Some of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust’s (SAPST) notable innovations have been to facilitate meaningful and informed public participation in the law-making process.
The enactment of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 20) Act, 2013 enshrined participatory democracy in law-making in Zimbabwe. This is true, particularly referring to Section 141 (Public access to and involvement in Parliament) of the Constitution under which.
facilitate public involvement in its legislative and other processes and in the processes of its committees;
ensure that interested parties are consulted about Bills being considered by Parliament unless such consultation is inappropriate or impracticable . . .
Section 141 of the Constitution codified the comprehensive reforms that the Parliament of Zimbabwe undertook to, inter alia, increase public participation in the legislative process.
Despite the Parliament of Zimbabwe’s reforms and the codification of participatory democracy in the legislative process in the Constitution, public participation remained subdued. One of the reasons for this is that Parliament conducts one – at most two – public hearings per province. The other reason often highlighted is that the public will often be unaware of announcements of Bills to be tabled before Parliament and of the contents of the proposed law. This is because the law does not require the State to do anything beyond notifying the public of proposed laws in the Government Gazette. Parliament works based on a presumption that once a Bill has been gazetted, the public –
(i) is aware that there is a Bill that was. Gazetted
(ii) have read and understood the Bill
(iii) and is prepared to make informed contributions to the Bill.
SAPST conceived the idea of pre-public hearing sensitisation meetings and radio public hearings to remedy those challenges.
SAPST piloted and conducted meetings across the country sensitising members of the public on the contents of proposed laws to be debated in Parliament. The meetings simplified the Bills’ content to the public and notified participants of when parliamentary Committees would be conducting the public hearings. Some of the meetings, e.g., those for the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 2) Bill, were also held in collaboration with the Parliament secretariat to educate citizens on the public hearings process.
SAPST held such meetings a week or two before parliamentary Committees conducted public hearings. Where possible, the meetings were convened at the venues where the public hearings were going to be held.
The success of such meetings was evident both concerning public attendance of public hearings as well as the informed contributions from participants.
To provide an alternative to in-person public consultations, SAPST conceived the idea of parliamentary Committees conducting radio public hearings. The radio consultations on Bills were conducted on State-owed radio stations, e.g., Radio Zimbabwe and National FM (which broadcast in local languages), independent stations, e.g., Star FM and ZiFM, as well as Community radio stations. These radio public hearings allowed citizens from across the country to verbally contribute to the legislative process, particularly in areas that parliamentary Committees had not consulted. Further, citizens in the diaspora were also allowed to participate in the law-making process.
As a measure of confidence in the radio public hearings, Parliament has since adopted the innovation as an additional avenue for consulting interested stakeholders on Bills.