Chapter 4 of the Municipal Systems Act (Act 32 of 2000) is clear about the importance of community participation in government processes and projects which impact on local development. Complementing this is the discernible shift by civil society to insist on being consulted before projects are implemented in communities. This insistence is strongly supported by recent court cases in favour of community consultation and participation.
The increase in mass civil demonstrations around border disputes, street renaming procedures and allocation of low cost housing is evidence of this trend.
Prior to 1994, local government was set up as a rigid hierarchy, largely patriarchal, with no community input and no integration between different provincial and/or national departments. This ‘silo-ed’ approach ensured that community members remained passive recipients of local economic development, of goods and services that rarely reflected the community’s contextual needs.
Since 2000 all levels of government have begun to set up Steering Committees, Community Forums, and Chambers etc, to help galvanise local communities to become more active in their local development and to develop the skills to hold government accountable for non delivery.
Various piece of legislation allow for provincial, district and local government structures to
Develop a culture of community participation
Put in place mechanisms, processes and procedures for communities to participate in projects
Communicate information concerning how and when community participation is required
Make public all notices of meetings of municipal councils
Facilitate the attendance of communities at public meetings
Communicate with local community on project progress
Provide regulations and guidelines for communities and structures to participate in projects.
Through our work with government and civil society, we have found that the application of the legislation is not even. It ranges from pockets of excellence: where civil society engages in the planning, monitoring and evaluation of local projects, to departments or civil society organisations refusing to work with each other. One of the many participation models used by government is the Ladder of Citizen Participation (below) where the basic premise is to first identify the relationship that government has with the community and then to collectively put in place mechanisms to move the relationship up the ladder. Prior to 1994, the community participation did not move beyond level 1 (Manipulation), currently, there are a few rare cases where communities claim to be at level 5 (Placation).
|8. Citizen Control||The community forms the majority in decision making or even hold board/managerial power at local government level|
|7. Delegated Power||As above but government is first satisfied the skills exist at local level to fulfil key roles within the municipality|
|6. Partnership||This is where partnership begins and an enabling environment is created with shared decision making and responsibility. This can only work if communities are well resourced and there is full accountability from government role players|
|5. Placation||Communities can advise but local government retains the right to make decisions|
|4. Consultation||As above, but advisory role is minimized|
|3. Informing||Communities are invited to hear what government plans and can voice their opinions, however, they do not have the power to influence decisions already made|
|2. Therapy||Government provides information, education or a cure (solution) for a single community issue without any input from communities themselves|
|1. Manipulation||Non participation from communities, government decides what is best for them and sometimes informs them about the course of action|
The challenge for government and civil society is to implement vibrant community of practice systems, mentorship, skills development and to help the relationship move incrementally from level to level, until full citizen control can be reached if so desired by stakeholders. However, we has identified a number of additional challenges to achieving this:
The lack of role clarity between municipalities and provincial government has created uncertainty about who the real gate-keepers are to local economic development. The biggest challenge is obtaining agreement on who decides on the types of projects to implement. So, while municipalities and provincial governments argue about who is the rightful designer, implementer and fonder; citizen driven project ideas get lost in the ‘turf war.’
Even in examples where civil society engages with government on projects, they are rarely consulted during the project selection and planning phases. Their main role begins after departments have already incorporated the project into their Annual Business Plans (ABP’s) or Integrated Development Plans (IDP’s). Civil society is therefore powerless to speak about whether a project should be altered, customised or altogether discontinued. They find themselves participating in projects that they do not support in principle or form.
In many districts (particularly rural areas) where civil society organisations are not well organised, government departments have little option but to consult with a select few organisations which are usually the larger and better resourced ones with access to telephone, fax or email. The voice and opinions of the rural and un-organised are not heard and this relationship remains for them, at level 1 (Manipulation).
The challenges within civil society are also numerous and are also responsible for the lack of vibrant community participation in the design and roll out of local economic development projects.
Few civil society organisations are aware of their right to participate in all levels of the project management cycle within their communities. Even fewer are aware of their responsibilities to insist on being included from the project inception and scoping to project closure phase.
It is generally more difficult to organise civil society in rural areas so citizens here have shown the least interaction with government projects (except as recipients) and had the least knowledge of their rights and responsibilities related to the Municipal Systems Act.
Civil society organisations range in size and scope and often cannot dedicate staff to a government project at the expense of their own core work.
In one particular case, a NGO was adamant that they would not work in partnership with government or accept any payment from government funded projects because this may have compromised their objectivity especially future advocacy campaigns. They maintained that NGO’s working closely with government run the risk of being perceived as mere appendages of state and no longer legitimate as an objective critic and watchdog of government.
Local development cannot happen without government and civil society working in tandem towards a common goal. Government will enjoy no legitimacy if it continues with its top-down approach of non consultation, and civil society cannot operate in isolation from what government is attempting to do especially in large scale programmes such as the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programme, Urban Renewal Programme and the Expanded Public Works Programme, among others.
Possible solutions to some of the challenges mentioned above include
District and local governments must set up a Community Participation Unit which is the central point providing information about how civil society can participate in programmes. This unit can also manage information to and from national and provincial government, funders and the private and business sector.
Civil society organisations should decide on the level of participation that they are comfortable with and these include but are not limited to basic information sharing, consultation, participating in formulation of projects, tendering to do project implementation, monitoring and evaluation, provision of research services, quality management, and etc. The wide range of services that civil society can offer government has a useful spin-off; organisations can charge government a consulting fee for their local expertise, sector specific input and links with other local stakeholders. This in turn creates an opportunity for civil society organisations to generate income and secure the financial sustainability of the organisation and therefore not feel compromised by working with government.
Community Resource Centres and Advice Offices can be used, particularly to organise rural communities to participate in projects as groups, co-ops or in their individual capacities. A twinning process where larger civil society organisations are encouraged to actively include and inform smaller rural communities about opportunities to contribute to government projects would also help.
A database of civil society organisations should be developed and updated for every district municipality. Existing products such as the Prodder Directory can be useful to all levels of government as well as the NPO sector that can both access the profiles of community organisations and make contact with those most suitable to the specific projects. For those who do not wish to charge government for the provision of their services (because of objectivity concerns), this requirement can be annotated in their Prodder profile. Also should they wish to only be informed or consulted, this information can be useful to government who are unaware of the community dynamics and protocols at village level.
Consultancies such as Umhlaba can also contribute towards improving community participation in government projects by consistently highlighting this deficiency in the evaluations and research that we do for government and the NPO sector. Furthermore, we can turn government’s attention to databases such as Prodder as a useful information resource about CSO’s. Finally, we can mentor and advise CSO’s on how to set up their consulting units and help them identify potential for investments that could secure their long term financial sustainability.
All articles are available for downloading from: www.umhlaba.com
 Sherry Arnstein “Ladder of Citizen’s Participation”: Journal of the American Planning Association. Vol. 35, No.4, July 1969, pp 216-224.