Alwyn Francis
8 minute read
10 Jun 2008

Democracy rules … sort of

Alwyn Francis

A survey of six poor communities finds disenchantment with local government.

Is South Africa’s hard-won democracy losing confidence at the grass roots? Is democracy working for poor people living in and around Pietermaritzburg?

The answer is a qualified “yes”.

According to a new survey of six poor communities in the uMgungundlovu District, the benefits of democracy are certainly being felt. The communities are organising actively at the grass roots to form citizens’ associations and take up issues with their municipalities. Community meetings are held regularly, attendance is high and community leaders encourage participants to speak freely.

The communities generally respect the work of the Independent Electoral Commission. They all see the electoral process as being free and fair. They have largely put the political violence of the eighties and nineties in KwaZulu-Natal behind them and there is greater tolerance among political parties. Women leaders are stepping forward with confidence and earning their communities’ respect in decision-making roles.

The bad news is that all six communities report alarming lapses in delivery of the democratic dispensation since majority rule elections in 1994. The survey respondents give an almost unanimous “no” to the question of whether their human rights are being respected. They generally agree that their basic needs such as the right to food, housing and jobs are not being met.

All the communities are seriously worried about safety and security. Crime is rampant in their areas and they have little confidence in the police to combat it. Several participants in the focus groups speak of their fear of criminals in their communities, citing stabbings and frequent burglaries. They also report that people often use violence rather than discussion to settle disputes between individuals and in households.

Municipalities are roundly red-carded in the survey. The respondents generally believe that political parties foist candidates on them and that their councillors are frequently corrupt and practise favouritism in service delivery. They agree almost unanimously that their councillors cannot be held accountable; nor do they know how to get rid of unacceptable councillors.

Imbizos called by municipalities or elected leaders attract large turnouts, but are not seen as “meaningful” because the communities have little say in the decisions made in their name. Most of the communities believe that none of the decisions from the imbizos are implemented anyway.

Frustration about the lack of political efficacy runs so deep in all the communities that the researchers warn that the people could lose confidence altogether in the democratic process and the power of their votes.

The survey also paints a bleak picture about the development dividend for young people in the communities. While the youth polled complain about the lack of jobs, a generation gap emerges clearly. Most of the older respondents believe that youth are apathetic and do not take responsibility for the democratic rights they enjoy. They vandalise public property, take drugs and alcohol to excess and disrespect their elders.

Most of the participants in the survey (see box above for details) are unemployed. The six communities — Gezubuso, Ndaleni in Richmond, Nxamalala, Trustfeed, KwaMpande and Mafakatini — are peri-urban settlements and are described as “very poor” with a “difficult history” of political violence.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the participants do not see democracy as a liberal concept dealing with freedom of speech or information. Rather, they define it as “economic empowerment”: finding a job and the means to attain a better standard of living; freedom from poverty; a space to engage with their leaders about ways to end their poverty; and freedom of movement.

This attitude is clearly reflected in their expectations about service delivery. Four of the 13 focus groups doubt their municipalities have enough resources to deliver the necessary services. Eight others believe their municipalities have enough to do the job, but point to the fact that their local leaders are driving new cars as a sign that the resources are being misused and not reaching their communities. Ten groups say they have not been consulted about priorities in service delivery and development projects. Some participants observe that “those who are close to elected political leaders of the party get what they want while the rest of us have to beg”.

Mervyn Abrahams, the programme manager of Pacsa’s economic justice and participatory democracy desk, says: “The connection between democracy and economic development which so strongly emerges from the participants indicates the importance for South Africa to ensure that economic development is speeded up for those who are


“Unless we are able to raise the quality of life for the poorest in our society, they will feel that democracy does not benefit them and is, therefore, of no use to them. The lack of economic development can, therefore, be seen as a threat to sustainability of democracy.”

The poor report cards that the uMgungundlovu communities give their elected leaders and the police are echoed in a national Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) study released in March. Trust in local government has fallen sharply in the past four years, according to about 5 000 South Africans over the age of 16 who were interviewed in the study. In 2004, 55% of respondents said they had “strong trust” or simply “trust” in local government institutions compared with only 34% in 2007. Citizens have even less confidence in the police — a decline of 39% since 2004. Political parties have consistently received the lowest trust ratings of all political and social institutions, declining from 42% in 2005 to a mere 27% in 2007.

Churches attract a very positive rating in both surveys. In South Africa most citizens — 81% on average in the HSRC study — consistently express confidence in religious institutions. In the uMgungundlovu survey, all the respondents agree that they experience democracy in the churches and see them as agents of unity and reconciliation.

About 80 participants — most of them from the six communities — endorsed the findings of the uMgungundlovu survey at a seminar held in Pietermaritzburg’s Anglican Cathedral on May 29. They called for the findings and the recommendations they made at the seminar to be taken up with the government.

Zamo Ngobese, a member of the Mafakatini group, told the seminar: “The struggle we are faced with now is that we are not reaping the benefits of this dispensation, especially economically. We need to participate, because the dream is a better life for all and sharing of wealth for all. The gap is widening and political affiliation is still very important. Once there were peoples’ candidates, but the system was never worked out properly. Leaders are accountable only to their parties and not to the people.

“As for safety, there is a lot that needs to be done. We are living in terror of hooligans. The law doesn’t work to our advantage and perpetrators are walking around free.”

The uMgungundlovu District economic development manager, Phila Mkhize, said the municipality should see the survey as a “client satisfaction report”.

Speaking on her own behalf, she told the participants: “Democracy and economic development are inseparable. A lot of the perception is around economic emancipation, which hasn’t happened in the local communities. Civil society needs to play a major role in development, next to the government.

“Community participation is not happening in the way it should happen. There is very low participation … our communities aren’t really involved in issues of implementation of the Constitution and legislation. They are not informed enough. Without training there is no way forward. Our first task is to interact with communities and educate them.”

Key recommendations emerged from the seminar.

• Work with local government to find local solutions to the lack of jobs among the youth.

• Find ways to hold locally elected leaders more strictly to account; encourage greater community involvement in budget meetings, setting priorities when making decisions and monitoring how the decisions are implemented.

• Give schools, churches and civil society a bigger share in educating communities about the electoral process, the selection of candidates, the devolution of powers between wards and council, and how better to access information about available resources and services.

• Incorporate poverty alleviation into the district’s democratic processes.

Abrahams said the survey was planned a year ago when Pacsa saw a need to “create a space to explore our deepest insights about how democracy has been unfolding since 1994. We have constantly to remind ourselves where we have come from, where we are now and where we have to go from here.”

The findings, he told the seminar, would be used to inform public debate on ways to strengthen democracy and to launch a “democracy perception barometer” in a series of six-monthly surveys to track how perceptions of democracy and governance are changing.

How the survey was done

• The research was conducted over the past six months by the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) and the KwaZulu-Natal Democracy Consortium.

• The focus of the study, uMgungundlovu District Municipality, serves a population of about 873 000 of whom 28% are jobless, 68% earn less than R1 600 per month and 42% are 19 years and younger.

• The researchers spoke to 13 focus groups involving 89 men and women, and recorded their responses to 46 questions covering perceptions and experiences in five areas: democracy in the communities, community leadership, participation of women as leaders, participation of youth in the life of the community and the role of churches.

• Most of the participants are unemployed and come from six communities — Gezubuso, Ndaleni in Richmond, Nxamalala, Trustfeed, KwaMpande and Mafakatini.