel disengaged from the political world. We feel that our country can benefit if people feel listened to by the politicians who represent them.
We understand that sometimes it is challenging for politicians to get closer to citizens and get them interested in local issues.
Of course sometimes public meetings are not always well attended, and often those people who do attend express particular concerns or views that are not necessarily representative of the wider population.
Indeed, it would be easy to conclude that the public is often apathetic. However, more often this is not the case.
Of course, sometimes, there is a feeling that citizens are not happy with traditional forms of representative democracy because they do not believe it gives them sufficient opportunities to express their views.
There are those who feel that formal democracy does not offer them enough influence over decisions made by parliamentarians.
Engagement from the beginning
As government, we should never leave the public feeling that any piece of legislation is a done deal and that they have no chance to make a difference. We should engage the public so that their views and aspirations are taken into account from the very beginning.
Indeed, sometimes as government we do not always make it clear why we want to engage with citizens and what we plan to do with the feedback. In other words, consultation is not always linked clearly enough to decision-making processes.
As government we understand that it is sometimes difficult to engender the interest of all quarters of our communities in discussions, which is connected to the similar problem of getting citizens enthused about service delivery.
The challenge sometimes lies with the processes and systems of engagement, not simply with apathetic citizens. The fact that sometimes we fail to attract a wider cross-section of people is not so much because of their lack of interest, but because of our inability to capture their interest and imagination.
Citizens are often more comfortable responding to practical issues that address their immediate concerns than what they may perceive as far from their benefits.
For us, every issue is a people's issue. Citizens must have a voice, and it is fantastic that Parliament has recognised that and acted accordingly with the Expropriation Bill and others.
Moving land reform forward
This kind of representation means that Members of Parliament understand key issues in society and what citizens think about them more than anyone.
The bill should be welcomed not only from a constitutional perspective, but also because it will once and for all move land reform forward.
Of course the issue of no compensation may lead to numerous disputes and litigation. If that happens, the court will have the final say.
As seen in the wide ranging Expropriation Bill citizen engagement, it is virtually the defining characteristic of Parliament whether it listens and responds to the public in their capacity as citizens, or whether it sees the public as customers or users of service delivery.
As we look to the future, one of the key issues we face is how we, as government, can always improve on building a better relationship with the public.
Thanks to the 2020 Expropriation Bill public consultation process, let us always aspire to model aspects of public engagement where citizens are actively and directly involved in all stages of the decision-making process.
- Patricia de Lille is Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure