Community Mobilisation and the Challenges of Local Political Life

democracy governance service delivery participation
Wednesday, 19 June, 2013 - 10:06

This article focuses on the idea of meaningful engagement, participation and the different roles that provincial and local spheres of government should play in delivering services in communities

On 18 and 19 May 2013, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute’s (SERI) team made up of candidate attorney, Princess Magopane, and social researcher, Thapelo Tselapedi, organised and facilitated a follow-up, ward-based workshop in Mahikeng, North West. The first workshop, focusing on the legal and political mechanism through which the Constitution envisages the interaction between government and communities, was held in September 2012.

Under the theme ‘Deepening Participation’, the follow-up workshop focused on the idea of meaningful engagement. Together with participants, the different roles and functions that provincial and local governing authorities are entrusted with in relation to issues of water, electricity, housing and sanitation were explored. In this context, the workshop sought to assist communities to know who and how to engage with relevant local and provincial authorities depending on their needs.

And the needs of Ward 27, made up of seven communities, were vast and ranged from the need to fix potholed roads and where necessary, erect them from scratch as the settlements are not properly arranged for emergency vehicles to gain access; the need to fix shoddy construction of RDP houses, to install high mast lights and electricity in many shacks and houses; importantly, there is a need for constant availability of diesel and petrol as many settlements make use of diesel/petrol-powered water systems. Notwithstanding these basic, yet crucial needs, the ostensible disarray in the inter-governmental relations system has blunted the delivery capacity of government. Furthermore, at the local and subjective level, expansive political plots have been devised to eschew delivery, isolate the ward councillor as incompetent, and possibly replace her with a more pliant representative.

When listening to participants unpack some of the problems experienced by individual communities, you hear of a community that has a potholed district road, a provincial road and a national road all intersecting and all of which need to be repaired by these three tiers of government in one settlement. Another is a story of the very same ward, whose interests and needs, which were discussed during the consultative phases of the Integrated Development Planning (IDP) process, did not feature in the plan. Instead, soaked in contempt, they were dangled to the ward through the Mahikeng local media. Further indicative of the state of local political governance in the area, a community member, when enquiring about a budgeted water project, is told that he must ‘not ask political questions’. One presumes that they are political questions precisely because the delivery of these basic services is carried through nepotism and patronage channels, a development that has permeated through to other government institutions, according to the participants at the workshop.

Against such odds, community members continue to be enthusiastic about their own role in their community’s development. Though the workshop was abuzz with what is possible and participants were determined to organise and hold meetings with the community, there was a sense that activists were stuck between organising a frustrated community, engaging an intransigent local municipality and following up on seemingly paralysed government institutions that are tasked with ensuring socio-economic rights.

To view the full photo album from the workshop, refer to http://on.fb.me/10XlHlg.

- Thapelo Tselapedi is a research and advocacy officer at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa and also a Local Government Action alliance member.

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