Meaningful engagement and active citizenry

The issue of the extent to which residents participate in the affairs of local government through various public participation mechanisms raises in turn the matter of two new challenges facing government in the city-region. These are the requirement that government:

  1. 'meaningfully engages' with residents around administrative decisions that impact upon them; and
  2. begins to promote a more ‘active citizenry’.

The ‘meaningful engagement’ requirement was given clearest expression in the Constitutional Court judgement on the ‘Occupiers of 51 Olivia Road vs the City of Johannesburg’ court case, about the eviction of illegal occupiers in a Johannesburg inner-city building known as San Jose. The Court found that the City had failed to ‘meaningfully engage’ with occupiers who would be rendered homeless by the eviction and provide them with alternative accommodation. The judgement echoed previous decisions such as that in favour of the residents of Khutsong, who argued that Merafong should not have been re-demarcated out of Gauteng. Here the Court found that the decision to exclude Merafong from Gauteng could not stand because of inadequate consultation with affected residents. While the ‘meaningful engagement’ requirement certainly helps to deepen democracy and development practice in the GCR, realising the principle will demand significantly more resources over the long term.

The ‘active citizenry’ idea has been promoted by the National Planning Commission as an essential change to the current policy approach of providing assets and services to people who are thereby incentivised to simply wait for development. While the notion takes us back to earlier immediately post-apartheid principles of ‘people’s driven development’ its practical implications are that the existing polity – in which community expectations and state-legitimacy are defined by a ‘provide basic needs’ agenda – will need to be unravelled.