Informal settlements should actively participate in local government - The Mail & Guardian

The reason for so many violent service delivery protests is that people feel excluded from the decisions made on their behalf

2020-06-02 12:49:00 PM

The reason for so many violent service delivery protests is that people feel excluded from the decisions made on their behalf

The reason for so many violent service delivery protests is that people feel excluded from the decisions made on their behalf

, a non-profit organisation promoting inclusive local governance processes, has witnessed institutionalised spaces of engagement as ineffective or poorly utilised. A recent study further reveals the gap in community participation. Consequently, all too often residents have reverted to protests to amplify their voice regarding services they need.

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Municipal IQwhich offers municipal assessments observes that there were 218 recorded service delivery protests across South African municipalities in 2018. These protests are often characterised by violent behaviour stemming from the exclusion from local government decisions.

It can be argued that the ongoing exclusion in decision-making has contributed to the present urgency for access to basic services, such as water and sanitation — residents in informal settlements struggle  to adhere to the health measures, such as frequent hand washing, necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Furthermore, high-population densities and sharing of facilities by multiple households render physical distancing impossible and increase residents’ risk of exposure to contaminated surfaces. These challenges make rethinking of local government participation mechanisms even more pressing. 

Therecent speechby President Cyril Ramaphosa provides a pointer to the government’s willingness to embrace systemic change in the near future: “Our new economy must be founded on fairness, empowerment, justice and equality. It must use every resource, every capability and every innovation — service of the people of this country.” This is a positive statement and Planact considers the call an important one for all spheres of government and civil society. Reimagined participation mechanisms are integral to that change.

How can participation in local government be improved?Planact advocates selected alternatives municipalities can adopt to improve the participation of informal settlements in local government.First, supportinginformal settlement clusters to participate in

local governance processes. This could amplify their voices and reduce the elite’s dominance in decision-making processes. Second, supporting the creation of neutral spaces/alternative spaces where the clusters and other movements can communicate with the municipality. This could complement the quick consultations conducted during IDP/municipal budgeting processes which least benefit vulnerable communities. As asserted by institutional theorists, such as

Douglass North, informal rules should be supported to engender formal institutions.Third, providing elaborative feedback sessions with informal settlement clusters at different intervals of a year. The current feedback on the coronavirus situation provided by the government points to the feasibility and significant role of feedback sessions in governance.

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Fourth, recognising and institutionalising social audits to establish relationships between service delivery and resources meanwhile also promoting the monitoring of service providers by communities. The monitoring of basic services by residents of informal settlements, the

Asivikelane Initiative, demonstrates this aspect.Lastly, strengthening public awareness campaigns  using media that includes community radio stations to encourage the inclusion of disadvantaged communities. What does systemic change mean for civil society organisations?

Currently, the government is speaking to civil society organisations to help them address the problems faced by informal settlements during this pandemic. Although the focus is mainly on pressing issues, this has paved the way to strategically influence future actions. Planact is cognisant that systemic change regarding participation mechanisms at local government level will require strategic advocacy through targeted interventions. A pressing question that cannot be ignored is whether the various government departments and municipalities will retain the current momentum in addressing service delivery issues and collaboration with civil society organisations post-Covid-19? 

Non-governmental organisations therefore will need to carefully strategise their interventions aimed at bolstering the government’s response to the issues beyond this period. A coalition of non-governmental organisations and stakeholders needs to capitalise on the government’s current willingness to embrace systemic change as reflected in the president’s statement. To this end, NGOs need to re-engineer their advocacy approach for the Post-Covid 19 era, while also looking inward and solidifying collaborative interventions. 

A first critical move would be the discarding of the silo approach, which has a long track record of failing to catalyse significant systemic change.The active involvement of all stakeholders is critical for shifting the stifling systems that continue to exclude vulnerable communities.

If grasped, systemic change in the post-Covid-19 era could benefit the majority of residents in informal settlements in South Africa, thus resulting in the country becoming a cynosure for best public-participation practices. Dr Hloniphile Simelane is a development practitioner at Planact. She is also a visiting researcher at the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Architecture and Planning

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