Doing It for Ourselves

By Glenn Ashton · 26 Aug 2009

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Picture credit: Trevor Samson - World Bank
Picture credit: Trevor Samson - World Bank

We South Africans have all grown up in a big brother state. For whites it was a big brother that smothered them in privilege at the expense of everyone else; for blacks it was a more sinister big brother. As different as our segregated societies were, we had much in common. We were all ruled by an apparently omnipotent, fascist, militaristic and bureaucratic state. Blacks had passbooks, whites had books of life. Now we all have identity documents. 

We have not really moved away from the concept of the state as patron of the people, even as the state remained centralised and distant during our first decade and a half of democracy. The state remains the de jure provider of houses, health services and jobs for many; matchbox houses in the lokasi, government issue face brick foundations and steel windows in suburbs like Triomf. While before democracy whites were the primary beneficiaries, expectations are now that the state is expected to provide similar support and services to everyone. 

This has been widely disparaged as a sense of entitlement by many whites, sitting in their comfortable enclaves, insensible to their ironic attempt to whitewash history. The blind spot is their own sense of entitlement to security without redistribution of wealth. The belief that somehow, Pretoria – sorry, Tshwane - will provide.

In fact the ANC's promises to uplift the neglected majority, arising from the freedom charter and post 1994 visions of the state as saviour, have resulted in expectations that could legitimately be called a sense of entitlement. 

The reality is there is nothing wrong with providing assistance to the previously neglected majority. In fact it is one of the primary roles of a modern democratic state to redistribute wealth from where there is excess to those who have insufficient means. This role encourages social stability and provides tangible benefits to the marginalised.

Since 1994 South Africa has made huge strides in bridging the historical political and economic chasm. But the painful truth is that the state alone is unable to make the urgently needed changes to transform us into an integrated, successful and equal society. Our legacy is too immense for the state to address it alone. Therefore, it is essential to gain the broadest buy-in and participation from the widest sector of society. This shouldn't be too difficult, given the majority the ANC continues to garner, despite delivery protests on the streets.

A crucial question we need to ask revolves around the relationship between society and state. Do state institutions interact with the needs and demands of society, or is society forced to work within legislative and official frameworks developed on their behalf that remain largely antithetical to their needs?

Due to the ingrained bureaucratic nature of our state, exacerbated by centralisation, driven primarily by Thabo Mbeki and his technocrats, our initial democratic transition did take place in the context of inflexible state regulation. Zuma’s ascension to power has sparked anticipation for a more people centred, devolved, societally, inclusive form of government.    

Individual South Africans would benefit from recognising - and eschewing - our collective psychological dependence on the state as provider, as a buffer against the vicissitudes of life. The state is a safety net and can never be a catch-all.

If we can shift our state-oriented dependence toward a sense of self-reliance, of making a plan to do things for ourselves, then we, our communities and South African society at large, can only benefit.

It certainly is a role of the state to provide certain levels of service to its citizens and taxpayers. We all are taxpayers, down to the youngest baby in the most remote rural setting, through VAT payments. State services are our collective due but it is equally up to us to monitor and oversee these services and to take responsibility for them.

Just as we must forgo our collective senses of entitlement and reliance on the state as provider, so too must the state assume a rather more supportive role that shifts sharply from bureaucratic prescription.

How can this recognition of responsibility and rights change the social and economic landscape in South Africa?

First we need to shift from talking about Ubuntu to living Ubuntu. Then we will get Ubuntu. 

Rather than waiting for the state to build houses, encouragement of community based building programmes, like those undertaken by the Development Action Group and Victoria Mxenge are far more preferable. By providing sweat equity and assisting each other, communities not only get things done in areas with staggeringly high levels of unemployment, but simultaneously build communities while building houses. Enabling people, rather than creating illusory hopes of service provision through a prescriptive state, is the true role of developmental governance.

The state must also examine how to shift its focus from a sole provider to an enabler. It must act more laterally in dealing with the challenges it faces. For instance, instead of persecuting small traders at roadsides, on pavements and in informal areas, the representatives of the state – at all tiers of government - would do well to provide support for such initiatives, instead of crushing initiative. Surely this is a primary consideration behind Batho Pele? 

Support such as making trading areas available is far more positive than the authoritarian actions under way in Durban, where long-term traders are being displaced in favour of the interests of private capital. It is important to provide truly public spaces for public benefit, and not blindly support capital rights and private interests, somehow hoping that trickle down is going to miraculously provide for those who live by their wits. The states efforts at facilitation all too often tie up good ideas in red tape and then wonder why they have not worked.

Even with primary industries like fishing and agriculture, there has been an abject failure to devolve resources to those who would benefit most from increased allocations of rights. The state run fishing quota system was recently found in court to have failed to provide due benefits to artisanal fishing communities. Hopefully this ruling, together with a realignment of priorities post-Polokwane, will start to shift fishing rights to where they have the most benefit, where they historically belong. Only by gaining an interest in natural resources will communities protect them. Only by sharing, from the bottom up, can the state begin to rectify its failures to date.

So, too, with the restructuring of agriculture. Land restitution has been slow. State extension services for those who have returned to farming have been tardy. Instead poverty alleviation projects have been driven by vested commercial interests through a Department of Agriculture fixated on industrial farming models. 

While government policy now wishes to shift toward small-scale food security projects, the most successful methodologies remain marginalised by the state. Projects such as those run by Food and Trees for Africa, the Valley Project and Abalemi Bezekaya are shining examples among many others that have not been properly integrated into widespread implementation. 

We have far more to learn from nations like Cuba, where local food security is prioritised, than from multinational genetically modified seed merchants pushing their particular poison. 

The government has always talked about creating jobs but has inadvertently created an environment that is unsupportive of job creation in far too many ways. It can be argued that the extended public works programme has thwarted rather than encouraged development. Besides red tape and swarms of consultants, surely we should rather seek to create self-sufficient workers, not those reliant on rigid top down structures? History conspires against this but it is a logjam that must be broken. Proper training, not slapdash SETA speak, would also go much further towards providing a more enabling work creation environment.

We have huge opportunities to turn around our employment and productivity if we do what we were meant to fifteen years ago – make the productive assets of our nation available to the people, not only to the select few operating around the corporate-political nexus. There are indications that a shift in direction is imminent. It cannot come too soon for those who remain marginalised in their own nation. It is not about service delivery that people protest; it’s about demanding the space so that the people can get down to doing it for themselves.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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