SOME of the country’s top civil society organizations are meeting in Johannesburg this week to share in the experiences of six communities that were part of the Accounting for Basic Services Programme. With an aim to engage local government towards improving basic service delivery, the programme was implemented in six communities located in three different provinces, namely; KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga. Supporting the project were NGOs Afesis-corplan, Built Environmental Support, Planact and Isandla Institute with funding from the European Union Delegation to South Africa and the Heinrich Boll Stiftung as implementing agent.

In attendance in the meeting which is aimed to draw insights and reflect on lessons emerging from this programme are seasoned civil society leaders such as Mazibuko Jara from Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda in Keiskammahoek, Nkosikhona Witbooi from Reclaim the City in Cape Town, Mbayiza Miya from the Thembelihle Crisis Committee, Sibongile Tshabalala of the Treatment Action Campaign in KZN, Gavin Anderson from the Seriti social enterprise in Johannesburg and Allison Tilley from the Open Democracy Advice Centre.

Afesis-corplan supported two of the six communities in question, one in Ngqushwa Municipality and the other within Buffalo City Metro. Some of the experiences shared which were common amongst the community leaders included:

  • The value of understanding how local government works before attempting to engage it. Participants valued some of the tools developed by the NGO partners which equipped them to understand how local government functions, including understanding technical processes such as budgeting and the analyses of Annual Reports, departmental plans and the service delivery budget implementation plans;
  • The importance of community mobilization so that the community can speak with “one voice” with unity of purpose;
  • The need to change the narrative when it comes to protest, protesting without violence and destruction; and
  • Accessing information from local government proved difficult across all the local municipalities even with the provisions of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Participants agreed that where necessary, communities must be willing to institute legal action against local government to access information when the need to do so arises as provided for in law.

Of the two communities that Afesis-corplan has been supporting, Glenmore in Ngqushwa and Chris Hani Park informal settlement in Mdantsane (BCM), after two years of engaging the municipality, the Glenmore sports facility still remains inaccessible and unfit for purpose despite Ngqushwa local municipality allegedly having spent more than R2-million to refurbish it. This indicates that engaging local government on service delivery is a slow and at times painful process and that communities wishing to engage on this road need to commit to the cause for as long as it takes.

The communities of KZN, Mpumalanga and Gauteng faced similar challenges. The purpose of the meeting was to facilitate a process in which key thematic areas of commonality that were emerging from the implementation of the programme could be lifted to inform local government policy and practice, said Thokozile Madonko of the Heinrich Boll Stiftung. Another key message that emerged in the meeting was about the importance of whistleblowers and how they are protected (or not protected) in South Africa. Commenting on the resilience of the community leaders in the room, Witbooi encouraged them to have a “fight back strategy” when dealing with unresponsive local government.  “Don’t be scared to name names,” he said amid loud cheers and clapping of hands by delegates.

Jara told the delegates that ward committees were not fully serving their purpose and that communities need to find ways of engaging the state outside of the co-opted cabal of “community representatives”. He also commended the community leaders in the room for having served their communities well and for mobilizing for change, holding elected representatives to account.  The funding support for the project is drawing to an end but the community struggle continues in each of the six communities.