Is too much service delivery killing South Africa’s democracy?

Local elections are upon us once more, so it is “service delivery” time again.

Some parties are campaigning on the promise that they will offer “service delivery”. The media — not surprisingly, since they are addicted to the phrase — tell us that “service delivery” is the central election issue because it is what local government is all about. So clichéd has this phrase become that it is rarely challenged. It has become political common sense.

But “service delivery” is not common sense. It is a deeply undemocratic way of looking at local democracy. Local government’s problem is not that “service delivery” is lacking — it is that there is far too much of it. If local government is to be democratic and serve the people, “service delivery” must be ditched.

Democracy is meant to be a system in which the people govern. Translated, the Greek words that gave birth to it mean “the people rule”. What that means and how to make it happen is hotly debated, but decision-making by the people remains the core feature of democracy and the one by which all democratic governments should be judged. Democratic government is there to serve citizens and do what they want. This obviously includes local government.

There is a world of difference between this democratic view and “service delivery”. In the democratic view, the people’s role is to govern, not to receive “delivery”. Where local government is about democracy, the people, through their public servants, make things happen. If it is about “service delivery”, things happen to the people. If citizens’ only role is to be delivered to, they need no say in what is delivered and how this happens. Local government’s role in a democracy is not to deliver to the people — it is to serve them.

But why this quibbling over words? It surely makes no difference to what the local government does and whether citizens are happy with it? In reality, the difference between the approaches is very concrete — it shapes what local government does and how it affects people. 

“Service delivery” is not only a lazy phrase that people throw about when they have nothing interesting to say (although it is that too). It is also the approach that has shaped what local governments have been doing in this country for decades. And it is a key reason for so many being unhappy with local government.       

Disempowering the people

If local government is about “service delivery”, it is not a vehicle that offers people local power and enables them to take control of the areas in which they live. It is a realm in which people wait passively for officials to perform technical tasks. If that is what local government does, the officials who are expected to perform these tasks are not meant to know how to listen to the people they govern — they simply need to know how to do what those who wield power have decided should be done. Since people with qualifications usually think that they know more about what they do than others, asking citizens what they think gets in the way of “delivery”. 

It is, of course, now almost routine for all demonstrations by people in townships to be labelled “service delivery protests”, which relieves the reporters of bothering to find out why people are unhappy. What this hides is that often people in the streets are not demanding service delivery — they are protesting against it. 

One example is a Johannesburg shack settlement where people went into the streets because the “service deliverers” had decided that their houses were in the wrong place and had to be moved in the interests of “service delivery”. This may be an extreme example, but because “service delivery” means power to the technicians, not the people, it often leaves citizens unhappy.

The effect on democracy is illustrated by an event that happened a couple of decades ago. A non-governmental organisation ran courses for elected local councillors on how to perform their roles effectively. It concentrated mainly on skills that would make councillors better able to represent voters. The councillors complained that the courses were not giving them the capacities they needed their job, they said, was not to represent people but to help “service delivery”.

The councillors were wrong about their role, but right to insist that “service delivery” is not about representing people — it is about deciding what they need and giving it to them. Like customers in the marketplace, citizens can decide whether they like what is being delivered, but they don’t make decisions and do not get to decide whether they want delivery.

Mistaken belief in degrees

A topical example of how the stress on “service delivery” erodes democracy is the ANC’s current obsession with selecting mayoral candidates with “the right qualifications”. The party’s national executive committee has decided that candidates will now be chosen through a “nomination and screening process”. It will now give priority to candidates with postgraduate degrees.

What the ANC is not saying is that it is copying the pioneer of this approach — the DA, which has expected candidates for election to submit CVs and appear before a selection committee, just like job applicants do. This method assumes that whether candidates enjoy support among members of the party is irrelevant, because becoming a candidate is not a democratic process but a corporate appointment. 

The ANC now agrees. President Cyril Ramaphosa put his finger on what was at stake when he told the Congress of South African Trade Unions that candidates for mayor will be “carefully selected on capability, not popularity”.

For Ramaphosa, and both his party and the official opposition, whether people want you to represent them is irrelevant: what matters is whether a committee believes you are qualified to become a “service delivery” officer. This is not only a deeply undemocratic attitude, but it also misunderstands why people don’t like local governments. 

In democratic local government, only one qualification really matters: being able to represent people effectively. Mayors and councillors don’t manage the technical functions of councils — officials do. The job of elected representatives is to make sure that they do it in a way that serves the citizenry.  

Academic qualifications don’t help you to do this. In some cases, they may make it harder because people with degrees are more likely to believe that they don’t have to care what citizens think as they know better. This way of choosing candidates will shrink democracy by denying people who enjoy the support of their local parties a chance to become mayors.

Nor will this approach make local government more popular. Contrary to the lazy “service delivery protest” label, people in townships and shack settlements protest about different things in different places. But there is one common theme — a sense that people are not listened to and not taken seriously. People demand to be part of making decisions, not a “service delivery” approach that denies them a say.

The fixation with “service delivery” silences citizens because it places them at the mercy of technicians. Citizens don’t need mayors with degrees chosen by committees. They need local councils that will listen to them and act on what they hear. That is impossible as long as “service delivery” is the priority. 

This article was first published by New Frame.

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