WHO YOU GONNA CALL? From protest to social compact

WHO YOU GONNA CALL? From protest to social compact

What are we to make of the increasing calls by communities for President Zuma to intervene in the current wave of protests? Does this signal a failure in public communication channels, thus creating a disconnect between government and its people, ask Udesh Pillay and Julie Smith.

Poor citizens often seek political solutions to everyday problems. This means, for example, that unlike their relatively more well-off counterparts who employ their agency to resolve problems of electricity disconnections, water access or inflated bills, poor citizens approach the nearest arm of the state - ward committees and ward councillors.

If their ward ‘representatives' fail to act or are unable to act, then citizen recourse to the local state subsequently diminishes. In many cases, this option is not even available as ward committees have long lost their credibility as representatives due to problems of legitimacy, based on perceptions of elitism, patronage, greed and exclusion.

Who do we turn to?

The lack of political space, through the means of a ward representative or an alternative locally based unit of engagement, means that citizens reach out to the next arm of the state in an attempt to resolve issues - local government.

However, public trust in local government has decreased substantially over the past few years. This is attributable to a number of reasons, but includes perceptions around fraudulent activity, impressions that councillors lack the willingness to deliver on their mandates, concerns around capacity and skill, and recognition that local governments are often under-funded. There is also growing concern about a lack of coordination with respect to the three spheres of government, and the self-interest that afflicts municipal leadership.

Compounding these negative levels of trust has been a tendency on the part of national government to absolve themselves of responsibility for the situation. For example, there has been little acknowledgement of inadequate inter-governmental transfers (just 7.6% for 2007/08) which have frustrated municipal efforts to deliver on development mandates, let alone fund appropriate programmes of participation. The persistent and seemingly endless community protests have thus brought into sharp relief the magnitude of the crisis. Communities want immediate action with unambiguous answers. Presidential Imbizos and hotlines are not going to do it.

It does appear, however, that national government has realised the importance of inter-governmental cooperation and, beyond that, the necessity of a fully functioning, responsive and legitimate local government sphere founded on comprehensive communication channels. This is an encouraging development.

There can be no denying that government is responding to popular dissent. In the last few months it appears that national government has taken the protests seriously. Although still shaky, it has strongly revealed its intent to engage with the problems of delivery, municipal governance, administration and participation.

Evidence of concern

Sicelo Shiceka, the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, has embarked on a massive and very candid communication campaign. Shiceka's department, in partnership with others, is working on a National Framework for a Local Government Turn-Around Strategy (LGTAS). This LGTAS is expected to be passed by cabinet in December, and will thereafter migrate to a local government level where municipal specific turn-around strategies will be developed between January and March 2010. It is expected that these strategies will be implemented from March 2010 and start to show results before the 2011 local government elections.

However, public trust in local government has decreased substantially over the past few years.

Some important observations and cautionary signals warrant consideration as this process of redeeming the local government crisis takes shape:

  • Protests should not be seen altogether negatively. Citizens would not be protesting if they did not believe that government can do something about their dissent. This is a positive development, especially if the articulation between both positions is well calibrated.
  • The protests are a sharp warning that local participatory structures are malfunctioning. Something needs to give here - the effectiveness and legitimacy of ward committees and councillors should be reviewed and then reconstituted as a first measure, while alternative forms of engagement are proposed that represent the combined efforts and interests of both parties.
  • Following from the above, immediate government intervention in the form of a proper diagnostic assessment is needed (including hastily convened forensic audits). Government would also do well to introduce short-term improvement plans in the communities most affected with backlogs, while the larger more ambitious plan gets rolled out. Such measures should also identify new modes of delivery that accelerate services.
  • There needs to be a recognition that in the run-up to the 2011 municipal elections, political power play and posturing at a local level will heighten, and while grievances around a lack of delivery will be legitimate, protest action may mask a larger political agenda.
  • And finally, firing local councillors willy-nilly is not the answer. This must only be done where evidence of misappropriation and mismanagement is incontrovertible or in cases where there has been an irretrievable breakdown in councillor/citizen relations. If not, government will end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Not all municipalities in South Africa, after all, are afflicted with unrest. Many function well and provide good best-practice models. Furthermore, not all municipalities' problems derive from financial mismanagement. Skills deficits, unfunded mandates, badly coordinated inter-governmental relations, and ageing and badly maintained infrastructure compound the problem.

What is clear ahead of the 2011 elections is that local government is in crisis. The solutions proffered by the relevant ministry are encouraging, as are the monitoring and evaluation mechanisms proposed by Minister Chabane's office in the presidency. The strategic governance framework also emerging from the presidency, which attempts to better coordinate and integrate government's objectives and priorities, is a step in the right direction, and it is well known that local government will be the first sphere of government for direct (or centrally-driven) intervention. Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan has also released an additional R500bn in his medium-term budget to accelerate delivery, making the combined efforts cited above encouraging developments.

There can be no denying that government is responding to popular dissent. In the last few months it appears that national government has taken the protests seriously.

Leadership is paramount

What is ultimately required, however, is bold and imaginative leadership, especially from national government - the kind which values consultation with local structures (including identifying the need to resurrect these), but is ultimately assertive.

Government could well redeem the situation if its leaders affirm the mandate voters gave them in the recent national elections, and then propose an incremental approach to fast-tracking the delivery of sufficient and affordable basic services. An under-serviced township, for example, is highly unlikely to have its fortunes change overnight, but it could well be that through a locally constituted social compact with government, residents will be able to identify areas in most need.

Government can then roll out a short-term, ‘quick-fix' improvement plan for water and sanitation, let's say. The modalities can be worked out. The longer-term, centrally derived (and driven) Integrated Development Plan needn't get lost in such an approach; however it should start to reflect more closely the priorities and needs of the people on whom its plans are based.

What is ultimately required, however, is bold and imaginative leadership, especially from national government

Residents, conversely, should help resuscitate local democratic structures, articulate grievances intelligibly, collectively propose strategies for intervention, and share their vision for the municipality. Canvassing for the 2011 elections should move beyond political imperatives. Community initiative will be the key. Trust and reciprocity need to be re-established. Local councillors need to act with discipline and conviction, wary that they are being watched closely, and their activities monitored scrupulously. Where local councillors have been purged, a cohort of community leaders need to provide the basis for good governance. None of this, however, will eventuate unless national government shows strong and decisive leadership.

Dr Udesh Pillay is the executive director of the Centre for Service Delivery, and Julie Smith a post-doctoral fellow in the same Centre.