Making Local Government Work for the People: South Africa Far Behind International Trendsetters

By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · 16 May 2011

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Picture: every1counts.org.uk
Picture: every1counts.org.uk

The “toilet wars” have made apparent the ridiculousness of the major political parties in South Africa. The Democratic Alliance (DA) even allowed a legal process to work its way up to the Constitutional Court to defend its decision to build unenclosed toilets. On the other hand, the African National Congress (ANC) was quick to wail “mea culpa” when it was found that one of its municipalities had also built unenclosed toilets. The difference in how both parties responded to the public outcry is important and hides a deeper truth.

Some politician sitting somewhere in an office, who probably never visited the site, facilitated the decision making process. In his or her insulated discussion, they would have justified the decision to build open toilets by arguing that more toilets could be built within the budget, or that an open flush toilet is more sustainable than a pit latrine in the long-term. 

The alternative explanation is that local councils, even large metropolitan councils, lack the ability to carefully evaluate project plans and approve projects with an accurate understanding of the details of each project.  It leads to a situation where municipal governments are genuinely surprised to find out that projects are completed “to spec” and that the specification does not specify the building of walls around a toilet. Sadly, any student of “development” will recognise this as another tale of significant silliness by bureaucrats and politicians. It leaves us all with that incredulous feeling asking “What where they thinking?” or responding with acronyms such as “WTF!”

In all of this, we might well ask, where are the communities, the people, the proverbial “masses” in decision making?

Some of South Africa’s poorest communities are actively engaged, using “service delivery protests” to make a claim on municipal resources. In other instances, communities remain quiet and disconnected from decision making at local government level. Importantly, even if a community has an activist core, they remain outside of decision making in local governments. This, despite laws requiring community involvement in the development of local plans, which are called Integrated Development Plans (IDPS).

Conceptually the laws governing municipal government in South Africa provide the basis for experiments in deepening democracy as a well as the means to shift power to poor communities. Yet there are no such experiments in South Africa in the sense of being exemplars of participatory democracy. South Africa is in fact out of tune with important experiments in local democracy that are taking place across the globe.

The city of Porto Alegre in Brazil has provided the inspiration for the current round of global experiments to deepen democracy. Here 'participatory budgeting' was introduced as a means to provide “social control over decision making.” The political project is expansive and redistributive. The core concepts are articulated by the ex-Mayor of Porto Alegre, Raul Pont, who raises the political question succinctly: 

“Who knows if we are not developing a new form of relationship between the society and the state, and that the state is putting in checks and contesting traditional notions of bourgeois democracy?” 

Today Porto Alegre is but one example of participatory budgeting with a range of experiments being conducted under the broader concept of participatory decision making. The practice has since grown internationally, with experiments in Brazil continuously seeking to deepen democracy still providing inspiration. 

The current best practice is in the city of Recife in the North of Brazil. It creates a system of communities deciding on project priorities and evaluating the implementation of projects. However, it has done more. Recife created a structure, which translated into English, is called the “Municipal Council for the Democratic Management of the Public Budget.”  The translation literally spells out that the council, consisting of elected councillors and community representatives, would be responsible for the entire municipal budget, not just a dedicated budget for participatory initiatives. Simply stated, it provides for the social control of public expenditure at the local government level.

Moreover, Recife has pioneered youth budgets, which involves the next generation of community leaders at an early stage. More to the point, for all the success of Recife, its mantle as the leader of the pack in terms of participatory budgeting will be challenged, as other municipal governments in Brazil attempt to expand democratic decision making at local government level.

Importantly, this is one area where ideology has spurred imagination. Led by the Worker’s Party, the practice of participatory budgeting represents a contextual expression of ideas such as “social control of decision making” and “shifting power balances.”

Other Latin American countries have also drawn inspiration from Brazil.

In Argentina, the La Plata municipal government has combined participation with online and mobile channels, thus seeking to show that with increased access to technology, democratic participation is enhanced. In Rosario, also in Argentina, the last eight years have seen the development of the idea of “co-management.” Co-management roughly translated from Spanish literally asks whether the households can co-manage the city, with the implication that the entire relationship between the state and citizen is transformed. 

The Latin American cases are the most developed. As a result, they get the most exposure. However, experiments are emerging in every corner of the globe in municipalities as far afield as Manila in the Philippines. These initiatives offer a hopeful moment in local democracy, but South Africa has failed to grasp their significance and lags far behind in implementing projects that can deepen democracy. Why is this so?

First, there is an old and deep tradition amongst the left, which places the future not in the hands of a vanguard, but rather in the hands of organised and autonomous community organisations. The left political party does not seek domination at the ballot box, but rather “hegemony” in the sense of shifting power towards local communities.  Such an approach is feasible in South Africa provided that there is ideological leadership. The political will to introduce participatory budgeting must be crafted, especially as it provides a means to hold councillors accountable and reduce wasteful and corrupt spending. 

Second, South Africa’s local government planning regulations and systems seek to combine a robust technical evaluation of systems and procedures together with popular representation and public participation.  Changing the legislation would make little change to the practice that currently happens. However, placing the emphasis on "participation" above the cumbersome reporting requirements, is what is required.

Third, the politics of successfully running a process such as participatory budgeting are important to understand. In the South African context, it literally means councillors doing the spadework of getting protesting communities into a process. It also, means adopting local strategies to raise revenue that allows for the redistribution of resources from rich to poor communities. Each of these is easier said than done in a society as unequal as South Africa, but should not be impossible to achieve given Brazil’s success. We should take note of the fact that Brazil was historically put side by side with South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world.  

What the South African local government elections and the manifestos, particularly of the ANC, represent is that we have not yet imagined the possibilities of a democratic local government, nor have we experimented with alternative forms of democratic participation. If this sounds like misplaced idealism, the international experiments show not only that delivery happens, but also that the power relations in a city can be shifted to the poor. In such a system, open toilets would be inconceivable.

** For more local government analysis from the author, please visit Zapreneur.

Hassen is the founder of Zapreneur and Proposal Desk, both websites aimed at answering the question, "Can the Internet help South African small business?"

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richard
16 May

Brilliant

This is a very valuable intervention.

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