Promoting Political Participation with DearSA

Commentators and pundits often bemoan political apathy among citizens, particularly younger ones. It’s a trend common to many countries including South Africa where news articles, research reports and opinion pieces regularly warn of the dangers of such apathy. Yet opportunities for meaningful participation can be hard to come by, especially for those who may be short on time or simply turned off by politics as usual.

One organisation in South Africa is trying to change that. Dear South Africa exists to provide citizens with an avenue for participating in decision-making processes in their country. Under the terms of South Africa’s Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA), citizens must be given the opportunity to respond to decisions affecting them. The law covers government departments, security forces and parastatal entities, such as the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Dear South Africa seeks citizen feedback on active campaigns across a variety of issues. At the time of writing, citizens were able to have their say on topics including energy price rises, forestry protection and hate crimes. You may be forgiven for thinking this sounds very familiar. Is it not just another petitions site, like change.org or 38 Degrees? Rob Hutchinson, Dear South Africa’s founder, explains what makes his site different:

“Whereas the South African government considers petitions as a single submission, even if they have thousands of signatures, the method used by DearSA ensures that each and every public comment is counted as an individual submission and must, by law, be considered in the decision-making process. This is why DearSA presents objective campaigns to invite comment (not signatures) from all points of view and delivers each individual public comment directly to government through official channels. Campaigns are launched whenever government gazettes an amendment to an existing law, proposes new legislation or announces tariff increases.”

Despite only being around for just over a year, Dear South Africa and its community of users have already scored some notable successes. Rob explains:

“The City of Cape Town proposed a punitive drought charge intended to curb water usage. Citizens immediately realised they would in some cases be incurring a 200% increase on monthly bills. As the law requires public comment before implementation, we launched a campaign and attracted 61,001 individual submissions – each of which needed to be acknowledged and considered in the City’s decision-making process. The City canned the idea citing the massive public participation as the reason. Before DearSA, the City received an average of 200 submissions.

In another instance, Eskom, the SA national Electricity provider, announced its intention to raise tariffs by a whopping 33%. We opened a campaign and received 185,000 comments and suggestions from the public which were also presented by our Energy Expert Coalition at the public hearings. Eskom were granted a 2.5% tariff hike.

Finally, the SA government announced an amendment to the Constitution was necessary in order to accommodate Expropriation Without Compensation. We launched a campaign and attracted 230,000 public submissions which were also printed and hand delivered to SA parliament. We further provided government with a report and a summary – which the commission used in their report to parliament. The public participation was quoted by President Cyril Rampahosa as being “the greatest political debate since the inception of our democracy”. This is an ongoing matter and another public participation opportunity will be announced soon.”

Given their track record and innovative approach to public participation in politics, Indigo is delighted to be supporting South Africa continue and expand its work. Our grant of 400,000 ZAR will allow Dear South Africa to further develop the site, invest in marketing and promotion and potentially partner with other organisations to further their work.