City officials must not sideline citizens

This year has started badly. An informal trader was shot at point-blank range after defending his fresh produce from metro police confiscation in Tshwane last week. This week three Brits residents have been killed during and in the aftermath of a service delivery protest and although their deaths lie at the door of the South African Police Service (SAPS) questions need to be asked about whether the conflict could have been better managed through the provision of information about the water shortage that ignited the protests.

In an election year when promises will be made alongside accusations and recriminations it is imperative that all involved in local government recall the intended developmental role of local government and exercise it in their work. This is essential given that local government has a serious image problem as seen in the sphere’s consistently dismal ratings in attitudinal surveys.

The latest example surfaces in the findings of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s 2013 South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey which reflected citizens’ deteriorating confidence in governance institutions since 2012 with local government’s rating (48.6%) better only than those of the police and political parties (47.9% and 46.2% respectively). Most worrying most South Africans hold the view that the government does not care about them with the only glimmer of hope for local government lying in the fact that its rating is falling less dramatically than other spheres of government.

The deaths in Pretoria and Brits are therefore deeply regrettable in their likelihood to drive the wedge even further between communities and local government. While four Tshwane metro police officials have been suspended after the shooting of a 20-year-old informal trader the tragedy rubs salt in the wounds of informal traders who feel sidelined by local government in the wake of a legal battle with Johannesburg where Operation Clean Sweep has left many traders destitute compromising Johannesburg’s image of a caring administration.

In Brits’s Mothutlung the North West government and the SAPS have battled to counter comparisons to Marikana but police brutality is difficult to deny after apparent evidence suggests the use of live ammunition which is said to have killed two people (one of whom was a 62-year-old photographer) and injured several others during a protest against a water shortage. Allegations of a further death caused by beating and ejection from a police vehicle do little to improve the SAPS’s battered reputation in the area.

While the SAPS will need to investigate the wholly inappropriate use of live ammunition in containing a protest it is also important that the embattled Madibeng municipality explains what measures were taken to avert the protest. Last year alone Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor recorded four major service delivery protests in the municipality all of which included water as a grievance — clearly the issue is not a new one which goes some way to explaining the volatility of the area as well as the deteriorating relationship between communities and local government.

Local government is intended to bring the government closer to communities and in doing so exercise their will and needs more sensitively. Unfortunately this proximity has resulted in antagonism and standoffs as the trust and confidence in local government remains brittle often precipitating protest action which pulls in another unpopular body — the SAPS which is also battling to shake off negative perceptions (of a militarised force rather than a community service).

This negative spiral and experience of local government is one that may well be made worse by opportunist electioneering. To guard against further division and distance from local government it behoves organised local government and every municipality in South Africa to set out an action plan to channel discontent and complaints better communicate information more rigorously manage crises and facilitate better planned and managed protest activity.

Metro police are also an important face of this action and city officials need to work with these organs to ensure local government representatives exercise compassion in their dealings with informal traders and other residents if local government is to build and improve its reputation as a developmental force.