Engaging in Public Policy

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Christians Engaging in Public Policy


I. Preface, Dr. Molefe Tsele

II. Democracy

III. Faith Transforming Society

IV. Government in Brief

V. Participation in Public Policy

VI. SACC Parliamentary Office

VII. Conclusion

VIII. Glossary

IX. Resources
The South African Christian faith community continues to have unparalleled opportunities to nurture, monitor, educate and support individuals, families and institutions. Through providing counselling, social services, faith and ministry, the church helps society move towards fairness, equality, and justice for all South Africans. But what are other ways a congregation can contribute to large-scale change? Public policy and advocacy work are often forgotten tools the church can use to shape and transform society.
Public policy is a course of action (or action) chosen by public officials to address a particular problem or set of problems. It includes formal rules (laws, regulations, written policy guidelines) and informal practices (conventions, traditions agreements). All public policy, whether it regards children’s’ rights, employment, or taxation, should be of concern to the faith community. Public policy addresses the very same concerns of the Church namely the responsibility we have to one another.
Advocacy is the process of persuading someone else to accept your point of view on an issue. Public policy advocacy is about influencing the environment in which public policy decisions are made which may include persuading public officials and public education to inform public opinion.
With the advent of democracy in South Africa all citizens have the right and responsibility to participate fully in civil society and all citizens have the right and responsibility to influence the laws and policies of our nation. Christians have a vital and necessary role in bringing about peace, justice and reconciliation within society and can do so through actively influencing policy debates and legislation.
This handbook was written to help local churches and individuals understand how to go about engaging in the public sphere. The advocacy principles put forth in this document can be used to influence policies within any institution and at any provincial or national level. The South African Council of Churches encourages congregations to participate in policy to help bring about a more fair and just society for all South Africans. The church can continue its fundamental role in shaping the nation, caring for the disadvantaged, and lifting up God’s vision, through engaging in public policy.

Dr. Molefe Tsele

General Secretary

South African Council of Churches

Democracy is more than just voting in an election. Democracy is ordinary people having continual input in the government’s decision-making processes. Section 57 (1) (b) of the Constitution provides that the National Assembly make “rules and orders concerning its business, with due regard to representative and participatory democracy, accountability, transparency and public involvement.” This accountable, participatory decision-making process applies to all levels of government: local, provincial and national. Additionally, this principle can be found in our families and in many denominations of the South African Council of Churches. Everyone is involved in politics and policy implementation on a daily basis. This process occurs at work, home and in the community. Families, for example, constantly negotiate a changing system of household chores and duties. The process of negotiating in families is similar to that which occurs in the public arena; both situations require a commitment to working for the greater good. In this capacity, Christians are uniquely qualified to address public policy issues.
Many people find involvement in the public policy arena intimidating, awkward or cumbersome. However, politics and public policy determine how we structure our lives together. Government policies are meant to ensure a fair distribution of goods, services and burdens within society. In short, they decide who gets what, when and how. South Africa, like all nations, is faced with many social, economic and political concerns that need to be addressed in the public arena.
In a democracy, Christians can and should help to educate public officials about critical matters by sharing information, life experiences and alternative visions for society. The words of Proverbs may help us in our pursuit, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Defend the rights of the poor and needy (31:8-9) (NSRV)” The faith community can bridge the gap between citizens and leaders by lifting up God’s vision for society.

Faith Transforming Society

The effects of public policy and legislation on individuals, families and communities are very much a concern to God.

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. Isaiah 10:1-2 (NIV)
Laws and policies provide structure and order for communities. However, they must be representative of the community will while at the same time protecting the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of society.
Jesus criticized and disobeyed laws, customs, and religious traditions if they prevented people from being made whole. Jesus demonstrated that we are all connected as he actively reached out to those in need, calling all to expand their understanding of what it means to be a neighbour. For Jesus, how people cared for one another was of paramount importance. Christians can care for people by attempting to change public policy.
God continues to call Christians to aid their neighbours and to work for justice. In democratic South Africa, providing care and working for justice may require one to work with state institutions. Scripture and history -- including South African history -- recount numerous occasions when Christians stood up and struggled for God’s vision. In a democracy, Christian citizens have both a special privilege and an urgent responsibility to shape the laws and policies of the government. The church has a responsibility to uphold principles of mercy, justice and compassion, not only in its own actions, but also in its interaction with the state and public officials.
There are many ways that secular institutions measure a society's success: gross domestic product, literacy and infant mortality, to name a few. The faith community measures success in how well the community of believers serves God and cares for the most vulnerable members of society—the children, elderly, disabled, or poor who make up the majority of South Africa's population.

Governments and institutions are human constructions that can be changed, influenced and directed through intervention. Christians can give expression to God’s values and beliefs through participation in public policy.

Government in Brief1

In a democracy, regulations and public policy are initiated and influenced by a series of political bodies. Understanding how these government bodies work will help Christians decide where they can best add their 'voice' in the democratic process.

The South African Constitution lists three separate “arms” of government:

  • The legislature, including parliament, the provincial legislatures and local councils, which make laws;

  • The executive, which comprises the operational part of government or government departments; and

  • The judiciary, the courts that interpret and apply the law.

This booklet’s primary concern is with the legislature and how Christians can participate in public policy issues at a variety of legislative levels. (For information on the executive or judiciary, see www.gov.za.)

This section provides a brief overview of the role of the legislative branch of government starting with how a bill becomes a law then moves to a description of the national legislature, then the provincial and finally local government.
How a bill becomes a law
Where do laws come from? Laws come from government. The ideas for new laws can originate in government committees, agencies, expert bodies or task teams. Each of these or all of these groups may address a particular issue or need that necessitate further government reflection and possible action. In most cases, the public provides input in the formation of a law.
Generally, when a bill becomes a law it has gone through a lengthy process of debate, refinement and change. As the chart below demonstrates there are many places where public input is needed in the drafting of a bill. Early intervention in public input debates is desirable, and Christians can have a political impact in this regard. (See Fig. 1)

How a bill becomes a law

Green or White Paper





Public Input

Drafting DRAFT BILL Public Input









FIRST HOUSE Public Input





Figure 1

National Legislature

Parliament is the national legislature and consists of two chambers: the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The key function of the legislature is to make laws that take into account the wishes of South Africans and the provisions of the Constitution.

National Assembly

The National Assembly (together with the National Council of Provinces) makes the laws that govern our lives. It debates all of the laws proposed by the various Ministers and may approve, reject or change them. It must also consult the public and take into account in its deliberations the views expressed by individuals and organisations. The President and his or her Ministers are accountable to Parliament. They must report on the work they do and answer questions regarding it.

Members of the National Assembly are elected through a system called proportional representation. Candidates are elected in proportion to the number of votes the party wins in the election. For example, if a party wins twenty five percent of the votes, it will hold twenty five percent of the seats in parliament.

National Council of Provinces (NCOP)

The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) is the second house in the South African Parliament. The NCOP is a uniquely South African institution. Membership is drawn from all nine provinces as well as from local government. There are 90 full members, 10 from each province, as well as, 10 non-voting members who represent local governments on a part-time basis. The South African Local Government Association (SALGA) nominates the 10 non-voting delegates.

The NCOP deals with three kinds of bills, and does so in different ways:

  • Bills that do not directly affect provinces, but relate instead to national functions (such as defence, foreign affairs and justice), must originate in the National Assembly, but go to the NCOP once they have been approved by the National Assembly. If the NCOP makes changes to a bill, it goes back to the National Assembly, which can accept or reject the changes

  • Bills that directly affect provinces because they deal with matters of provincial competency (such as transportation, education or health policy) may be introduced in either the National Assembly or the NCOP. Once one chamber has passed a bill, it goes to the other one for consideration. If the second chamber makes changes in the bill, it goes back to the first for further consideration. If disagreement between the two chambers persists, then the bill must be sent to a mediation committee. The voting in the NCOP is different for bills that affect provinces: each province (and not each individual member) has one vote. This means that the provincial legislature must debate the bill and give its representatives in the NCOP a mandate to vote in a particular way.

  • Bills that amend the Constitution. When a bill to amend the Constitution directly affects the provinces, at least six of the nine provinces in the NCOP must agree.

Once both chambers have approved a bill, it goes to the President. If the President assents to the bill by signing it, it becomes law. If the President objects to the bill, he or she may send it back to Parliament for further consideration.

Much of the work performed by members of Parliament is done in committees. The National Assembly has portfolio committees to shadow each government department. The NCOP has its own committees, known as select committees. There are also a few joint committees made up of representatives from both chambers. Because portfolio and select committees are permanent structures, they are known as standing committees. Ad Hoc committees may be formed to consider specific issues regarding a specific policy or pending concern for instance.

Provincial Legislatures (9)
Provincial governments deliver services that cannot be provided at the local level. They make broad policy on issues where there are considerable regional differences. For example, each province makes its own laws on health services, schooling, and road transport, although the national government has the power to set the broader policy framework for each of these matters. There are several areas where the national and provincial legislatures share joint responsibility: cultural matters, education (except tertiary), indigenous law and customary law, environment, gambling, language policy, public transport, urban and rural development, welfare services, and consumer protection.
In each province, the Premier appoints the Executive Council (MEC’s Member of Executive Council) in the same way the President appoints the Cabinet. The number of seats in each Provincial Legislature varies depending on the size of a province's population:
Eastern Cape 63 seats

Free State 30 seats

Gauteng 73 seats

KwaZulu-Natal 80 seats

Limpopo 49 seats

Mpumalanga 30 seats

Northern Cape 30 seats

North-West 33 seats

Western Cape 42 seats

Local Government (municipalities)

South Africa has 284 municipalities. Municipalities are divided into three types: large metropolitan areas or "uni-cities"(6), towns (231) and "districts" (47) that include two or more towns together with adjacent rural areas. (The latter two types of local government share legislative authority.) Local government consists of elected councillors and non-elected (appointed) officials. Local government decisions must comply with provincial and national laws. Local governments raise ninety per cent of their revenue from residents. Major sources of income include: property rates and taxes; service charges for electricity, water, sewerage, transport; and housing rentals. The remaining ten per cent of revenue comes from national government.

According to the Constitution, local government is responsible for the following services:
air quality cemeteries/funerals

building regulations parlours/crematories

child care facilities cleansing

electricity and gas reticulation control of public nuisances

fire fighting services food and liquor sales

local tourism animals

municipal airports fencing local sports facilities

municipal planning local markets

municipal health services municipal abattoirs

municipal public transport municipal parks and recreation

municipal public works municipal roads

pontoons/ferries/jetties/ piers/harbours noise pollution

storm water management services public places

trading regulations refuse removal and solid waste

water and sanitary services, street trading

beaches and amusement facilities street lighting

billboards and the display of advertisements traffic and parking
Local government is not only closest to the people but also responsible for all of these diverse services. Christians have the unique opportunity to impact local policies whether it be increasing street lighting or regulating liquor sales. Through government, Christians can have a say, make change and create community.
Each municipality is responsible for developing its own Integrated Development Plan (IDP). An IDP articulates a common vision for integrated social, economic and community development and describes how a municipality will provide infrastructure and services to facilitate the achievement of that vision. IDPs are usually in a state of flux with changing environment. This allows Christians to exert their 'voice' on matters that affect their community. Contact your local government to get a copy of the IDP for your municipality.

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