Public policy should be responsive to changing realities
And don’t shoot the minister — the cabinet has to approve proposals
● Two recent unrelated events prompted this reflection. First: the debate about the 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 policymaking, 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 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, the negative sentiment there can’t be ignored. After all, this is a form of media, albeit unmediated by the tyranny of newsroom editorial structures.
Let’s hasten to state that a fair number of people received news of the policy adjustment with caution. They warned of unintended consequences, of potential terrorists gaining access to our country (via visa-exempted countries) and the risk of child trafficking..
The second event involves the government’s response to public violence in the Johannesburg township of Westbury. The unrest was sparked by the murder of a mother caught in alleged gang violence crossfire.
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. Cele’s responsiveness is being widely acknowledged.
A colleague in the senior management of the Gauteng provincial government, Yoliswa Makhasi, shared chilling observations of Westbury after visiting the area as part of Cele’s intervention. Makhasi wrote that the area has:
● Many (illegal) dumping sites throughout the community, making one wonder when garbage was last removed by the municipality. Crime and grime go together; ● Poor street lighting and uncut grass, fertile conditions for crime;
● Prevalent alcohol and drug abuse;
● Serious and violent crime, inadequate policing, alleged police corruption and collusion with criminals, as well as gangsterism; and
● High levels of poverty and unemployment.
In addition to these poor public policy outcomes, the community has lamented constant water and electricity cuts, deteriorating public infrastructure and limited public transport. Schools in the area are not helping children break the cycle of inter-generational poverty.
We recall these complaints 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.
Poor education in public policy and democracy is the reason there is sometimes confusion about changes to public policy. The state should take responsibility for increasing public awareness on policy-making processes, especially on how decisions are taken.
For example, some members of the public don’t know that ministers do not have sole authority to determine public policy. All decisions are taken by the cabinet, which can approve, veto or amend a proposal.
At the same time the minister responsible for implementing policy takes the flak or credit.
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 and peri-urban areas.
Further, social cohesion interventions have not worked, hence the sentiment of racial exclusion.
And, as the story goes for many poor and working-class neighbourhoods, local government dehumanises people by failing to provide quality and consistent basic services, as described by the colleague 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 policymaking processes, including the role of the citizens in shaping policy direction.
Equally, policymakers need to recognise the dehumanising conditions of citizens and take proactive steps to change these.
Meeting the basic needs of citizens, such as regular refuse removal, and teachers being in class on time, are building blocks towards restoring the dignity of the people, stripped away by decades of racial oppression and post-apartheid structural unemployment which produce poverty and inequality.