Community Dissatisfaction: A Direct Result of Non-Responsiveness by Government

On the 13th of April 2011, NGOs whose core focus is the improvement of governance at the local level, gathered at the Cape Milner in Cape Town under the aegis of the Good Governance Learning Network (GGLN) to launch the State of Local Governance report (SoLG) for 2010-11. Besides the delegates from the organisations that constitute the Network, the occasion was graced by the Deputy Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) Yunus Carrim as the key respondent to the report presentation. This particular report focuses mainly on ‘recognising community voice and dissatisfaction’.

The research around this topic was informed by the numerous protest marches that have taken place over the past six years or so. At first, the poor service delivery was in part erroneously confused with power elite struggles within the African National Congress which aimed at dethroning the then President, Thabo Mbeki. The argument then was that he was aloof and largely out of touch with the common man’s needs. He had allegedly become hostage to big business interests and that part of the indifferent service delivery performance could be traced to that wayward attitude cascading from the top.

So, the spate of community protests that preceded the 2007 Polokwane Conference were conveniently associated with the clamour for a leftward shift in economic policies that according to the ‘excluded’ power elites, would herald better service delivery. Of course there was a school of thought that felt that Mbeki had gotten his economics right but had possibly made a mess of the social-political dimension of his administration - perhaps not enough to warrant the rather undignified exit that the Party subjected him to. Not surprisingly, for as long as the ‘excluded’ power elites spoke the language of change and created the impression that they would be more responsive to people’s legitimate grievances, popular support held until regime change was achieved.

However, following the 2009 elections, many people quickly realised that the promised change was not happening fast enough and were even suspicious of the new Administration’s commitment to any change at all. There was some kind of a ‘buyer’s remorse’ accompanied by growing murmurs and grumbling over what people viewed as a business as usual modus operandi of the new administration. Although it had appeared like the Zuma administration was going to get a substantial honeymoon period, the pressures of poverty coupled with the non-essential expenditure excesses of some elements of the in-coming cabinet inadvertently hastened the commencement of the new spates of violent protests. Social movements helped mobilise communities for such protest actions but also in some cases, community leaders simply called upon already fired-up community groups to act.

Ordinarily, communities that resorted to protest actions would have tried the negotiation routes including civic engagement through the invited spaces such as the ward committee forums, IDP and budgeting processes etc but to no avail. In some cases municipal leadership injudiciously resorted to the Marie Antoinette’s type of arrogance that only fuelled anger and desperation. When the resultant frustrations degenerated into acts of violence, government grudgingly came calling and promised immediate remedy to the appalling conditions. Worryingly, community groups made the crucial observation that government only appears to respond when violence is applied.

Logically to them, the greater the intensity of such violence, the higher the chance that even the President would pay attention. Two points can be deduced from this scenario; firstly, it sets a bad precedent and encourages violent upheavals as a mode of expressing popular dissatisfaction. Secondly, it tends to undermine protests as a form of expression and ventilation of legitimate grievances. While it is true that sometimes genuine protest actions are hijacked by criminal elements and disgruntled political operatives, there is no denying that the latter simply exploit an already desperate situation for their own ends. Therefore, instead of waiting for the tensions to degenerate into runaway violence leading to unfortunate loss of lives and destruction of both private and public property - the responsible thing for the state to do is to be responsive to people’s grievances, respectfully and without undue delays. This is the theme that runs through all the chapters of the SoLG 2010-11.

Evidence seems to suggest that when there is greater openness and people are enjoined, genuinely, in decision-making processes, they tend to be more understanding and less susceptible to political manipulation regarding unfounded claims of mal-administration. In essence, they internalise a more realistic attitude and could become very useful allies in development rather than perpetually disgruntled consumers of services.

The report is fittingly critical of the invited spaces for citizen participation - especially the ward committees. It notes that although public participation in governance and development processes is a fundamental constitutional imperative, in practice, municipalities rather than facilitate such participation, tend to frustrate it. Ward committees remain mere extensions of dominant political parties and although complaints initially related to their being under-resourced, there are now fears that the little stipend that has now been availed by the state may worsen rather than improve matters. There are chances that competition for membership of ward committees might intensify and so might political intrigues.

The stipend and other goodies might, instead of facilitating these committees in the execution of their mandates, hamper them by heightening the stakes of falling foul with their political bosses, the councillors. Besides, there is a school of thought that feels that the ethos of self-less service are increasingly being lost through ‘service payments’ to every emergent representative structure. Although quite frankly the same argument could be advanced to disadvantage councillors as well, the more critical question asked is to what extent is ward committees representative of the voices of the marginalised segments of our society? Sadly, numerous studies, including research undertaken for the SoLG suggest that this particular space is of doubtful efficacy to such communities especially when issues are emotive, contentious and politically significant. This space is frequently manipulated to serve narrow political interests and undermine real civic engagement.

Fortunately, various civil society organisations have devised fairly independent mechanisms and forums for community engagement. The downside is that many municipalities misconstrue the agenda of such outfits. They tend to resist them and remain rabidly hesitant to allowing them to forge meaningful partnerships in the promotion of public participation. Some do so because of fears that an informed citizenry could become too demanding against limited resources. However, this is a clearly misplaced fear. Evidence seems to suggest that when there is greater openness and people are enjoined, genuinely, in decision-making processes, they tend to be more understanding and less susceptible to political manipulation regarding unfounded claims of mal-administration. In essence, they internalise a more realistic attitude and could become very useful allies in development rather than perpetually disgruntled consumers of services.

The report also touches on the tensions that continue to build-up among rural communities over their citizenship to a democratic state while still being treated as subjects to their respective traditional authorities that are duly recognised under our laws. Women are particularly more disadvantaged because in many cases tradition does not allow them to ‘own’ land - the key factor of production in those areas. The contradictions have worsened due to the fact that the traditional authorities now draw salaries from the state coffers while they still remain unelected and largely unaccountable to the people. Moreover, the perpetual tension between the traditional leaders and the elected councilors continue to constitute a serious hurdle to brisk development in the rural areas.

None of the two sets of leadership seems to be doing enough to promote real civic engagement. Until harmony between these two sets of leadership is attained and the benefits of the Constitution, especially on the treatment of women, are realised, rural development will remain a mirage. Yet, with political will, it is possible for all to enjoy a truly participatory democracy.

References: Afesis-corplan has a limited number of copies of the SoLG but readers are also encouraged to visit for the electronic version.

Marie Antoinette (the wife of King Louis xiv of France) infamously wondered aloud why the people protesting against shortage of bread couldn’t substitute with cakes.

- Peter Kimemia manages all programme activities including project staff and resources at Afesis-corplan. This article first appeared in The Transformer, April/May/June edition. It is republished here with the permission of Afesis-corplan, a NGO. 

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