Background: Amidst an evolving post-apartheid policy framework for health, policymakers have sought to institutionalize community participation in Primary Health Care, recognizing participation as integral to realizing South Africa's constitutional commitment to the right to health. With evolving South African legislation supporting community involvement in the health system, early policy developments focused on Community Health Committees (HCs) as the principal institutions of community participation. Formally recognized in the National Health Act of 2003, the National Health Act deferred to provincial governments in establishing the specific roles and functions of HCs. As a result, stakeholders developed a Draft Policy Framework for Community Participation in Health (Draft Policy) to formalize participatory institutions in the Western Cape province.
Methods: With the Draft Policy as a frame of analysis, the researchers conducted documentary policy analysis and semi-structured interviews on the evolution of South African community participation policy. Moving beyond the specific and unique circumstances of the Western Cape, this study analyzes generalizable themes for rights-based community participation in the health system.
Results: Framing institutions for the establishment, appointment, and functioning of community participation, the Draft Policy proposed a formal network of communication - from local HCs to the health system. However, this participation structure has struggled to establish itself and function effectively as a result of limitations in community representation, administrative support, capacity building, and policy commitment. Without legislative support for community participation, the enactment of superseding legislation is likely to bring an end to HC structures in the Western Cape.
Conclusions: Attempts to realize community participation have not adequately addressed the underlying factors crucial to promoting effective participation, with policy reforms necessary: to codify clearly defined roles and functions of community representation; to outline how communities engage with government through effective and accountable channels for participation; and to ensure extensive training and capacity building of community representatives. Given the public health importance of structured and effective policies for community participation, and the normative importance of participation in realizing a rights-based approach to health, this analysis informs researchers on the challenges to institutionalizing participation in health systems policy and provides practitioners with a research base to frame future policy reforms.