By Andrea Couvert

The following text is my speech at the seminar “The City as a Democratic Common” Saturday – 27 October 2018 

Few days ago I attended to a conference where Tracy Ledger, a consultant specialising in local economic development, spoke about food security and public sector reform (more info: here). She focussed on the pervasive force that narratives have in shaping our mindset, the way in which we interpret the reality surrounding us, what we identify as problems or issues, and the solutions we can imagine. Narratives have the power to bring to the fore some elements and to hide others.

She made this example: we all know that many South African families struggle to access enough food to feed their children, in particular good quality food. Scientific research has also shown that malnutrition has heavy and direct repercussions on children’s brain development and school results. In the current mainstream narrative, possible solutions to this problem address only two elements: teaching people how to grow their own vegetables, or distributing more grants. Let’s consider the issue for a moment. What is actually the problem? Its that the people do not have enough money to buy food, or that the food is too expensive? If the problem is that the the food is too expensive, maybe our efforts should be directed to making food cheaper. Shoprite, for example, closed the financial year 2017 with Profit of R8b. Why should we use public money to give people grants so that Shoprite can make a bigger profit? Another option could be reducing Shoprite’s profit to R1b, which still for me is still a lot of money, to make the food cheaper. What is the reason why we not frame the problem in terms of “food is too expensive”? Probably it’s because in the current narrative the food chain is invisible. The same term “food chain” for most people does not have a clear meaning.

When we question the narratives that are presented to us, other possibilities begin to emerge, especially when forgotten or hidden aspects become visible. We must be wary in accepting the framework that others suggest; oftentimes those who offer us a definite narrative have a vested interest in making us buy into that. Coming back to our subject: what are the narratives that we have about public participation and the political sphere?

“We need strong leadership because that will solve all problems”.
“We must choose between DA or ANC”.
“We need to elect the right people, once in power they will make our interests”.
“We need to elect representatives that will make the right laws and regulations”.

Is it time to turn these narratives into questions. With our work of drafting a Bylaw on Civic Participation we have broken a narrative. The narrative that we elect people, and they make laws, regulations and decisions in our interest, and that if they are nice they will allow us to comment on their regulations. We reversed this narrative and we wrote our proposal for a new Civic Participation Bylaw in Cape Town.

Now before we look into the details of our bylaw proposal, I want to discuss a question: Why do we need a bylaw?

Any public institutions works and acts through laws and regulations, formal mandates decided by the political structures, and formal administrative processes. The current political narrative tends to hide this aspect. These are considered technical aspects reserved to politicians and officials, and the citizens are not required to – actually they are discouraged from – deal with them. Yet we cannot affirm the principle of citizen participation without looking at the whole process and its consequences.

In the bags that have been distributed you will find four documents:

  1. the process outline that we presented at the first meeting, on17th August 2017: the process looks nice and linear, but reality was a bit different! (download the PDF here)
  2. the manifesto, defined during a co-design workshop, on the 9th September 2017: (download the PDF here)
  3. the first draft of the People’s Bylaw, dated July 2018: (download here the PDF)
  4. the People’s Bylaw draft reviewed by Webber Wentzel’s legals, dated 17 September 2018 (download the PDF here)

Civic Participation Bylaw
We have identified three important aspects in the draft of the Civic Participation Bylaw:

The Public Register:
It is a formal administrative process
The City formally recognises civic organisations
It contains a definition of civic organizations.
The Civic Conversation Forum
It is an institution, with a formal definition and a governance structure, which follows formal processes and mandates.
Pacts for Civic Participation
When the working group on Civil Action for Public Participation (CAPP) began to elaborate the proposal, we were confronted with a contradiction: the need to define rules and processes, on one hand; and the awareness that each context has specific characteristics and that different contexts need different rules and process, on the other.

The working group therefore decided to define a meta-framework, that we called Pacts for Civic Participation: the Pacts are processes to define formal agreements between civic organisations (and others stakeholders) and the City. Pacts are not joint statements, shared principles, visions, dreams: they are contracts. In the Draft for Civic Participation Bylaw it is specified that each Pact must define: a clear scope, area of application and expected outcomes, and the roles and responsibilities of members of the Civic Organisation and officials from the City involved.

Defining pacts for civic participation requires civic organisations to answer some complex, difficult questions, and force us to question our narratives, in particular the narrative that sees the Civic Organisations as the structures facilitating the relationship between the citizens and the City when the need arises to ask the City to do, or to implement, specific actions. The Pacts for Civic Participation force us to rethink approaches that we, the civic organisations, have.

When civic organisations propose to establish a Pact with the City, they must have a clearly defined project for that Pact. They have to have clarity on which process of public participation will be implemented to ensure that the project is supported by the citizens. In this approach, therefore, the responsibility to implement processes of public participation will no longer be the sole responsibility of the City, but it becomes responsibility of the civic organisations as well; the Civics shall be able to build shared vision in their neighbourhood.

The activity of building a shared vision, ideas and proposal that can be translated into Pacts for Civic Participation cannot be limited to members of civic organisations. This means that civic organisations must improve their capability to build alliances with other local organisations, other structures of civil society, i.e. schools, churches, mosques, cultural and sporting associations, and so on. This issue also opens up to a question: what are the competences and skills that civic organisation should have to do this?

All these issues call into question our current narratives, and potentially contain new possibilities. In the second part of today’s seminar we shall start looking into these questions, and attempting some answers, by analysing the experiences, victories, and challenges that some Civics are currently facing. The goal of this afternoon workshop is to find together some answers and agree on action plans for the future. In closing I just want to mention that, as far as we know, this is the first and only bylaw written by citizens in South Africa so far.

A new Civic Participation Bylaw in Cape Town