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Participatory Democracy For The Young

Primary school children from the Pinelands North Primary School were treated to an unusual, if not unique, outing when they were given the opportunity of visiting the Western Cape Parliament and presenting its select committee on agriculture and environmental affairs with their input on issues as disparate as energy consumption, water rights, waste disposal and bio-diversity.

Five grade seven learners were direct participants in the debate; their classmates listened attentively and maintained excellent discipline throughout the proceedings which were presided over in avuncular fashion by veteran MPL Mike Walters, (who might have looked a little like an out of season Father Christmas to some of the youngsters). The presentations were all well researched and expertly delivered. Up to the minute input on the effects of the recent Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters was given and a suggestion for funding for research into harnessing the gravitational power of the moon was made. The attention to detail, cohesiveness and complementarily honed nature of the contributions all indicate a skilled and well schooled approach to the important environmental issues raised so pertinently in the debate.

The fact that most of the learners will not themselves be eligible to vote for at least another five years did not deter them from the dedication with which they approached their assignments. The members of the committee who attended were mightily impressed with the quality of the work that manifestly went into the clear and concise presentations.

Participatory democracy is new in South Africa. The replacement of the old sovereign parliament as the vehicle for the exercise of power with a constitutional state in which the Constitution is supreme and all are constrained by its principles and values ought to give our youth hope for the future of the country. In any system in which conduct and laws that are inconsistent with the values in place are invalid and can be struck down by the Courts, there is indeed scope for hope.

It is not well understood that under the Bill of Rights the interests of children are regarded as paramount in all matters affecting them. This should encourage children everywhere to embrace their Constitution and use it to ensure that the state does “respect, protect, promote and fulfil” the rights of children. Obviously, children have a greater interest in the healthy future of the environment than their elders. They are likely to need to be sustained by it for a longer period than their elders, so they have a direct and personal interest in sustainable development taking place in a manner that preserves and promotes an environment that is not harmful to their health and well being. The passion for their topics, which the children put on display in the hearing, indicates that they are well aware of their interest in preventing pollution and sustaining a viable environment.

Environmental rights should not however be viewed in isolation. There are many rights in the Bill of Rights that can be called in aid when environmental issues are under consideration. The rights to dignity and equality are foundational to all that the new dispensation stands for: there can be no dignity in living in a degraded environment in which the air is difficult to breathe, the water is polluted and the food spoiled by toxic waste. The achievement of equality is not promoted by exacerbating the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our society. If water supplies dwindle toward zero on a widespread basis, the right to life itself comes under threat and the possibility of war over water, as has already occurred elsewhere in Africa, will deleteriously affect the psychological integrity of the young and expose them to violence, even though the Bill of Rights protects them against infringements of their rights to security and bodily integrity.

Rights to access to food, water, health care and shelter are generally speaking all constitutionally subject to achievement by way of “progressive realisation” within the available resources of the state. This resolves itself into a question of ordering priorities and the poly-centricity of the political decision making processes, especially insofar as budgetary allocations are concerned. However, the rights of children to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services are not hedged about with conditions. They are available to all children under the age of 18 years. The same applies in respect of the right to basic education.

Children should also be encouraged to take an interest in their rights to freedom of expression and association, to their religious and cultural freedoms and their right to access to information. These rights promote a good quality of life. Information is the lifeblood of democracy, without accurate and accessible information both children and citizens in general are left in the dark, unable to make rational choices and decisions regarding the direction in which they wish to take their lives. Service delivery is enhanced when everyone exercises the right to administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair. Invoking this right appropriately and via the courts would render unnecessary the dangerous and destructive service delivery protests that are becoming increasingly frequent and often involve young unemployed people. Children, especially those averse to the conflict in litigation, should also not overlook the role of the Chapter Nine Institutions in their lives. These institutions are accessible to all and their services are free. They exist to support our constitutional democracy under the rule of law. This entails promoting and protecting the rights of citizens in various ways. The names of the institutions say what they have been created to do. They include, among others, the Public Protector, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities and the Commission for Gender Equality. The Electoral Commission is there to ensure free and fair elections while the Auditor General assesses the financial reporting of all state entities.

Going to the wood panelled chamber of the provincial parliament as a child is an exercise in direct participatory democratic activity that should be encouraged in as many schools as are able to arrange a visit, after normal school hours of course. It is an enriching experience that has the potential to make the inclusivity of our newly established democracy real to more people, including the proud parents who were there to witness the occasion. Those who conceived and organised the historic first visit by the Pinelands North Primary School should be congratulated for their efforts which serve the inculcation of democratic values so well. Hats off to the Western Cape Parliament and Department of Education for having the vision to help to make it all happen. The civil servants who also attended to give the children the benefit of their expertise and experience will know that they have planted seeds in fertile soil through the effort they put into making the event the success that it indubitably was.

Paul Hoffman
10th June 2011

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