Cape Town-11-05-2016 Grabou protesters stoning a police Inyala. File photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)
Cape Town-11-05-2016 Grabou protesters stoning a police Inyala. File photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Disbandment of civic organisations hampers service delivery

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 29, 2021

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OPINION: The disbandment of civic organisations left a leadership and service delivery vacuum in South Africa. Bringing these institutions back would not be a futile exercise, Professor Bheki Mngomezulu.

The political developments which took place in South Africa in the early 1990s set the country on an unprecedented pedestal. This period undoubtedly marked a new phase in South African history, which ushered in a new political dispensation South Africans had been yearning for.

The unbanning of liberation movements like the ANC and others, as well as the return of some of the exiles to begin negotiations with the apartheid government brought a glimmer of hope that the days of the apartheid regime were numbered.

The Groote Schuur Minute of 4 May 1990 marked one of the first steps toward democracy.

It was in this document where the ANC and the National Party agreed on the conditions that first had to be met in order to end the decades-old political conflict in the country. After many other developments – including Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) talks, the first fully democratic elections were held in South Africa on April 27, 1994.

But while this synopsis captures the essence of what led to a democratic dispensation in South Africa, these developments also had a negative impact on social mobilisation and organisation through township-based civic organisations – also known as “civics” by certain commentators.

In a nutshell, a civic organisation is a community-based company, club, committee, association, corporation or any organisation or group of persons. These are the people who come together on a voluntary basis and act in concert with the view to further educational, charitable, religious goals and to achieve many other things for their communities.

Among other things, civic organisations served as: members of monitoring committees, resource groups for capacity building within their respective communities, and agencies responsible for carrying out independent collection of information.

In a sense, these civic organisations performed the task of local government structures – but did so with more efficiency. Importantly, members were part of their local communities. As such, they clearly understood the needs of their people and tried their level best to address those needs working together with their communities.

Unlike local councils in the post-apartheid era, their work commitment was not motivated by any financial gains. One general observation is that between the years 1990 and 1993, these civic organisations played an instrumental role in both local and national politics in South Africa. At each level, they left indelible footprints.

At the local level, civic organisations were visible in local government restructuring. They also played a critical role in terms of development initiatives. Their astute leaders were visionaries who derived their mandate directly from local communities. These leaders were not fixated in party politics as would be the case after the post-1994 Municipal Councils.

In 1992, anew development happened. The South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) was established. At this point, independent civic organisations became branches of Sanco, albeit with a certain level of autonomy.

The role of Sanco became visible between 1992 and 1993. It was during this time that Sanco played a critical role in the negotiated transformation of local government.

This was necessitated by the fact that the leaders of civic organisations understood local government better than anyone else – including the exiles who had returned into the country and were in discussion with the apartheid government.

Their initiatives included urban housing and infrastructure development. These were deemed important because they concerned the livelihoods of local inhabitants.

Noticeably, from 1993 onwards, the role played by individual civic organisations and by Sanco as the umbrella body dwindled in a discernible manner.

There could be many explanations for this new development. One was the excitement about the anticipated democratic order. Secondly, liberation movements were converting into political parties in readiness for the anticipated elections.

Thirdly, the national perspective gained momentum over local politics and issues. Fourthly, the prospects of moving into salaried positions rendered civic organisations obsolete. Lastly, even the very idea of townships was now being frowned upon as apartheid creations.

With the benefit of hindsight, the demise of civic organisations was an unfortunate move. It created a vacuum which can still be felt today.

Firstly, leaders of that calibre are nowhere to be found. Secondly, service delivery, which fell within the purview of civic organisations has declined significantly. Local Councils deliver services along party lines.

Thirdly, irrelevant projects are imposed on communities through a top-down approach. Fourthly, incompetent people are appointed into positions through wrong channels (including bribery, intimidation and by toeing party lines). Fifthly and lastly, there is less accountability to the local communities.

In a nutshell, the disbandment of civic organisations left a leadership and service delivery vacuum in South Africa. Bringing these institutions back in one for or another would not be a futile exercise. The intermittent service delivery protests give this view more impetus.

* Bheki Mngomezulu is full professor of political science and deputy dean of research at the University of Western Cape.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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