Bottom-up development must start taking root in South Africa

As we approach local government elections, much of the talk will turn to the importance of voting – and approaches to development at the local level.

More and more people these days talk about bottom-up development.

It was ordinary people who built the mass struggles against apartheid. But we can trace many of our problems in post-apartheid South Africa to a lack of commitment to meaningful, participatory, bottom-up development – despite having the legal and other provisions in place.

People have been protesting against top-down development with even more vigour. But elites have often struggled to grasp this and have tended to label much of this anger at the exclusion of ordinary people as “service delivery” protests.

South Africans’ demand for a bottom-up and democratic approach to development has, for many years, had a wider international resonance. Development specialists have taken a critical look at top-down approaches and advocated more democratic models.


Innovative participatory approaches in places such as Bolivia, Porto Allegre in Brazil, Kerala in India and Naga City in the Philippines are cited as evidence for the effectiveness of bottom-up models of social planning.

United States President Barack Obama spoke about bottom-up development during his election campaign several years ago. His campaign for the Democratic Party nomination often eschewed corporate support in favour of a grass-roots-up campaign. The fact that he was able to win the Democratic nomination on the back of the work of people in community organisations is testament to the power of people.

Increasingly, technocratic, top-down development is being questioned and investigated more critically and the flaws of such a developmental approach are fast being exposed.

In recent years, Kerala was known to have extreme poverty, malnutrition and high infant mortality rates. Later, when the state embarked on a model that was participatory and bottom-up, Kerala made mind-boggling progress. Today, it has social development indicators that are comparable with Western Europe and North America.

With an academic interest in participatory governance, I have sat in on conferences around the world where entire segments of the conference have been dedicated to “participatory governance”. In Madagascar, where I attended a development conference two weeks ago, participatory governance is high up on the civil society agenda.

One begins to think that there just may be hope for a solid challenge to the technocratic, top-down approach to dealing with peoples’ development.

When it comes to bottom-up development, there are encouraging and fascinating models from India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Philippines and Mexico – and we have our own story to tell.

South Africa has all the legislative and constitutive provisions in place, but we are not seeing a truly bottom-up development. In principle, we are world leaders; in practice, we are way behind many countries.

It is a sad fact that in our country, despite all the good laws, opportunities are very seldom created for affected groups to obtain information on a proposed policy process, to reflect on proposals and options, articulate preferred options and mandate representatives to speak on their behalf, with measures created for accountability and feedback.

It is an equally sad fact that very often poor people’s movements have faced considerable repression when they try to access information and processes that are theirs by right in terms of law and policy.

It is critical to assess who participates in decision-making, and whose voice is heard, particularly at the local level. The relative inaccessibility of information on government decision-making and the resources and abilities required to engage in participatory processes result in the domination of such spaces by the elite and those with access to resources, such as select nongovernmental organisations, business and other similar interest groups.

NGOs are important but poor peoples’ organisations and social movements should not be excluded. Often this causes consternation among those who believe there are three sectors in society – government, business and civil society – and that participation simply means that all three sectors must be included.

But this model is deeply flawed. At times, they have very different modes of working, interests and constituencies.

Although most states expect participation on their own terms, poor people’s movements tend to be ignored and have come to be seen as social pariahs because they have opted to use the murky space of popular protest, which is often confrontational. But this is where genuine grass-roots democracy is forged.

Today, the strong belief in social justice that has advanced organisations of the poor is much cloudier.

South Africa has a great deal to learn from examples around the world, where grass-roots movements have been effectively involved at the local level, such as the successes in involving street hawkers in Ghana and farmworkers in India. There is also a wide range of fascinating examples of participatory budgeting in Latin America.

Despite the negativities that sometimes come with international gatherings, somehow it also fills one with hope – that the chances are that the poor may just have a future after all.

Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate of the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, a research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation

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Imraan Buccus
Imraan Buccus works from Durban North. academic, columnist, researcher, writer

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