CLEANING UP: Pikitup workers Martha Mandao and Jacqueline Mbali pick up litter on a street in Soweto. Picture: Tiro Ramatlhatse

I can’t claim to have read every post-State of the Nation address analysis, but of the many I have seen, none focuses on an important paragraph in President Jacob Zuma’s address – one that should be important to every person.

Political and economic pundits have commented on the high-level national issues at length, but no one seemed to think these words worthy of a mention (they came just after he spoke about Marikana and service delivery protests): “Let me hasten to add that government departments at all levels must work closely with communities and ensure that all concerns are attended to before they escalate. That responsibility remains. We are a caring government.’’

This is important for many reasons, and not just because it might prevent the violent service delivery protests we often read about. Let’s address the issue of community outbursts of frustration and impotence by reminding ourselves (and our politicians) of what politics is supposed to be about.

Wikipedia defines politics as: “Politics (from Greek politikos ‘of, for, or relating to citizens’) is the art or science of influencing people on a civic, or individual level, when there are more than two people involved.

“Modern political discourse focuses on democracy and the relationship between people and politics. It is thought of as the way we ‘choose government officials and make decisions about public policy’.”

Politics is about people. It is not about power, privilege or position. Politicians are elected to represent the interests of the people and not of themselves. Public servants, who carry out their duties under the policy direction of politicians, should therefore be 100 percent focused on serving people and on fulfilling their expectations, which arise out of the most important policy document of the country – the constitution.

But there are other reasons to “work closely with communities” and to attend to problems “before they escalate” – and they are more practical than political.

First, working with communities will have two beneficial outcomes – the government will have a better understanding of what it is that people want and the government is more likely to get the co-operation of communities if they participate fully in the decision-making process. This is bound to result in less protesting, even in cases where delivery might be unavoidably slow, because at least people will understand why it is slow and be willing to be patient.

Second, dealing with problems before they escalate saves money. In our engagements with the City of Joburg as we try to tackle some of the many challenges facing the people of Yeoville Bellevue, we are continually shocked at the financial consequences of doing too little, too late.

A council official told us of the monetary implications of demolishing illegal spaza shops against which they had got court judgements. Apart from the cost of getting the judgements, which could have been more than R50 000 a judgement, the demolition of 13 spaza shops was going to set the council back R500 000.

Imagine, instead, an effective prevention policy which would entail communities being educated about the requirements for opening spaza shops. Imagine unauthorised construction being stopped until those requirements have been fulfilled. The cost to the state (not to mention the cost to communities in terms of depressed property values and a diminished quality of life) could be dramatically reduced – all without a blanket denial of the right of people to make a living. I am not suggesting a ban on spaza shops, rather that people who want to open spazas follow the correct procedure.

Earlier this month, the member of the mayoral committee responsible for planning said on Talk Radio 702 that it is much more difficult to deal with illegal dwellings once they have a roof, because then the council has to go to court for an eviction order. How much simpler and cheaper it would be to deal firmly with illegal building operations before they get to the roofing stage.

Another example is that of littering. According to Pikitup (five or six years ago), the cost of clearing one ton of litter thrown into the street was seven times the amount needed to clear one ton of waste from street bins. An effective, litter-free education campaign, backed up by the adequate provision of bins along all high pedestrian traffic streets and effective by-law enforcement, would save the council millions annually. In addition, the economic decline normally associated with poorly managed urban areas (which includes areas that can be characterised as “dirty”) would be reversed, resulting in increased investment, job creation and poverty alleviation.

By all means, interrogate the big picture issues in the State of the Nation address. But let’s also give attention to this paragraph and push for its realisation.

The way for the government to show that it is indeed a “caring” government is to ensure more intensive and extensive community participation in policy and implementation processes and for a proactive rather than reactive approach to governance and service delivery.

The way for that to happen is for us as communities to lobby for it. Strongly.

l Maurice Smithers is the executive director of the Yeoville Bellevue Community Development Trust