Toward Good Local Governance…the role of the active citizenry – Author: Sibulele Poswayo, Programmes Manager

Home|Local Governance|Toward Good Local Governance…the role of the active citizenry – Author: Sibulele Poswayo, Programmes Manager

On Monday, 21 March 1960, police opened fire, without order, on a crowd that had gathered at the Sharpeville station to protest pass laws. On that day, 69 unarmed people were killed, including women and children, and more than 180 were injured. To mark this tragedy, Human Rights Day (21 March) was officially declared a public holiday in 1994 following the inauguration of former president Nelson Mandela. This national day-off is both a stark reminder of the tragic Sharpeville massacre and a celebration of South Africa’s unique constitution, which gives equal rights to all. One of these rights is the right for citizen participation, a basic right of democracy. As a young South African, the right for citizen participation is one that I hold dear to my heart and one which, in my walks of life I strive to exercise responsibly.


The National Development Plan (2012) clearly states that “Active citizenry and social activism is necessary for democracy and development to flourish”. However, the breakdown in the social contract between local government (the sphere closest to active citizens & communities) and citizens is on the brink in the current state of local governance. Clear strategies need to be devised by both the local sphere and active citizens if the relationship is to improve. Both parties need to understand their roles and responsibilities in weaving a social fibre conducive for development and transformation towards equality.


One of the roles of local government is upholding the principles of good governance; public participation, transparency and accountability being some of the good governance principles. The responsibility of active citizens is to hold local government accountable and steadfast in practicing good governance. However, at times, citizen’s attitude and approaches to promoting direct accountability in the local sphere of government – particularly in relation to public participation and access to frontline service delivery, is inappropriate and violent. This results in backlash and a lack of responsiveness from the sphere closest to the people, and a frustrated relationship resulting in slow development and even slower transformation.


Local government on the other hand needs to transform itself radically and ready itself for the kind of development required for South Africa to rid itself of the triple challenge of inequality, poverty and unemployment. Local government further needs to strive to be more diligent in its aspirations to be a developmental local government, one which is willing to transform economically and spatially.


Both the local spheres of government as active citizens therefore need to define for themselves what a developmental local government is. These definitions may vary taking into consideration the kinds of municipalities in the sphere as well as the different types and needs of communities in our rainbow nation. The Municipal System’s Act, 2000 (Act No. 32 of 2000) clearly locates communities and the active citizenry within the confines of a Municipality, stating that a Municipality “consists of the political structures and administration of the municipality and the community of that locality”. All these arms of a municipality thus need to converge at some definition for itself of what a developmental municipality should be, defining a developmental local government as one which is committed to working with citizens and communities to find sustainable ways to meet their social, economic and material needs and improve the quality of lives. The realisation of this haven is the responsibility of the Municipality, as defined in the Municipal Systems Act. The role of the political structures and administration of the municipality is well documented. The role of communities and active citizens is not as widely recognisable. Civil society has a clear responsibility to nurture, mobilise and capacitate active citizens in communities to participate more effectively in local government and play their part in ensuring a developmental local government.


The first approach which civil society and active citizens can employ is to shift strategy and make itself and active citizens as attractive to Municipalities as the private sector in that particular locality. The strategy shift would be to elevate the role of civil society in local government to be participatory, not only in public participation platforms provided by the government but on advocating for and demanding direct accountability on the financial transactions that take place in the Municipalities. As non-homogenous a sector as it is, civil society has a role to play in ensuring that procurement processes uphold the principles of good governance, including but not limited to transparency, efficiency and effectiveness. Civil society needs to contribute to building the capacity of the public to understand government’s budgetary processes and how this affects local government.


Identifying leverage points, as well as powers and functions of the local sphere is an area for capacity building which can be embraced by civil society. Other elements of civic education can be disseminated by the civil society in working together with local government.


Understanding the power dynamics in local governance, however is a mammoth task, which needs civil society to tease and thread through very carefully and tactfully. This is particularly because on observation, like in the other spheres of government, the state is not sovereign and has assumed power with the private sector erroneously dictating the power game.  Assuming that civil society and local government, in its current form, has the power to ensure that Municipalities are a reflection of the citizenry’s aspirations and inherently developmental, is a fallacy. Civil society needs to think like business, and adopt effective communications, marketing and branding strategies, while remaining true to itself and not embrace a capitalist attitude.


While the role of the private sector may be clearly defined in local governance as investment at a premafacie level, the private sector does use other ploys like political party funding to gain power. The power of civil society, however not limited to, lies in the communities and articulate, networked, organised and informed active citizens. The reality is that communities are overflowing with leaders and active citizens and that some power in communities lies in activist in numbers. The role of civil society therefore is to decipher these power dynamics in communities, promote and nurture active citizenry. Citizens want an opportunity to be part of the planning, implementation and monitoring of service provision to their communities, the private sector needs returns on investments while the local government core mandated is to execute its immediate role of service provision while building its revenue base. There an amazing opportunity for the great partnerships towards a developmental local government and an opportunity in embracing Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s), with active citizenry and communities doing what they do best, mobilising in numbers.


Civil society should contribute towards the building of a good governance social movement. Civic education, effective service delivery monitoring tools and strategies and effective direct accountability strategies towards consequence management would as well as better understandings of municipal budgeting processes are tools that can be employed by the movement. The movement should comprise of activists – individuals defined as agents of political and social change. Activists would be empowered to use traditional and social media, technology and story-telling to both embrace their roles and responsibilities as enshrined in Local Governance legislation with the vision of contributing to direct accountability as the Municipality as defined above.


It is these active citizens, mobilised in a movement – a good local governance movement – who will be the activists calling for a developmental local government, that which can work toward radical local economic transformation. It is the good local governance movement therefore that can place stringent social, environmental and equality esteem safeguards. It is the good local governance movement that call for more local economic development strategies that are more radical yet realistic and catalytic embedded in an environment which is enabling for small and medium enterprises. It is the good local movement which will call for the restructuring of local government in its current form to embrace its role in delivering frontline basic services. It is the good local governance movement that will promote creative visual story telling of the plight of ordinary citizens and the challenges they face and the good – or bad – story of service delivery. It is the good local governance movement which will be advocating for a more transformative and redistributive division of revenue model. It is the good local governance movement which would define and campaign and economically and spatially transformed developmental local government.


And so as we remember the lives lost and negatively affected on 21 March 1960 during this Human Rights Month, let us remember the power communities have to make a change. And let us embrace the power of community mobilisation, movement building towards effective change in our lives, living standards. And never forget the responsibilities that come with even the basic of human rights.


Sibulele Poswayo is Programmes Manager at Afesis-corplan, a developmental NGO in the Eastern Cape and a founder Equality Movement.