Protests not a sign of SA’s failure, says expert


The often violent service delivery protests which have been seen in some parts of the country recently cannot be considered a sign that South Africa is a failed state, says an expert. Derek Powell of the Community Law Centre at the University of Western Cape warns of the tendency to label the country a “failed” state because of poor performance of certain local councils.

“Most of the research on the state of local government in this country is based on media reports as well as the number of service delivery protests, but the truth is that South Africa is not on the world’s failed states index list. It is a fact that local government is the reflection of our society because it reflects who we are as citizens, but we cannot be considered a failed state,” he said. He said two examples of a failed state were Somalia and Haiti, the state BuaNews agency reported. It is not clear from the report who has been calling South Africa a failed state.

Powell was speaking at the seminar on the state of local government ahead of the 2011 municipal elections, hosted by the Gauteng Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The purpose of the seminar was to examine real challenges confronting municipalities as well as successes since the new system of local government in 2000 in the build up to the 2011 local government elections

He said even if the national leadership was sometimes seen making intervention when there were protests linked to service delivery, it would be wrong for one to consider the country a failed state.
“Local government is not functioning because of poor service delivery and if we say service delivery protests are caused by socio-economic phenomenon are we saying poor people are violent? Service delivery protests are mainly caused by badly designed policy and poor relationships between a municipality and its residents,” he said. South African’s local government is not only a development arm of government, but a transformative democracy with a significant increase of women participating in the voting process, he said.
“Generally, the majority of people who participate in municipal elections are poor, black and the less educated sector of the public. However, even the so-called protesters support elections, they are enthusiastic participating in local government elections,” he said.

Independent local government consultant, Ralph Mathekga, who also addressed the seminar, said there was a tendency to turn local government from being a service delivery arm of government into a political space to achieve certain opportunistic elements by political parties. “We’ve seen political parties during their campaigns in the previous municipal elections activating residents by promising services that do not belong to that sphere of government,” he said.

Mathekga strongly believed that the high level of corruption in local government can be drastically reduced by deploying people with clean records as councilors and municipal officials. “If we can get councilors with clean records to run municipalities there might be a lot of infrastructure development as well as supply basic services such as water,” he said. He also believed that if South Africa has a weak local government, it will never have a strong national government.

Mathekga accused higher institutions of learning for not taking local government elections seriously by conducting anecdotal research based on generalisation and lack of understanding of local government, BuaNews said. Mathekga is of the view that the protests cannot be directly linked to service delivery based on the narratives and the singing of historical songs that are a broadly expression of the past political era. “If one looks deep into the narratives made during those protests, one can see that it tells something else. Again, I am yet to see a memorandum of grievances draft by the so-called disgruntled communities during the peace time. There is also lack of leadership in those areas prone to protests by ward councilors who wait for the situation to explode,” he said.