Tackle the root causes to kill off protests

GAUTENG premier David Makhura has been praised for his "activist" approach to governance: encouraging office bearers and officials to roll up their sleeves and tackle service delivery challenges in partnership with communities.

There is little doubt that more proactive governance is needed to tackle protests. Programmes to rectify service delivery challenges in Bekkersdal for instance have vindicated the strategy.

What should not be lost in this approach however is the focus on ensuring that local government gets "back to basics" — carrying out its core responsibilities without fail — in concert with "activism".

Makhura was quoted in this publication as attributing service delivery protests to a "fundamental expression of governance failure … if the state delivers and the people are not involved they are alienated. That is why when they protest they burn things down. So an activist government approach is about changing the relationship the way government must involve people from the beginning to the end".

A number of commentators have dismissed the moniker "service delivery protest" as "lazy journalism". Given the broad understanding and description of protests in the popular mind it is perhaps appealing to consider the underlying basis of all protests as a failure of governance. But this risks condoning real delivery failure which is intertwined with but distinct from poor governance.

Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor specifically captures protests where there is an explicit statement by a community of dissatisfaction with their local council’s record of delivery. These records have been collected over an 11-year period traced back when a rash of protests in the Free State saw communities take to the streets to express their unhappiness with their municipalities’ service delivery ethos as well as their delivery record.

At the time it was evident the delivery of municipal services by many of these municipalities was poor — with spending often supporting bloated salary bills and little else. As Makhura argues such a scenario is the consequence of poor governance — local government failed to respond to community needs. This reflects institutional failure which is typically set against pressing socio-economic challenges including but not limited to poverty unemployment and inequality.

What may be lost in this analysis however is that conditions of socioeconomic vulnerability compounded by poor governance typically translate into a specific service issue (such as the cost of electricity or the accessibility of potable water).

In the vast majority of service delivery protests on the Hotspots Monitor there is a specific service delivery grievance. In fact as of the end of last month 93% of the protests recorded on the Hotspots Monitor this year related to the performance of a councillor or the delivery of a specified municipal service.

Why are these distinctions important? Makhura’s activist vision restores the link between government and communities — ensuring that communities receive the package of goods they need in the time frames that they and not some faceless official prioritises. Only this approach will ensure that protests are quashed over the long term.

But it is critical that governance focuses on continuing delivery issues that typically spark protests. This requires that municipalities not only focus on tackling the needs of highly dissatisfied communities but the basic service delivery needs of all communities day in and day out.

Generally well-serviced communities however well or poorly consulted tend not to protest. It is rather when a water pipe bursts electricity is cut or a councillor fails to attend meetings that a protest is triggered. Dealing with the root causes of this outpouring requires the sort of activism Makhura has in mind but daily responsibilities to tackle the basics should not be neglected.