Policy Brief 32: How civil society can strengthen the capacity of South Africa’s Parliament

There is often a disconnect between government and ordinary citizens being heard and represented in government structures, processes and decision-making. The role of civil society organisations (CSOs) is critical in addressing the gap between government and ordinary people to strengthen a democracy that ensures robust, accountable and effective public and government partnerships and representation.


Civil society organisations (CSOs) are not only crucial for holding national parliament, provincial legislatures and municipalities to account, they can also strengthen the capacity, efficiency and accessibility of these representative chambers.

Parliament is the pillar representative institution in a democracy. Parliament holds governments accountable, ensure that public services are delivered effectively and that public money is spent wisely. South Africa’s legislatures consist of the National Assembly, the National Council of Provinces and the nine provincial legislatures. They are tasked with representing citizens, ensuring that public resources are prudently managed and that government delivers quality public services.

South Africa’s model constitution gives a special place for civil society to play an oversight role over democratic institutions, such as Parliament, participate in policy and decision-making and monitor the implementation thereof (RSA 1996). Civil society has a crucial role to play to make legislatures accountable, responsive and act in the public interest (Diamond 1997; Govender 2006).

Civil society also helps citizens especially the poor, vulnerable and excluded, the tools to participate in legislative decision and policy-making, to know and assert their rights. South Africa’s civil society organisations have increasingly become the last line of defence fighting on behalf of ordinary citizens to secure their input in parliament policies and decisions and holding elected representatives, the executive and country president accountable.

 Civil society provides information about citizens’ rights, policies and decisions

Citizens cannot meaningfully participate in the decision, policy and law-making in Parliament unless they have full information (Constitutional Court 2006). Most of South Africa’s citizens are illiterate, poor and do not have knowledge about their rights. Civil society organisations, therefore, play an important role in providing civic education about the rights of ordinary citizens and communities about the policy debates in Parliament, decisions made and the impact of these on them.

But civil society organisations also have a role in helping ordinary citizens’ access to parliament, understanding their rights and the obligations of their elected representatives. Civil society organisations must lobby parliament on behalf of ordinary citizens and communities who are marginalized, illiterate and impoverished, and can be easily hoodwinked by unscrupulous elected representatives.

Unscrupulous politicians in South Africa increasingly pursue populistic policies to hide their incompetence, corruption and for self-enrichment. Civil society organisations must expose such opportunism by elected representatives or unelected leaders among ordinary citizens and communities and provide evidence-based alternative policies.

Civil society hold parliament accountable

The first very obvious role is for civil society organisations to hold representative chambers accountable for their decisions and policies and for the behaviour of individual elected representatives.

Most of South Africa’s citizens are illiterate, poor and have little access to representative chambers. Civil society organisations, therefore, have the responsibility to on behalf of such destitute citizens hold elected representatives accountable. Civil society can mobilise citizens and communities to protest against undemocratic policies, unresponsive executive and lack of legislative transparency.

The power of South African civil society has been demonstrated by it extraordinarily been in part responsible for forcing out two ANC and South African Presidents since 1994 – both former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma when they behaved undemocratically. During this period Parliament proved impotent to hold the leaders’ executive accountable.

Civil society organisations mobilised for long against former ANC and South African president Jacob Zuma for his involvement in alleged corruption and manipulation of democratic institutions, including Parliament. It was only consistent mobilisation by civil society organisations that compelled many ANC MPs in Parliament to act against former president Jacob Zuma and many other elected leaders and public servants alleged to have been involved in corruption.

Former ANC and South African president Thabo Mbeki faced long-running civil society opposition to his refusal to make HIV/Aids medicine available at public hospitals, his perceived lack of consultation and marginalisation of critics. Mbeki’s critics including parliamentarians in the ANC, surfed the wave of anti-Mbeki mobilisation by civil society organisations to mobilise to prevent him from being re-elected as ANC president at the party’s 2007 Polokwane national conference.

Civil society organisations – with their ideas, skills and community footprint can provide representative chambers with the capacity to come up with quality policies and decisions (Kaulem 2007; Jones and Tembo 2008). Civil society organisations could themselves write the policies, laws and decisions on behalf of representative chambers – and this way ensure that these are in favour of the poor, vulnerable and the excluded.

Civil society provides input to policies

But civil society organisations can also influence policies and decisions made by elected representatives (Nakedi 2004; Allen, Forrester and Patel 2008). South Africa’s elected representatives frequently come up with poor quality policies and decisions which are often counter to the interest of the constituencies that voted them in.

Civil society organisations can give input to policies, laws and decisions which are under deliberation by representative chambers, ensuring that the views of ordinary citizens and communities are included. Civil society organisation input to policies and decisions could ensure they are socially just, equitable and in the widest public interest.

Very few representative chambers have dedicated policy and research offices, or budgets which can provide policy drafting or analysis. If they do have, they are often poorly capacitated, without adequate budgets, resources and skills. The policy-making capacity of the national parliamentary, provincial legislature and municipal wings of political parties are often also equally under-resourced.

In fact, it is crucial that civil society organisations are involved in elected representative chambers’ policy-making and decision-making – providing ideas, alternative policies and critiquing existing policies. Civil society organisations can mobilise society-wide experts who are not necessarily known to parliament representatives or the state, to provide expert input in policy and decision-making.

Over the past years, civil society organisations have kept social justice on the legislative agenda. Over the years, they have called for a Basic Income Grant (BIG). Many vulnerable citizens fall outside South Africa’s current social security system, which focuses on pensioners, former war veterans, the disabled and children. Furthermore, the Unemployment Insurance Fund and the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) provide protection only to a restricted number of recipients.

The BIG campaign called for a universal, across-the-board, income grant without a means test (BIG Coalition 2002). The Basic Income Coalition ranged from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), to the Black Sash and the South African Council of Churches (SACC). The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) also supports the call for a basic income grant. Although government has never implemented the proposal, the campaign played an instrumental role in government expanding social grant recipients.

Civil society ensure budgets are inclusive

Civil society organisations should play a bigger role in drawing up budgets set by parliament, provincial legislatures and municipalities. Ordinary citizens do not have the capacity, resources or skills to influence public budgets – civil society organisations, therefore, have a vital role to play, to ensure the needs of poor communities are genuinely addressed in budgets. They should help ordinary citizens and communities to hold elected representatives accountable for their budget decisions.

They can do so by mobilising citizens and communities to have their say during budget hearings, to educate citizens and communities about their rights to determine spending priorities and to involve citizens and communities in monitoring and evaluating the actual spending and distribution of budgets.

Civil society organisations have also for years, under the umbrella of the People’s Budget Coalition, campaigned for national Budgets which are focused on social justice, is pro-poor and participatory. The People’s Budget Coalition includes trade unions, churches, and NGOs, including the South African Coalition of Churches, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

Again, although the key proposals of the People’s Budget Coalition had not been adopted by the ANC government, the coalition did ensure that National Budgets, are more widely scrutinized, ordinary citizens are educated about how and compelled government to include aspects of pro-poor proposals in the Budget.

Civil society monitors implementation and impact of policies

But civil society organisations are also necessary to monitor and evaluate the implementation of policies and decisions adopted by representative chambers. South Africa is currently facing a policy and decision implementation crisis. Policies and decisions are often adopted by representative chambers, but ineffectively implemented, or not implemented, at all.

Civil society organisations can monitor the implementation of policies and decisions adopted by representative chambers, and alert them about implementation bottlenecks, and provide remedies to unlock such obstacles. But civil society organisations can also evaluate the impact of policies and decisions on their supposed beneficiaries – whether policies and decisions adopted, actually serve the objectives they were adopted for.

Many of the policies and decisions adopted by representative chambers often have do not have the desired impact. Such ineffective policies often remain in place. Civil society can do this by conducting regular audits of policies, citizen report cards, in which citizens are surveyed on their views on policy impact and implementation, and through involving communities in tracking budget spending. Civil society organisations can then feedback the results of such public audits, tracking and citizen views back to parliament.

By monitoring the impact of policies and decisions, civil society organisations could warn elected representatives about the failure of their policies and decisions.

Civil society monitors the behaviour of elected representatives

But civil society organisations are also vital to monitor the behaviour of elected representatives. It is crucial that civil society organisations monitor dishonesty, incompetence and pork-barreling by elected representatives.

Policy and decision-making at representative chambers are often captured by corrupt, partisan and factional interests, rather than in the widest public interest.

But civil society organisations’ role is also to inform ordinary citizens about decisions and policies made by elected representatives, and whether such decisions and policies are in the public interest. Because of the high levels of illiteracy and poverty, and the social distance between ordinary citizens and elected representatives, ordinary citizens often do not have the information on the policies adopted and decisions made by representative chambers.

Because of this lack of knowledge, often ordinary citizens cannot assert their rights and hold their elected representatives accountable. Elected representatives could also embellish their delivery record or come up with excuses for non-delivery – and their constituencies would not be any wiser. Civil society organisations and activists should point out such inconsistencies of elected representatives to their poor constituencies.

Civil society organisations must police conflicts of interest of elected representatives, expose them when they occur, and shame elected representatives breaching conflict of interest rules. But civil society should also support democratically minded MPs who are pushed out by their parliamentary leaders for doing the right thing.

How civil society can participate in the appointment of boards and executives of democratic institutions, SOEs and official task teams

But civil society organisations must also participate in the nomination, selection and appointment of executives and boards of state-owned enterprises, democratic institutions and task teams. At the moment, this is done almost entirely by elected representatives in parliament, provincial legislatures and municipal councils, and endorsed by the president, premiers and mayors.

Civil society organisations should be able to nominate candidates for appointment, make representations to the suitability of the nominated candidates and also form part of interview panels. Civil society organisations should also be able to interrogate why competent nominated candidates were not chosen, compare the suitability of those rejected to those appointed, and call for review of appointment decisions.

Where elected representatives lack the capacity to hold the executive, government departments, SOEs and business organisations accountable, civil society organisations must provide parliament with their necessary expert evidence to hold these accountable.

 Civil society can foster cross-parliamentary political party alliances

Parliamentary politics in South Africa since 1994 has been very partisan. Civil society must promote the idea of cooperation between opposition parties and between political parties and civil society, to strengthen democracy, participation and social justice. Civil society organisations could practically help foster cross-party legislative alliances on policies which go beyond party ideological lines, specifically centred on defending constitutionally enshrined democratic principles, such as gender equality, social justice and non-racialism.

The campaign for a universal basic income grant, although it was not adopted, was nevertheless an example of a successful cross-party coalition which involved some ANC and opposition MPs, including the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, as well as a broad range of civil society groups.

South African civil society have for many years opposed the Traditional Courts Bill first introduced in parliament in 2008, and which directly affects more than 14 million rural South Africans. This has been a successful example of civil society coalition with governing party and opposition MPs. Civil society opposition has blocked the passage of the bill.

The bill undermines gender equality, deprives women and rural citizens of their constitutional rights, and makes traditional leaders more equal than ordinary citizens. It essentially formally introduces two legal systems in South Africa. One being the formal constitution of democratic institutions and values such as gender equality, which would be applicable to those living in urban areas; and that of customary law, where women are less equal than men, traditional leaders have super powers, and rural dwellers under the jurisdiction of the traditional courts, cannot access the rights in the democratic constitution, laws and values.

Civil society organisations embarked on awareness campaigns in the rural areas explaining to vast numbers of illiterate rural dwellers how the bill will decimate their basic constitutional rights. This is also an example of civil society educating rural poor South Africans about their democratic rights, and opposing efforts by unscrupulous political and traditional leaders to hoodwink ordinary citizens under the guise of protection “culture”.


At the moment civil society organisations are often seen by some ANC leaders as the “enemy” that should be shunned. Often, when national or provincial legislatures host public sittings in remote areas, civil organisations are often not invited to participate (Ben-Zeev 2012). This wrong view deprives representative chambers the ideas, skills and community reach of civil organisations – and ultimately undermines the effectiveness of parliament.

The governing ANC and opposition parties must engineer a conducive regulatory environment for civil society, which guarantees them the freedom to operate, to receive external funding and access to information. Parliament can institutionalise civil society involvement in policy, decision and law-making, by making it compulsory for civil society to draft and comment on legislative policies, decisions and laws.

By effectively holding South Africa’s parliament to account, civil society can also strengthen the capacity of parliaments to hold presidents, leaders and governments accountable; and to come up with better quality decisions and policies; behave more transparently and honestly. Civil society organisations must build stronger alliances between different civil society organisations, pooling resources and ideas to hold legislatures accountable, improving the quality of decision-making and policies and to ensure elected representatives to behave honestly.

Civil society organisations should not position themselves as oppositional for the sake of it but must oppose elected representatives when they stray and provide them with the capacity when they lack. In fact, South Africa’s civil society should pursue a strategy of critical engagement with the legislature.

Selected Bibliography

Karen Allen, Chris Forrester and Leila Patel (2008) Toward Meaningful Civic Engagement: A Case Study of Civil Society Participation in Legislative Reform,

Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk 2008: 44(4), pp. 403-413


Bamusi, M. (2006) Establishing Linkages with Civil Society: The Case of Malawi Parliament and the Malawi Economic Justice Network. Pretoria: SARPN.

Keren Ben-Zeev (2012) “A Report of Proceedings and Issues at the People’s Power Conference”, 13-15 August

Constitutional Court (2006) Doctors for Life [DFL] International versus National Assembly & Others (CCT12/05) [2006] ZACC 11 (para 129)

Department for International Development (2007) CSOs and Good Governance: A DFID Practice Briefing Paper. London: DFID.

Diamond, L (1997). ‘Civil Society and the Development of Democracy.’ Estudio Working Paper 101, 1-72.


Govender, Pregs, et al (2006) “Report of the Independent Panel Assessment of Parliament”. Parliament of South Africa, Government Printers, Cape Town

Gumede, William (2009) “Modernising the ANC”, In Peter Kagwana and Kwandile Kondlo (eds.) State of the Nation: South Africa. Human Sciences Research Council (pp. 35-57).

Gyimah-Boadi, E. (1996) ‘Civil Society in Africa’. Journal of Democracy 7(2): 118–32.

Hearn, J. (1999) Foreign Aid, Democratisation and Civil Society in Africa: A Study of South Africa, Ghana and Uganda. Discussion Paper 368. Brighton: IDS.

Hudson, A. (2007) Parliaments and Development. Briefing Paper 18. London: ODI.

Hudson, A and C. Wren (2007) ‘Parliamentary Strengthening in Developing Countries’. ODI/One World Trust Report for DFID.

Kaulem, J. (2007) ‘The Role of Civil Society in Social Policy’. Paper presented by the ICSW at the UN Commission for Social Development 45th Session: New Consensus on Comprehensive Social Policies for Development, New York, 9 February.

Nicola Jones and Fletcher Tembo (2008) Promoting Good Governance through Civil Society-Legislator Linkages: Opportunities and Challenges for Policy Engagement in Development Country Contexts. Research and Policy in Development Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, July


Mandaville, A. (2004) Legislatures and Civil Society: Potential Partners in Poverty Reduction. Washington, DC: NDI.

M’boge, F. and S. Doe (2004) African Commitments to Civil Society: A Review of Eight NEPAD Countries. Paper 6. Lusaka: AHSI.

NAKEDI, B. (2004) Moving towards people’s power. Lessons from the Field. IDASA Active Citizenship Occasional Paper November 2004. Cape Town: Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA).

Republic of South Africa Constitution (1996), Sections 59(1)(a), 72(1)(a), 118(1)(a)

Southern Africa Trust (2007) ‘Establishing a Civil Society Support Mechanism with the Pan African Parliament (PAP), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM)’. Final Research Report.

Leila Patel (2008) Civic engagement, participation, volunteering and social inclusion in national development. Vosesa Focus, vol 3 (2).


United Nations (2007) Expert Group Workshop to examine methods for promoting participation, engagement, including volunteerism, and inclusion in national development initiatives. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the UN Volunteers Programme, UN New York, 27-28 November.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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