Building our Communities through Development Action

Mar 23, 2023

The past 20 years has witnessed an increasingly violent nature of protest in our country.  Research, such as that by Municipal IQ, shows that over 70% of all protests has been violent.   Hardly a day goes by without a media report on public properties being damaged, arson or attempted arson, private property threatened and destroyed, residents and often the poor and informal traders significantly affected, shops looted, foreign nationals threatened and attacked, and an unnecessary number of people killed or injured.

These protests are usually accompanied by male leaders mobilising through war talk and in response we deploy inordinately high numbers of security forces to manage these protests, taking them away from their important work in building safer communities.

Our own, less researched than experienced in, protest in the 1980s and 1990s was the direct opposite.   Unions, civics, and after their unbanning, the major liberation forces, held largely peaceful, and massive, protests against the apartheid regime and its criminal and repressive laws. Our protests then were organised with a significant number of marshals keeping order and often had our great women (and men) leaders leading us.  The state’s response was usually brutal, attacking, inciting, arresting and detaining many in those marches.  Civil society then was about building towards our democratic and developmental future.

We took that experience into the negotiations process, and not only was the result one which provides for the right to protest, but more importantly it institutionalised community engagement and participation as extremely important means of building our democratic state.

In terms of the Constitution, municipal legislation in particular is specific about community consultation being required in almost every stage of defining policy, legislation, planning, budgetting and delivery.  We have institutionalised this through mechanisms developed to promote participation and engagement, such as: ward committees and community development workers, legislated communication through print and electronic media, Thusong service centres, public hearings, satisfaction surveys, imbizos and community outreach programmes, transformed traditional councils, and other sector-specific forums (CPFs, SGBs, street and village committees, NGOs, CBOs).

Ward committees have been established to provide a vital link between ward councillors, the community, and the municipality and other spheres of government.  However these 4468 ward committees hardly play any of the roles of enhancing community participation as defined in law. Ward committees should have powers and functions being decentralised from the Councils as they could take responsibility for working with the municipal administrations in prioritising the fixing of potholes, pavements, street lights and similar issues.

Unfortunately, in spite of institutionalising community participation, there can be little doubt that community-state relationships have weakened over the past 21 years. In large part, this is because community engagement has generally been reduced to communication by the state to its communities rather than an empowering form of engagement. Community participation has been largely conflated with a more alienating “public participation” which, whilst necessary for conveying information, is not sufficient for community engagement which requires communities to be empowered and the state to be willing to engage in ways that build strong partnerships and trust.

What then is going wrong?  Most importantly, we have become too focussed in building a compliant state and not a developmental state.  A developmental state at the very least would begin by telling its people what it is doing.  A cursory look at a few websites of national departments gives us some insight.  You cannot find in one place in these websites specific details on what is being done developmentally, in which specific communities it is being done, what the budget is and who is appointed to do it.  Such information could include:

  • upgrading initiatives in each public school to ensure schools have proper toilets, libraries, etc (Basic Education),
  • which communities are receiving new electricity connections (ESKOM and municipalities) or provided with solar panels,
  • where bulk and reticulated water provisions and connections are being undertaken (Water and Sanitation),
  • houses being planned and built, including where and how many (Human Settlements)
  • what each of the over 2000 mines have promised in their Social Labour Plans that they will do for specific local communities (Minerals and Energy),
  • what roads are being upgraded, maintained or built (Transport and municipalities).

Imagine how empowering such information would be if it was available because it would allow all of our communities to assist the state in ensuring such work does get done, on time and on budget. And this would lead to communities protesting more about how to do things better and faster and would allow them to monitor that we are getting value for money.

Through doing this we would hopefully then get a state which stops measuring housing development in terms of how many summits, reports or mass meetings have been delivered, but in terms of how many housing units have been built or homeless people who have been housed, including where they are, who built them and at what cost.

We would soon realise that financial auditors don’t really have the means to measure anything other than financial management, and we would get communities and development specialists to measure progress being made in building a developmental state.

And this would get us talking much more about what we have done in terms of development.  Indeed we have really great accomplishments in that regard, such as, halving, by 2011, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to basic services, four years ahead of the global target. Since then, much more has been achieved in this regard as current statistics show that 90% of households had access to electricity in 2020 compared with 70% in 2001; 89,1% of households had adequate access to water in 2020 compared with 72% in 2001; 83,2% of households had access to flush, chemical or ventilated pit toilet compared with 64% in 2001; 60,5% of households had access to refuse removal in 2020 compared with 55% in 2001.

Significantly, too, we created a Constitution and a Court which has possibly delivered more judgements about our human rights than other apex courts in the world.  But the judiciary and media themselves still lag behind in transformation, and often focus too much on reacting to issues rather than contributing positively to our transformation project.

But completing our need to give access to these basic services, including ICT, and ensuring we repair, rehabilitate and maintain them properly remain even greater challenges.

Focusing on building our communities through development means, instead of war talk or slogans such as defending our democracy or going to court at every opportunity, is an empowered civil society and state who are focussed on building our communities together.

In this process, planning, monitoring and evaluation would also need to radically rethink what they need to do to focus attention on development, and through that ensuring that we build together our communities through listening more than telling, involving more than ignoring and working together rather than apart.