/ 18 April 2019

Civil society requires a reorientation

In the cold: South Africa has progressive policies to involve citizens in such processes as municipal budgeting and planning
In the cold: South Africa has progressive policies to involve citizens in such processes as municipal budgeting and planning, but this is seldom or ineffectively implemented. Photo: David Harrison


Although the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development advances a commitment by United Nations member states that “no one will be left behind” and pledges to “endeavour to reach the furthest behind first”, South Africa, like many other countries, has not fully translated this call into practice.

Everyday realities show that poor participation by citizens in local governance processes thrives, and this adversely affects the development of disadvantaged people, such as those living in informal settlements, which are characterised by the poor provision of basic services, including water, electricity and sanitation, as a result of inadequate investment in resources.

“How can someone participate [effectively] in something she/he doesn’t understand?” asked a resident, referring to integrated development planning (IDP).

“They [municipal officials] don’t know what we suffer from,” said another.

These quotes reflect the frustrations of people who live in informal settlements in the Ekurhuleni metropolitan municipality and the Emalahleni local municipality where there is poor participation in such processes as development planning and municipal budgeting.

This frustration provides grounds for the growing trend of residents in informal settlements banding together to speak with one voice. Planact has begun supporting this trend by facilitating the creation of two clusters, each comprising more than 10 informal settlements, to help improve participation in local governance.

Despite the pledge of “leaving no one behind”, the sad reality is the paradox of the South African government’s development agenda of “improving the welfare of societies: ending extreme poverty, reducing inequalities, and addressing discriminatory barriers” and the reality of inadequate basic services in many residential areas, and municipalities’ inadequate commitment to addressing inequalities. This happens despite progressive policies and programmes introduced by the government to improve the living conditions of people previously disadvantaged under the apartheid regime.

To this end, chapter seven of the Constitution of South Africa and the Local Government Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000 can be used to promote people’s and community-based organisations’ involvement in local governance.

The most relevant policy is the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme, introduced in 2004 to promote incremental in situ upgrading of informal settlements. Despite the existence of these policies, residents of informal settlements lament their marginalisation.

As noted, some informal settlements are organising themselves into clusters to address their marginalisation. The sentiments expressed in the earlier quotes were confirmed by 150 representatives of informal settlements that are already part of two clusters in the Emalahleni and Ekurhuleni municipalities.

In a dialogue on participation facilitated by Planact on March 7, these representatives criticised the municipalities for failing to prioritise the involvement of people living in informal settlements, and for failing to educate them about participatory processes in local governance.

The prevailing belief is that the municipalities are not committed to improving people’s participation in local governance is reflected the following comments.

“I last saw the councillor three years ago, when he was campaigning during local government elections”; “We are not informed about the [IDP] process”; “We only see the municipal budget on paper — municipal officials do not involve us in the budget formulation processes”; and “They sometimes include a project we need in the IDP, but do not implement it”. Another said: “When you think big, the municipality tells you to think small.” This resident gave as an example the provision of chemical toilets when they had requested a health clinic.

Planact sees the lack of genuine participation in local governance as a form of deprivation that exacerbates social injustice, and has decided to support and advocate on behalf of informal settlement clusters.

It is an advocacy approach intended to exert pressure on the three tiers of government — local, provincial and national — to commit to addressing systemic issues impeding effective participation by people in local governance.

The rationale for adopting this approach is that informal settlements face similar problems, such as inadequate basic services. The residents have experiential knowledge regarding the barriers to participation and are thus well positioned to provide rich recommendations on how to improve it.

Residents assert that local government’s top-down approach, combined with “tick-the-boxes” participation exercises, result in their basic services needs not being met.

Sadly, people’s frustration with these courses of action all too often results in violent protests. Academic research shows that protests do little to improve service delivery.

But, the frustrations are real and need a legitimate response. “We protest as a last resort, when we have problems, because it is our right,” said one resident.

A collective approach, such as clustering, could amplify the voices of the informal settlements in local governance decision-making and activate systemic change towards participatory processes and the provision of basic services.

But, it is important to note that the cluster advocacy approach extends beyond mobilising and organising the residents of informal settlements to extract information on gaps in the local governance’s participatory practices. As asserted by Steven Friedman in his paper, A Day Not Seized? Citizen Activism and the New Political Reality, the failure of civil society organisations to use new opportunities created by changes in South Africa’s political landscape will result in such opportunities being hijacked by “the affluent and connected groups who do not need to mobilise public support — rather than grassroots citizens”.

Drawing on such observations, the informal settlement clusters will be co-tasked to devise alternative strategies to improve public participation and effectively advocate for responsive local governance.

The cluster advocacy approach is pivotal, given that there is often a direct relationship between the levels of participation and effective basic service provision. Many development practitioners, including those from international organisations and donors, prioritise supporting systemic change in local governance practices over individual community-based projects.

A reconfiguration of civil society advocacy approaches is imperative. The clusters will work together and involve the relevant state institutions to promote the development of realistic intervention models.

Although this reconfiguration from a singular project to a systemic focus is key, caution should be exercised not to demonise or abandon existing community-based projects. Instead, systemic change, increased participation and community-based projects should be interwoven into a robust strategy to “leave no one behind”.

Hloniphile Simelane (PhD) is the operations manager at Planact