Food parcel plan assumed councillors have best interests of their people at heart
This article does not question the rationale behind the provision of food parcels to those who needed food the most during the lockdown - this was a proactive response from government and came at a time when such support was needed the most. For this and many other interventions, we applaud our government.
But many assumptions were made by those who were conceptualising and planning for the distribution of the food parcels. First, they assumed that public representatives, in particular ward councillors and ward committee members, have the best interest of their constituents at heart.
This assumption has long been proven false by the actions of too many a public representative in South Africa at all spheres and institutions of government. To craft a process that would be co-ordinated and facilitated by public representatives only, with limited opportunities for oversight, was a mistake.
It was not surprising when reports surfaced of councillors hoarding the food or at worst selling it; this would happen in an environment where there are low levels of trust between public representatives and their constituents such as we have in South Africa across many municipalities.
Second, they assumed there existed readily available information of deserving and needy individuals who should benefit from support that the public representatives could easily access.
This too proved false in that ward committee members had to run around collecting and compiling lists of names of deserving beneficiaries for the food distribution process. It was clear many municipalities did not have databases that captured the socio-economic profiles of households at a ward level. One would assume this information exists and that it is used by the municipality in its decision-making.
Scholars of the system and structure of local government have for years been arguing that South African municipalities were far too big and that the size of its wards was equally big. They argue among other things that, with the size of wards that South Africa has, it would be difficult for public representatives to properly service their constituents.
The food parcel distribution process proved this argument true. If representatives at the localised level of a ward do not have such information, it begs to question if representatives at a municipal level have accurate and credible information from which to base service delivery decisions.
The third assumption that the planners of the food distribution process made was that there exist systems for oversight and a culture of transparency in local government that would enable citizens to understand and interrogate decisions made around who would end up receiving the food parcels, why a certain number, how people got onto the list and whether those people who made it onto the list were indeed the most deserving in the ward.
This culture does not exist and this fuels mistrust. Generally, there is a veil of secrecy around the beneficiary lists and there are limited mechanisms that citizens can use to effect oversight over the food distribution process in their own wards.
The Covid-19 moment is one in which municipal leadership should be thinking of and testing new ways of communicating and involving communities; new ways of being and doing.
* Ngamlana is executive director at Afesis-corplan, a development NGO based in East London whose work is on local governance, sustainable settlement development and urban development issues. She writes in her personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily