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Elections in 2024 will mark the third decade since the first democratic poll in SA — far enough in the past for a new generation to have grown up in freedom and for the older generation to take it for granted. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the country’s progress towards the full realisation of democracy and its promise, not only of a better life but also the dignity of meaningful participation for all in decisions that affect them.

The drafters of our constitution never intended elections to be the be-all and end-all of democratic life, or citizens to be passive subjects of the elected government. My experience of public hearings hosted by parliament on the Tobacco Products and Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems Control Bill suggests our elected representatives have a different view.

While the purpose of having public hearings in the first place is ostensibly to sense-check proposed legislation against the wishes and experiences of the people, and improve it where necessary, the manner in which they are conducted gives the impression that MPs are not interested in actually hearing what people have to say.

In the first place, the organisation is poor, and the public is often alerted to the hearings taking place only a day or two in advance. Given that there are only three hearings per province, this means anyone with strong views on the legislation being discussed would have no opportunity to make arrangements to attend.

In some instances the venues are also often far from major metropoles — a good thing if the intention is to include people who live outside the urban centres where access to information and means of communication is simpler. However, it also means most of the population in each province is unlikely to make it to the hearings.

In Gauteng, for example, hearings were held in Heidelberg, Westonaria and Tshwane, completely bypassing the bulk of the population found in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. It would surely be reasonable to schedule more hearings in the more populous provinces to allow more equitable access.

The venues chosen were also completely inadequate for the population size in the area, with the result that hundreds of people were locked out, specifically in Tshwane. It is the height of contempt to invite people to a hearing, for which some of them must travel long distances, only to turn them away at the door.

This may seem trivial to MPs, who are put up in hotels and transported to each venue, but for ordinary people who rely on public transport it can involve significant wasted time, effort and cost.

Worse is that these hearings almost always start late and finish early, meaning only about 30 people out of a few hundred get the opportunity to have their say. Apart from the disrespect this shows for the people who elected the MPs, it means the effort to attend will have been in vain for most people.

In my own case, I had to attend four hearings across three provinces before I was finally given an opportunity to speak. I am fortunate in being able to travel these distances, but most people are not.

The committee’s response to this issue was to invite anyone who didn’t get an opportunity to speak to give a written submission, but what is the point of having live hearings then? And what of those who can express themselves better in speech than in writing?

The most disturbing aspect was the high-handed manner of MPs in addressing the audience, reprimanding them like schoolchildren for supposed breaches of decorum, while MPs themselves pay more attention to their cellphones than the public.

This patronising behaviour makes it clear that our elected representatives think of themselves not as being in the service of those who elected them, but rather as the governing class.

If they had any real interest in hearing from the people affected by this legislation, they would be asking themselves why only a handful of smokers and vapers have spoken at the hearings. Could it be the lack of notice, venue selection and or, more concerning, indifference felt by many South Africans?

It is only when you truly listen that you truly understand. This struck me as I sat in the audience at the hearings in Heidelberg. As an ex-smoker, who has lost family members from smoking, I have been a fierce opponent of the tobacco industry for many years.

But in Heidelberg I heard the anguish of informal traders who eke out a living from selling cigarettes as they considered the effect of the bill on their livelihoods. Public policy is about weighing up competing interests and achieving the best possible outcome without causing unintended harm. It is never as straightforward as it seems on paper, and this is exactly where public hearings are supposed to contribute to better lawmaking.

Sadly, our MPs seem interested only in toeing the party line. Our parliament’s impoverished version of democracy makes us all smaller, poorer versions of the citizens envisioned in our constitution.

• Yeo is a former smoker who, after switching to vaping, cofounded the consumer advocacy group Vaping Saved My Life.

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