There is good news, and there is bad when it comes to local government.
The bad news is the old news that South Africa's magnificent policy framework is still not producing matching results either on the ground or in popular perceptions of local government. There is eager and active involvement in community organisations across the country, but citizens feel ignored, bewildered and frustrated by formal government processes.
The good news is however, that there are signs of a sea change in government, NGOs, and in communities themselves. People are going about things differently, with some encouraging results.
The 2012 State of Local Government (SoLG) publication - an assessment of challenges, debates and areas of progress with regard to governance and development at the local level in South Africa - spares little time rehearsing what is wrong with local government, instead focusing on innovative ideas, practices and tools that can improve governance and align participatory processes and development more closely.
Entitled ‘Putting participation at the heart of development//Putting development at the heart of participation', the papers collected in the SoLG highlight three broad areas of work by the Good Governance Learning Network (GGLN), a nationwide network of civil society organisations working in the field of local governance.
The first of these is the vital task of building up citizen-led accountability - developing new ways of involving communities in drawing up an accurate and up-to-date picture of what is happening with local governance and service delivery.
Building on case study research in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal; the African Centre on Citizenship and Democracy (ACCDE) has also extended its work to gather quantitative data. Looking at three Cape Town locations, ACCEDE has found rising satisfaction with services, but fading faith in councillors and formal structures of governance. The centre is appropriately cautious in drawing wide conclusions from a still-limited survey, but has been able to feed it back into quantitative work and produce citizen scorecards for City of Cape Town officials.
Another GGLN member, Black Sash, is working with 270-odd community-level organisations to conduct a wider survey of popular experience in obtaining services across the country. Parallel to collecting data at service delivery points, surveyors are also helping people gain a better understanding of the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government.
Complementing the gathering of new, detailed data at a community level are efforts to build alternative approaches to put participation at the heart of development.
One innovative project led by the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition has taken on the question of food security, piloting an alternative to the government's Massive Food Production Programme (MFPG). The coalition has set up a functioning grassroots alternative that is at once intensely local and readily scalable.
The MFPP's top down approach sees people turn land over to the programme, then look on as government provides agricultural inputs, pays for labour and carts away all but a tenth of the harvest. The Household Food Security Model instead provides support and skills to individual homesteads, enabling them to increase yields at the same time as retaining a sense of food sovereignty. The coalition reports that the success of the pilot has already begun to open government policy makers' eyes to alternatives to commercial farming models.
Another example can be found in the years' long efforts of the Slovo Park Community Development Forum (SPCDF), a membership-based community organisation in the Greater Johannesburg area, to sustain demands for promised housing. As the formal process has dragged on fruitlessly, the SPCDF's perspective on their own role has shifted, evolving from passive (if clamorous) recipients to drivers of the process. For example, the SPCDF has audited the community's own resources, and was able to call on local plumbers to connect over a thousand water points themselves. The demands have changed from calling on government to build houses, to asking for provision of basic services to a community that is prepared to build everything else itself if need be.
The third area of work covered in the SoLG is one that powerfully links the first two: developing new and effective means of sharing knowledge and experience, and jointly developing plans and policy.
Isandla Institute is looking at the limits and potential of a range of spaces for governance - taking in the closed, technical realms of top-level executive bodies; the invited space of participation in formal government processes; the greater scope for participation in the invented space of informal community organisation; and finally networked spaces where government, consultants, civil society and communities come together.
The task here is to shift the paradigm from one dominated by a ‘knowledge elite’ (where government and technical experts know exactly what needs to be done, and how to go about it) to one managed by a ‘learning elite’ (where policy makers and implementers are actively seeking to learn what needs are) and ultimately towards development by a community of practice (to put participation at the heart of development).
Among the tools available to support such a shift, to better connecting closed but powerful spaces to more dynamic but less influential ones, are information and communication technologies. But large questions remain unanswered over how to create and maintain constructive discourse on platforms where open participation is still often twinned with generous helpings of irrelevant chatter and destructive hostility.
Speaking at the launch of the publication, Pascal Moloi, a national planning commissioner and managing director of the Resolve Group, was enthusiastic over the content. But he also flagged an important silence on the role that the African National Congress will have to play as a dominant force in local government.
The 2012 State of Local Government publication presents an important set of interventions firmly rooted in the real experience of some of South Africa's most vulnerable communities - and most heavily burdened municipal administrations - and represents an essential contribution to understanding, reporting on and responding to the challenges of governance at the level closest to the ground. Contributions by Planact, Afesis-corplan, the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) and Mbumba Development are but some of the contributions to the publication.
*The preparation and publication of the SoLG is supported by the Ford Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and GIZ's Strengthening Local Governance Programme.
For copies of the SoLG publication or for further information about the GGLN contact the GGLN Coordinator, Ronald Mukanya on firstname.lastname@example.org or 021 683 7903.