Building stronger bridges between provincial legislatures and CSOs: Reflections from a baseline study

By Nompumelelo Runji

Submitted: 3 November 2020

A government that works for the people should necessarily work with the people. This is particularly true for the legislative sector which is mandated to represent the people. It does so by facilitating public involvement as well as exercising oversight over government departments and leadership to ensure that these remain accountable to the people.

Like most other government entities, legislatures are steeped in bureaucratic processes and procedures. Therefore, relationship building is not as simple as a couple of phone calls and meetings with MPLs (members of provincial legislatures). It takes the painstaking effort of literally petitioning the staff at the offices of the political and administrative heads of the institution, the Speaker and Secretary, respectively.

This may sound discouraging. However it is no reason to throw in the towel. Democracy thrives through a relationship of interdependence between various stakeholders and institutions within society. This is what underpins the system of checks and balances that ensures that the common good is kept top of the agenda. A closer working relationship between the public and legislatures should be pursued as a means to strengthen oversight over executive conduct. Having communities providing support by sharing information that is verified by their lived experiences could strengthen the legislatures’ arsenal to deal with corruption and maladministration. Legislatures also need to be responsive and report openly and honestly to the public regarding what they are doing to address their submissions and petitions to inspire confidence.

Facilitating cooperation between members of provincial legislatures (MPLs) and civil society organisations is crucial within this broader context of building a democracy that functions effectively and in the public interest. And doing so requires an open mind.

In the course of working with local CSOs and MPLs in three provinces – Limpopo, North West and Northern Cape – as a team of researchers we have relied on a multi-pronged approach that includes making informal contact with politicians, sending formal correspondence to the chiefs of staff as well as holding meetings directly with the various units and committees designated to promote public involvement in government. The reception in the three provinces has not been uniform and what worked in one province did not necessarily prove to be effective in the other provinces.

There is no one size fits all in this kind of work. Success or failure depends on the temperament of those heading up crucial portfolios at the legislatures as they can play a gatekeeping role. Relationships really matter. It takes time to build rapport and establish trust. Changes in staffing and circumstances, whether on the legislature’s side or on our side as a civil society partner, had implications for the project. This was particularly our experience in the North West where we had achieved good momentum. However, political instability in the province and changes in our project team together worked against the earlier inroads thus stalling the relationship-building process.

Our experience in Limpopo taught us that establishing official cooperation between government institutions and civil society needs to have a long-term horizon. Gaining a good understanding of the internal dynamics within the legislature’s administration, having a grasp of the official communications procedures as well as working informally with MPLs need to be done in tandem and we need to be in it for the long haul. And sometimes, as civil society, we have to be content with working informally until such a time that we are able to win the trust of the officialdom. This requires consistency and staying focused on the ultimate goal of building a lasting relationship that will aid local CSOs into the future.

Sometimes success is just a matter of being at the right place at the right time and meeting administrators whose needs and KPIs are in alignment with our project goals and objectives.   It also makes a difference when we are able to identify a synergy in what we hope to achieve as well as shared values and ambition. This was our experience in the Northern Cape. Initial informal meetings with the team responsible for coordinating public participation led to us identifying synergies which indicated that the ground was ripe for cooperation between the legislature and civil society. Having followed the appropriate communication processes, and with an open and willing administration who are passionate about improving the capacity of MPLs as well as the legislature as institution we were set to work to design a process that could result in effective engagement with civil society. A lot can be achieved when there is a caring administration in place that is adequately supported internally and externally.

In all provinces we found that MPLs are willing and enthusiastic about working with civil society. However, MPLs expressed some significant concerns that tend to be barriers to cooperation between provincial legislatures and local civil society in provinces. MPLs in Limpopo and the North West that responded to our questionnaire and insights from a series of virtual engagements with MPLs in Northern Cape highlighted the following challenges:

  1. a lack of education and awareness about the role of the legislature and of the importance of public involvement;
  2. political interference by political parties (particularly the ANC) and partisanship in civil society’s approach to engagement with the legislature; and
  3. the need for legislatures to affirm the role of CSOs by providing education, support and facilitating access to the institution’s activities.
  4. a lack of internal checks and balances on the status of public participation initiatives, creating a reluctance for MPLs to reach out to communities and requesting their inputs, as they feel like they lack the ability to give appropriate feedback. While there are a variety of free digital tools available, it appears there is reluctance to take these up.

The results of our study reaffirmed the ongoing need to strengthen the internal technical capabilities of CSOs to formally participate in provincial legislature proceedings and to enable MPLs within provincial legislatures to engage more effectively with civil society. This is the objective that drives the Democracy Work’s Foundation (DWF)’s Civil Society Participation in Provincial Legislatures Programme funded by the European Union and in partnership with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

Nompumelelo is a thought leader with a solid track record in policy and political analysis. She is featured regularly in online and print media, as well as on radio and television. With years of experience as a communicator and researcher, she has authored and contributed to books, papers and articles. She writes a weekly column that has been running since 2014 for the Sowetan, South Africa’s second biggest daily newspaper, providing analysis on sociopolitical developments that have implications for democratic consolidation and deepening and governance in the country. Nompumelelo has a background in academia and has been a part-time lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Political Science since 2016 where she is currently pursuing her PhD under a Mellon Foundation Scholarship. Her research focus is analysing the effects of social media on political agency and implications for democratic consolidation and deepening which uses social media use among Fees Must Fall activists as a case study. She holds a BSocsci in Industrial Sociology and Labour Studies, BA (Honours) in Political Science as well as a MPhil in Multidisciplinary Human Rights from the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria where she wrote a minidissertation on the constitutional reform process in Kenya with a particular focus on the appointment of judges and the implications of judicial reform for democratic consolidation.

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