How to refresh SA’s jaded democracy


Many of South Africa’s troubles reflect a widening gap between state and society. On the one hand, the government is struggling to cope with multiplying social crises — gender-based violence, youth unemployment, gangsterism, taxi conflict, xenophobic attacks and land occupations. On the other, citizens are increasingly disillusioned and distrustful of government institutions and services as a result of poor management, corruption, patronage politics and nepotism. 

The conventional solutions are sectoral and driven from the centre — new master plans, regulatory regimes, compliance frameworks and formula-driven social programmes — as if there is a legislative fix to social breakdown. President Cyril Ramaphosa advocates high-level social compacts between powerful sectional interests to negotiate compromises and concessions.

The potential to make progress by deepening democracy and reinvigorating civil society has been neglected. On a recent research visit to the Philippines we discovered a social innovation that may offer lessons for South Africa by strengthening grassroots citizen engagement and reconnecting state and society. 

The Philippines is not widely seen as a role model for development. In fact, the country’s authoritarian and illiberal political regimes are associated with high levels of poverty, inequality and instability. However, these conditions have spawned a system of neighbourhood government — the barangays — that has helped communities to come together and to hold their own against unsympathetic political elites.

An energised system of community-level governance could help to improve conditions in poorer settlements in South Africa. Some townships and informal neighbourhoods have street committees or other informal governance arrangements, but they lack the extent of state support, legal safeguards and legitimacy of the barangays. Better-organised communities with access to decision-makers and resources could release people’s agency and help them to cope with adversity.

Barangays have a long history in the Philippines. They were originally established as autonomous political units governing rural villages; and have since gone through various mutations during colonial and postcolonial periods. 

After co-option and manipulation by autocratic regimes, democratic reforms in the early 1990s boosted the barangays and constituted them as the lowest of four tiers of government. Their purpose is to foster local democracy, make service delivery more responsive and ensure community engagement in civic affairs. 

There are more than 42 000 barangays in the Philippines, ranging in size from about 500 to 5 000 residents. Each one comprises a small group of elected leaders, supported by a larger group of appointed officials. Leadership elections are held every three years and public assemblies take place every six months to promote transparency and accountability to local citizens. 

Compulsory reporting of plans and activities to municipal authorities promotes upward accountability. 

Barangays also have some influence over wider municipal plans and programmes through a consultative forum or council created in each local authority jurisdiction.

Every barangay receives a resource allocation from the national government based on a transparent formula. About two-thirds of their budgets come from government transfers. The rest is raised from local sales taxes, service charges and fees, which confers useful autonomy. 

The number of staff employed varies between about 20 and 100, depending on the size of the barangay. Furthermore, many of the workers are paid an allowance rather than a substantial salary, which means that they tend to be motivated by their commitment to the community rather than their remuneration.

Barangays give ordinary citizens a formal stake in decision-making and devolve power and resources from the centre to local neighbourhoods. Local democracy helps to harness the resourcefulness of residents and means that communities are better equipped to resist threats, such as eviction and resettlement. 

Major responsibilities cover elementary healthcare, nutrition and welfare services, solid waste collection and recycling, everyday maintenance of local roads and water infrastructure, and basic recreational facilities and information services. 

Residents come together to discuss local needs and priorities, and to make decisions about how the budget should be spent to fill gaps in existing service provision. Grassroots involvement conveys responsibility, fosters local ownership of public resources and encourages popular support and voluntary action. 

During a recent study tour of nine neighbourhoods in Manila and Batangas City, we met many active citizens committed to supporting their neighbourhoods and enhancing their living environments. Members of the community give of their time to organise social events and to take part in “place-making” initiatives. 

Refuse collection and recycling schemes are widespread, with the result that most streets and alleyways are free of litter. Every neighbourhood also seems to have some kind of basketball court, reflecting the national pastime. 

Each barangay has its own offices offering support around the clock. These are hives of activity, where local residents and officials interact and exchange information. People share their concerns, build relationships and make plans for the future. They identify problems and provide support and protection for individuals and groups at risk of harm and antisocial behaviour. 

These connections seem to strengthen the fabric of the community and enable it to deal with disasters and adapt to changing circumstances. In this way, the barangays provide a level of social organisation that can come in useful to challenge powerful interests or to channel the ideas and energy of local residents in constructive directions.

The formal legal status of the barangays gives recognition and respect to marginalised communities. The psychological benefits may be even more important than the material benefits. Low-income residents seem to understand that they are more like partners than subordinates, and that they have a chance to influence decision-making and hold service providers to account. 

The validation of these communities by the standing of the barangays appears to instil a sense of dignity and belonging among local residents. 

Of course, the barangays are no panacea. Despite the electoral safeguards and financial protections, the institution still seems to be open to manipulation and partisanship. Strong political families manage to co-opt the barangays in some places and to sustain traditional patronage networks at the expense of more democratic practices. In addition, the capacity of the barangays to tackle some of the serious problems in their neighbourhoods is constrained by their restricted staffing and resources. 

They lack formal powers over land and the built environment to engineer physical improvements, and cannot solve the problems in their areas in isolation of broader policies and plans.

The governance failures in South Africa’s townships and informal settlements are all too apparent, reflected in frequent service breakdowns, payment boycotts, neglect of health and safety standards, and conflicts between backyarders, shack dwellers and homeowners. Municipalities are too remote from people’s everyday realities and often don’t seem to care for their wellbeing. The current system of ward committees is widely understood to be weak and ineffectual. 

Neighbourhood governments that are democratically elected and formally constituted could help to revitalise community dynamics and inject essential resources into the places that need them most. They could help to galvanise disaffected groups and steer their frustrations into positive action. 

Above all, more cohesive and empowered communities could play an important role in refreshing the country’s jaded democracy and holding other spheres of government to account.  

Professor Ivan Turok is executive director and Dr Andreas Scheba research specialist in the Economic Performance and Development Programme of the Human Sciences Research Council

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Ivan Turok
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