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The way South Africans engage in politics leaves a lot to be desired. There is something wrong when a school or library is burned down during a community service delivery protest, or when there’s bloodshed as union members and DA marchers clash over youth wage subsidies, or when the ruling party growls that it will win in the streets what it can’t win in the courts.
Democracy – meaningful and effective political participation and representation – requires an active and engaged public. It requires citizens who do not hesitate to claim their rights, but who are also able to understand what these rights are, to compromise over setting priorities, and to accept negotiated outcomes.
But the country’s dominant political culture and institutions often seem to work against considered engagement. Debate over hot button issues in South Africa quickly degrades from substantial discussion to mudslinging.
But public participation in the government is frequently only symbolic or instrumental: carried out because the processes require it, but not a genuine opportunity for people to influence policy, or even a place to gain better understanding of it.
At best, this produces wish lists from communities who have no concept of the real constraints, necessary trade-offs, or the setting of priorities.
Formal governance processes leave citizens feeling they lack any real influence on local decision-making, and their leaders – especially at the local government level – appear weak or unresponsive.
And so we get spates of protest – which sometimes lead to a haphazard acceleration of delivery, but more often cost everyone involved dearly in terms of time and resources as roads are blocked or precious infrastructure is damaged.
The National Planning Commission, sensitive to these problems, has proposed a “Citizenship Academy” based at the municipal level, to build community organisation and planning skills.
At the outset, the proposal raises as many questions as it answers. How would a Citizenship Academy relate to existing structures and processes for citizenship and public participation – do we in fact need a new structure, or should we rather remodel or reinvigorate existing initiatives such as the National Youth Service or the Community Development Workers programme?
How could a new initiative avoid the same fate as ward committees – elite capture? How could the content achieve the aim of teaching spatial and budget literacy to a much broader pool of people, so that communities would be better able to engage in setting priorities and thoughtfully planned development?
The idea of enhancing the quality of South Africans’ engagement with government is widely attractive.
The question of what a good citizen looks like was among those raised at a recent round-table discussion on the issue hosted by Isandla Institute – beginning by challenging the idea that “bad citizens” engage in violent, destructive protest, while “good citizens” work only through formal processes – electoral, bureaucratic, judicial – to influence events.
But this is simply not true in the context of – frankly speaking – the failure of those formal avenues. Ward Committees are a case in point: intended to be apolitical structures, the Department of Co-operative Governance’s own review admits that they are now, “often merely extensions of political party structures and do not encompass the full range of interests within communities”.
During the round-table, it was pointed out that the violent protests that make the news most often follow long periods of fruitless efforts to engage via approved channels.
Held up against the often-heard criticism that communities are disengaged from participation, we have to consider the possibility that service delivery protests are the manifestations of today’s “active citizenship”.
And if we cry against the destruction of schools or libraries during protests, we would be wise to note how often the leaders of these protests are members of local branches of political parties, harnessing discontent to strengthen their position.
This pattern is confirmed by surveys conducted by National Planning Commissioner, Karl von Holdt, and his colleagues at the Society Work and Development Institute (SWOP) based at the University of Witwatersrand, who note that community members are well aware of how they might be used in this regard, and make a calculated choice to work with compromised leaders to “send smoke signals to the authorities”.
One telling remark at the Isandla round-table was that “a government gets the citizens it deserves”.
If the litany of scandals and grumbling around the nation’s dinner tables covers the whole truth, then an unruly citizenry is just deserts for a public service that is in equal measure corrupt, incompetent and crammed with self-serving individuals. Certainly local government in particular has not covered itself in glory since 1994.
But we less often take seriously the possibility, raised by Ivor Chipkin from the Public Affairs Research Institute, that the public service – which is still going through enormous changes in terms of structure and personnel – is itself an obstacle for many capable, motivated and hardworking officials.
A model borrowed from the private sector, of powerful, relatively autonomous clusters led by dynamic leaders, has only created a merry-go-round of appointments, as offices headhunt in a very small pool.
There is also a widespread failure of departments to work effectively across institutional boundaries, a problem which finds a wider echo in the ways that reams of red-tape and mandates and elaborate oversight mechanisms can frustrate delivery even where budgets and personnel are in place.
Another insight was that slow delivery might be a necessary consequence of thorough transformation of the public service: it’s too early to expect steady, consistent results from institutions that have recently been redesigned for democracy.
The idea of a Citizenship Academy is an attractive one worthy of wider discussion.
What role would such an initiative play in responding to the critical questions of systemic poverty, inequality and poor education? How would it respond to the challenges faced by the most vulnerable members of our society: women, people with disabilities and other marginalised groups?
Also speaking at the round-table, Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities, provided a working sketch for such an “academy”: a scheme that would take neighbourhoods as a basic unit (a smaller area than unwieldy political boundaries of wards), and borrow the best characteristics of the Community Work Programme (leadership training closely coupled with funding to create jobs and community controlled spending of those resources), in order to build the core governance skills of local activists as well as consolidate oversight and monitoring of the government.
Few will argue with the idea that South Africans need to find newly effective and constructive ways to engage with the state – and each other. Whatever forms these take, the willingness of municipalities and political parties to be transparent and accountable and to cede power to local communities will be crucial.
* Masiko-Kambala is Local Government Policy Researcher at Isandla Institute (website: isandla.org.za)
* Gyuse is an active citizen