An injured DA member is taken to safety during a march on Cosatu headquarters over the youth wage subsidy. The writers decry the destruction protesters leave in their wake in their efforts to effect change by being active citizens. Picture: Itumeleng English

Pamela Masiko and Terna Gyuse

The way South Africans wage politics leaves a lot to be desired. There is something wrong when a school or library is burnt down during a 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 requires an active and engaged public. It requires citizens who do not hesitate to claim their rights, but also able to understand what these rights are, to compromise on 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 SA quickly degenerates from meaningful discussion to mudslinging.

Public participation in 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 to gain a better understanding of it.

Formal governance processes leave citizens feeling that they have no influence on local decision-making, and their leaders – especially at the local government level – appear weak or unresponsive. And so we get spates of (occasionally destructive) protest, which sometimes lead to a haphazard acceleration of delivery, but more often costs everyone involved dearly in terms of time and resources.

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 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?

The idea of enhancing the quality of South Africans’ engagement with the government is widely attractive.

The question of just what a good citizen looks like was among those raised at a recent round-table discussion on the issue hosted by the 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 and judicial – to influence events.

But this is 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 and Traditional Affairs’ own review admits 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 (ironically by the channelling of local activism and mass mobilisation into political parties since their unbanning 20 years ago), 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, 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.

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 kitchen tables covers the whole truth, then an unruly citizenry is just deserts for a public service that is in equal measures 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 of the Public Affairs Research Institute, that the public service – still going through enormous changes in terms of structure and personnel – is an obstacle for many capable, motivated and hard-working 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 tiny pool.

There is also a widespread failure of departments to work effectively across institutional boundaries, a problem that 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 unexpected 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 so recently been redesigned for democracy.

The idea of a Citizenship Academy is an attractive one, worthy of wider discussion.

Speaking at the Isandla 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 the 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) to build the core governance skills of local activists as well as consolidate oversight and monitoring of government.

Few will argue that South Africans need new ways to engage with the state and each other. Whatever form these take, the willingness of municipalities and political parties to be transparent and accountable and to cede power to local communities will be crucial.

l Pamela Masiko-Kambala is a local government policy researcher at Isandla Institute. Terna Gyuse is an active citizen