In 1998, four years after the inaugural elections in South Africa, Patrick Kulati wrote in the Environmental Justice Network newsletter that “public participation is one of the major issues that continue to elude South Africans as they grapple with the realities of democratic governance”.

He referred to a presentation made then by Sipho Maseko, of the University of Western Cape, who contrasted two types of democracy, namely participatory and representative. In his analysis Maseko said “the former was not present in South Africa. It was present before the 1994 elections when people’s forums were held and during the Constitution-making processes where people were asked to comment.”

Voters wait in line at the Intlonipho Primary School polling station in Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg on May 29, 2024, during South Africa’s general election. Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP

Good quality public participation beyond the ballot in South Africa’s governance continues to elude us, 26 years later. This ongoing problem underscores the need for continued efforts to normalise and integrate public participation into South Africa’s governance structures.

In her article titled A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Sherry Arnstein poses a fundamental question: what does citizen participation entail and how does it relate to social imperatives? She contends that citizen participation equates to citizen empowerment.

It involves the reconfiguration of power dynamics to include marginalised people who are excluded from political and economic decision-making processes. Participation serves as a mechanism through which these groups can contribute to the formulation of goals, policies, resource allocation, programme implementation and the distribution of benefits such as contracts and patronage.

It is a tool for catalysing significant social reform, allowing people to partake in the benefits of a prosperous society. Arnstein emphasises the distinction between genuine participation and consultation. In the latter, citizens are informed about decisions rather than co-creating their futures.

She also argues that genuine participation is vital for social reform, allowing people to benefit from societal prosperity. When participation fails to bring change, it can lead to disillusionment and may turn citizens against the democratic system, because they see it as superficial.

In South Africa, particularly after the 29 May elections, political leaders, citizens and society need to prioritise achieving genuine redistribution of power. One effective approach is by redefining participation beyond mere voting.

Pre-colonial societies in Africa were based on community values and were made through consensus-building processes involving various stakeholders in society. By embracing both traditional and nontraditional forms of engagement, such as community forums, lekgotlas, citizen assemblies and participatory budgeting, the democratic process can be revitalised.

This broader approach challenges the disillusioning notion that voting alone lacks substantial influence beyond the ballot box. Instead, it empowers citizens to shape policies, resource allocation and decision-making processes, thus fostering a more inclusive and responsive democracy.

The foundation of democracy lies in enabling citizens to elect their leaders through free and fair elections. Although elections are a crucial democratic principle, they are not the only ones.

In the lead-up to the elections, we witnessed political parties campaigning and making their case for why they are the most suitable to lead South Africa. A significant test and challenge will be maintaining a collective commitment to the country.

There are three key starting points. First, political leaders should avoid seeing election results as a zero-sum game. Second, their commitment to citizens should not depend on the election outcome. Third, inclusive civic engagement should be strengthened, and our understanding of it should be evaluated.

The election cycle was an opportunity to highlight the various problems facing the country. Meetings provided intentional platforms to hear directly from citizens about their daily experiences with democracy. Most importantly, these meetings offered diverse perspectives on how to move the nation forward. Exploring how we work with the democratic process beyond the ballot box can deepen our understanding of the problems and opportunities for democratic consolidation in the country.

The 2015 South African Local Government Association (Salga) report found that persistent protestors are more inclined to work with government officials, have a greater belief that they’re being heard and are more prone to using violence to advance their causes compared with people who don’t protest or who are occasional protestors.

This finding shed light on citizen-government relations. While these protestors may feel heard, their resort to violence suggests underlying frustrations or perceptions of inadequacy in the responsiveness of the government’s response to their demands.

This trend suggests that protest actions can serve as a means of communicating with government officials, while violent and disruptive protests act as a more forceful expression of their grievances.

South Africa leads the region in direct engagement with local government, with about 39% of its population contacting officials at least once a year, compared with the regional average of 29%.

Encouraging such interactions can strengthen democratic institutions and build trust between the government and the public. When citizens believe that their input can lead to tangible changes, they are more likely to remain involved and committed to democratic processes.

This, in turn, can lead to more effective governance and greater societal stability, as the government becomes more attuned to the needs and concerns of its people. By promoting active and meaningful civic participation, South Africa can continue to develop a robust and resilient democracy that reflects the will of its citizens.

There is a collective acknowledgement of the need for change and over the years the socioeconomic and political dysfunction in the country have caused increased irritation and resistance. Citizens need to continue voicing their concerns and holding leaders accountable, while political leaders must remain responsive and involved in the everyday lives of the people they represent.

Reimagining democratic participation means fostering a culture where civic engagement is continuous and where the relationship between citizens and their leaders extends well beyond the ballot box.

While there is a collective awareness that change is necessary, the current approach often lacks a sense of ownership and responsibility. We need to reimagine how we exercise our agency, understanding that our power extends beyond election day and is not solely dependent on political leaders.

It is also essential to recognise that low or decreased voter turnout isn’t always indicative of apathy but rather a sense of despondency at not feeling represented by any particular party.

Exercising our agency involves embracing a sense of ownership over the democratic process. This does not imply that South Africans are apathetic; rather, it encourages a new way of thinking about and engaging with democracy.

Issues such as lack of accountability and corruption are pressing concerns in South Africa. While political leaders and parties often use these issues to sway voters, more practical solutions are needed.

One such step is enhancing transparency in coalition governments, which are becoming more common in South African politics. Coalition partners should craft detailed coalition agreements, allowing citizens to understand the commitments made and hold them accountable. This transparency can foster trust and a better understanding of political processes.

Another practical way to enhance participation and trust is through implementing and normalising consequence management. By ensuring that leaders face repercussions for failing to meet their commitments, we can build a culture of accountability.

Citizens, particularly the youth, are increasingly resorting to nontraditional forms of participation. Social media activism, boycotting, academic activism and political demonstrations are all ways in which the youth are collectively raising their voices and placing pressure on leaders. Recognising and valuing these forms of participation is crucial for a vibrant democracy.

By fostering a sense of ownership and encouraging continuous, diverse forms of participation, we can provoke a new way of thinking about democratic engagement. This approach will not only address the immediate issues of accountability and corruption but also build a more engaged and empowered citizenry, ultimately leading to a stronger and more resilient democracy in South Africa.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.

Patrick (Lonwabo Mepeni) Kulati is CEO of Good Governance Africa, Southern Africa Region. He is author of the book A Gap in the Cloud, a speaker, content creator, executive coach, and leader. The founder of Kulati Coaching, which equips professionals and organisations with personal and professional development, Patrick also runs The Blackman’s Coach which focuses on coaching and transforming young men to be enterprising, independent, responsible, and value-adding men. He has served as CEO for the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (Africa); CEO of the Paraffin Safety Association of Southern Africa; CEO of Habitat for Humanity SA and  National Director and CEO for SOS Children’s Villages in South Africa.

Mmabatho Mongae is a Data Analyst within the Governance Insights & Analyst Programme. She is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, and her thesis research focuses on how governance quality influences popular support for and satisfaction with democracy in Africa. While completing her PhD, Mmabatho worked as Sessional lecturer in the International Relations Department at the University of the Witwatersrand and as a research fellow at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS) at the University of Johannesburg. Her research interests include democracy, governance, Africa’s political economy, and quantitative social analysis. Mmabatho has published research for Routledge, EISA, and The Thinker.