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Public policy should be responsive to changing realities

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Busani Ngcaweni is Principal of the National School of Government.

Poor public policy and democracy education is the reason why there is sometimes confusion about changes to public policy. The extent of public participation in policy making matters as much.

Two recent unrelated events prompted this reflection. First: the debate about government changing visa and travel regulations in an attempt to ease the movement of people, import critical skills and boost tourism numbers.

Many people welcomed this policy shift arguing that the 2015 regulations were ill-considered and responsible for negative growth in the tourism sector. The implementing minister, Malusi Gigaba, received the short end of the stick. In social media he became a mascot of poor public policy making, blamed for allegedly ignoring evidence when introducing the 2015 regulations. It didn’t matter even to the erudite (who ought to know something about how the state functions) that the policy provision was a Cabinet decision, not Gigaba’s invention.

What is certain from the visa saga is that the 2015 regulations had mixed results and therefore required amendment. The sentiment was clear from industry stakeholders, economists and ordinary members of the public.

Although public policy purists might argue against relying on social media to make conclusive decisions about the performance of public policy, negative sentiments there can’t be ignored. After all, this is a form of media, albeit unmediated by the tyranny of newsroom editorial strictures.

Let’s hasten to state that a fair number of people received the policy adjustment news with caution. They warn of unintended consequences of potential terrorists gaining access to our country (using visa exempted countries) and the risk of child trafficking if the new regulations tampered with the provisions of Chapter 3 of the Children’s Act. The chapter has straightforward provisions requiring evidence of consent from anyone who moves children in and out of the republic. In that connection, child protection activists will be watching the space to pick up a battle should regulatory changes be perceived to be threatening the security of children in a polity already facing alarming levels of child abuse.

The second incidence involves government’s response to public violence in the Johannesburg township of Westbury. The unrest sparked by the murder of the mother caught in the alleged gang violence crossfire. Her niece, also reportedly shot by a stray bullet is now out of hospital and is stable.

The community of Westbury mobilised street protests expressing their anger at rampant gang violence in the area which they attribute to high unemployment, poor delivery of municipal services and inadequate policing.

Police Minister, Bheki Cele, immediately visited the area and held public meetings. He has since returned there twice and announced a number of measures such as increasing the number of police officers and prioritising the detection and arrest of suspected gang members who terrorize the community. Cele’s responsiveness is being widely acknowledged.

A colleague in the senior management service of the Gauteng Provincial Government, Yoliswa Makhasi, shared chilling observations of Westbury after visiting the area as part of Bheki Cele’s intervention. Makhasi wrote that the area has:

  • Many (illegal) dumping sites throughout the community, wondering when garbage was last removed by the municipality. Crime and grime goes together, she wrote.
  • Poor street lighting and uncut grass, fertile conditions for crime.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse is prevalent.
  • Serious and violent crime, inadequate policing, alleged police corruption and collusion with criminals as well as gangsterism.
  • High levels of poverty and unemployment.

In addition to these poor public policy outcomes, the community of Westbury has lamented constant water and electricity cuts, deteriorating public infrastructure and limited access to public transport. Schools in the area are not helping children break the cycle of inter-generational poverty.

Makhasi, concluded her observation by quoting a community member who said to his fellow protesters “…it cannot be business as usual, hence we have to make our voices heard by marching on Friday, 5 October, 2018. We have to shake up this complacency and fight for our people who continue to suffer under such terrible and deteriorating conditions. We cannot be silent about this.”

What is the point of this recitation of what many have already encountered in the past fortnight?

We recall these to make a point that it is important for public policy to be responsive to changing realities and the needs of the people. We learn from literature that public policy should be reviewed every three to five years. Such reviews may result in sustaining policy direction or making necessary amendments. This has been the case with the travel regulations. The 2015 policy has been implemented, feedback received and empirical evidence has prompted changes. The worst case of governing is sticking to policies that are not working even as outcomes are evidently pitiable.

Public policy is an art of making choices, an adage goes. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, these choices result in unfavourable outcomes occasioned by a confluence of factors such as weak policy design, poor implementation capacity, limited resources or some other exogenous factors.

Poor public policy and democracy education is the reason why there is sometimes confusion about changes to public policy. The extent of public participation in policy making matters as much.

The state should take responsibility for increasing public awareness on policy making processes, especially on how decisions are taken (including decision-making structures, enforcement mechanisms, feedback loops etc).

For example, some in the public don’t know that ministers have no sole authority to determine public policy. All decisions are taken by Cabinet which can approve, veto or amended a departmental proposal. That is a constitutional provision. Predominantly these departmental submissions are influenced by ruling party mandates.

At the same time a minister responsible for implementing policy takes the flak or credit for the performance of policy that his or her department is a custodian of. That is generally how ministers are judged – apart from the flair and personality they add into their portfolios.

In the case of Westbury, it is clear from both official feedback and public commentary that our brothers and sisters in that locale are victims of poor policy implementation and democratic indifference or political neglect.

Policies designed to address spatial injustice have not worked for the people of Westbury as much as they have not worked for the people in the hostels, in Alex, Diepsloot and many other peri-urban neighbourhoods.

Further, social cohesion interventions have not worked hence the sentiment of racial exclusion. And, as the story goes for many poor and working class communities, local government dehumanises people by failing to provide quality and consistent basic services, as described by Makhasi above. Consequently, social policy failures become policing issues, putting pressure on the overstretched police department.

Perhaps, as we move towards marking 25 years of democracy, we should pause and think of creative and effective ways of raising awareness about public policy-making processes, including the role of the citizens in shaping policy direction.

Equally, policy makers need to recognise the dehumanising conditions of citizens and take proactive steps to change these. Meeting the basic needs of citizens, like regular refuse removal, teachers being in class on time teaching, are building blocks towards restoring the dignity of the people, stripped away by decades of racial oppression and post-apartheid structural unemployment which reproduces poverty and inequality. DM

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of the forthcoming book We are no Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall, Jacana Media.

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