Breaking the Myth of ‘Demobilised’ Communities

governance community activism engagement
Wednesday, 17 September, 2014 - 09:02

This article focuses on the struggles faced by community leaders and how some of the frustrations contribute towards protests in communities

"Community leaders are seen as the opposition - we are labelled, attacked and criminalised", says General Moyo, a Makause resident facing various charges including intimidation following a community protest against police brutality.

Moyo was speaking at a workshop on the findings of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) research into four informal settlements, the Community Practice Notes: Informal Settlements Series. The series, which is the latest research output of SERI aims to document the socio-economic struggles of community-based organisations in different settlement contexts in South Africa. The first part covers informal settlement struggles for development in Makause, Rooigrond, Thembelihle and Slovo Park.

Caption: Community representatives from Makause, Rooigrond, Thembelihle and Slovo Park being taken through timelines of their respective community struggles. Photo: Koketso Moeti

Like Makause, representatives from the other communities face severe repression. A common theme from participants is how their respective community struggles led to the intimidation, bullying and worse of community leaders. Bhayiza Moyo, a Thembelihle resident even went as far as suggesting that there are instances when it even seems that, “Government deliberately divides communities.”

Another common issue in all the communities is their experience of a lack of meaningful engagement from the government. According to Orapeleng Khula, a Rooigrond resident, "Government must learn to listen to us [communities]." All the communities present turned to government as their first point of call in their struggles, only resorting to other strategies when engagement did not happen. "After this communities then turn to protest,” said Bhyiza Miya, “adding that protests usually take place when people are frustrated."

Workshop participants stories of struggles similar to their own, in different contexts allowing those who live the struggles an opportunity to engage with each other.

Caption: Community Practice Notes: Informal settlement series. Photo: Koketso Moeti

According to SERI senior researcher and advocacy officer, Kate Tissington, the organisation wanted to document the struggles they witness in the communities they work with for quite a while. The information is collected from settlement or building committees and through research, which involves interviews with residents among other methods. “We want to document local struggles in informal settlements so as to inform a more nuanced debate on participation in informal settlement upgrading,” says Tissington, who adds that the series also shows the nexus between evictions, development, community organisation and mobilisation, local politics, protest and the use of courts.

Community struggles often come into the public domain in an extremely superficial way, as five line articles or traffic warnings when communities protest. What this series shows is that protests occur as part of much longer struggles around development, which includes communities engaging government at all levels and even taking their struggles to organisations such as SERI for support. A point affirmed by a Thembelihle participant who says that, "Government does not engage with communities, even NGOs [non-governmental organisations] engage us more than our own government."

While reference is often made to an ‘unresponsive state’, Tissington argues that the series shows that the problem is often that, “The state is disorganised and uncoordinated in its response to issues, which is further worsened by political interference.”

More than anything else however, SERI’s latest publications disprove the idea of ‘demobilised’ and ‘dependent’ communities. Although the series only looks at four informal settlements, these communities are reflective of the struggles happening in many other settlements across the country- even if in different contexts.

- Koketso Moeti is the national coordinator of Local Government Action, working to promote democracy, accountability and delivery at local government level.

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