Where are you? Social Responsibility and Leadership in Crisis

June 12, 2008


In the imagination of the African National Congress (ANC), the party is a mass-based liberation movement, embedded in the communities of South Africa; systematically channeling popular energies into material and social change. In this world of make-believe the grievances, aspirations and concerns of our people find representation through the structures of the ANC, who elect from among their membership, selfless leaders who embody the collective thought of the party’s constituencies. These thoughts, manifested through intense and democratic debate, are then realised, practically, within available resources, through the fine arts of governance; completing a virtuous circle of consensus- and concession-seeking decision-making, political competition and the exercise of executive government. The ANC lives, the ANC leads!

Today the ANC is straddles the political landscape of South Africa with near hegemony: It dominates Parliament with nearly 75% of the National Assembly’s seats (almost 6% more than their election tally thanks to the madness of floor-crossing); it rules in all nine provinces; and occupies the executive suites of five of our six major cities. The National Membership Audit carried out in preparation for the Polokwane conference, framed a membership of 621,237, populating 2,694 branches. This membership constitutes 3% of the 21million registered voters on the voters roll, and represents nearly 6% of the 10.9million voters who cast their ballot for the party in the 2004 election.

Legislation framing local government in South Africa imagines a collective of civic-centric and democratically elected councillors, who live and work in communities, mediating their concerns, grievances and aspirations, and representing their views in a myriad of urban and rural municipalities. In this world of make-believe, citizens access government structures through ward committees, integrated development planning processes and their ward councillors who then represent citizens’ interests in the institutional forums of local government. These representations then manifest themselves, practically, through the rolling out of public goods and services; completing a virtuous cycle of participatory democracy, service delivery and material upliftment. Batho Pele!

South Africa’s local government comprises 283 municipalities, populated by nearly 9000 councillors; half of whom are directly elected to represent individual wards. 136 of these municipalities are subject to Project Consolidate – an initiative spear-headed by national government to increase the capacity and efficacy of underperforming and underdeveloped municipalities.

Through the course of May, South Africa erupted in violence targeting foreign nationals and their property. Yet in the aftermath of the ANC’s navel gazing that culminated in the Polokwane conference, the party and the relevant institutions of local government appear to have been caught entirely off guard; their leadership adrift from the currents of frustration and perceived injustice that drove people onto the streets.

For democracy to sustain itself, it must earn and maintain the trust of its citizens. In the context of a transition from anti-democratic and authoritarian government to democracy, this challenge is compounded by the need for new democratic structures to assert their accessibility, transparency and representative capacity in the face of citizens’ lived memories and experiences of institutional impunity, opacity, and illegitimacy.

In the Real World many poor, urban citizens of South Africa’s cities feel under or unrepresented, buffeted by the tides of poverty, subsistence, criminality and the desperate competition for resources and opportunity that claim the shadows of our ostensibly inclusive and representative country. A significant tragedy implicit in the events of May is this reality, and one that must be addressed politically for democracy to sustain itself.

A twin tragedy is the complete lack of democratic agency evident in the easy return to violence. When consultation, representation, civic engagement and community fail to mediate tensions, violence is the last resort and a final solution. South Africans’ penchant for violent confrontation to solve communal, material and filial problems is deeply entrenched in our society and the flowering of democracy in 1994 has failed to stem systemic social violence. Unfettered violence undermines the development of social capital, tears the sinews of communal bonds, and undermines the authority of a state that should in theory monopolise the deployment of violence for democratic ends.

In these dark days, the seed of a civic response to these fundamental challenges has found political voice: While government dithered, across the country thousands of ordinary people protested against the violence and visibly challenged xenophobia. Many more have donated money, and opened their homes, mosques and churches to ameliorate what is a developing humanitarian crisis.

While the xenophobic attacks of the past month represent a catastrophe and a setback to the development of an inclusive civic culture in South Africa, they could yet be claimed as a catalyst for real change. Civil society must use the upsurge of civic agency and social responsibility to channel outrage and shame into addressing the underlying challenges of poverty, unemployment, crime and social alienation. Citizens must demand of our collective political leadership more effective, accountable, empathetic and transparent governance within truly democratic institutions; creating, in turn, a virtuous circle of civic activism, accountability, responsive government, dignity for the poor, and a sense of community for all who live in South Africa.

This article was originally published in the Cape Times on 05 June 2008. Jonathan Faull is Political Researcher at Idasa’s Political Information and Monitoring Service (PIMS)

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