BY THABANG MOTSOHI
The report by Municipal IQ on the trends in service delivery protests in SA is very disturbing. A worrying component of these protests is the increasing level of violence, and even more worrying is the fact that the violence is perpetrated mostly by the youth, who should be in institutions of learning equipping themselves with the skills they need to enable them to achieve a high level of self-expression and development.
Various research initiatives have concluded that service delivery protests tend to increase during local election years, indicating that they could be driven by competition for inclusion in the parties’ candidate lists. But a deeper examination indicates that the principal cause for frustration among the communities involved is a lack of democratic local participation. Communities claim elected representatives are never available to consult with them and hear their complaints and understand their needs. They cry for their voices to be heard. They also complain that their representatives pay more attention to the commands and wishes of the party leadership than the community.
This disclosure confirms the view of most analysts that the fundamental flaw in our democratic architecture is the electoral system, which limits the powers of the electorate after the votes have been cast. Under this system, elected representatives believe their obligation for accountability is more to the local party leadership than the voters who elected them.
The act of voting is in reality an act of granting power of attorney to the party to take decisions in your interests, with little obligation for consultative participation with the electorate. Furthermore, given that there are few (if any) tangible consequences for nonperformance, there now exists a cycle of poor service delivery, weak accountability and unmet expectations.
This is the primary source of the growing frustration that easily finds expression in the growing number of increasingly violent protests that have engulfed the country.
These challenges raise an interesting paradox in relation to the electoral law and practice at the local government level. A mixed electoral system is in place, yet problems of accountability persist. What this means is that changing the electoral law may not necessarily bring about the changes that are needed.
What I believe is needed urgently is a broad engagement that involves all interested parties, particularly at the community level, to identify the factors that impede the growth of an equitable and consultative, democratic and participative electoral system at the local level, with a view to bringing about immediate changes in the law. It would be irresponsible for the political leadership of all parties to allow further growth of the frustration levels that drive the violent protests.
The political landscape in SA is dominated by the ANC. In a diverse country that is also dealing with the challenges of transition to a democratic phase, how the ANC manages its own transformation is bound to have a big effect on what happens in the economy, and the prospects for individual enterprise and development.
The entry of the EFF and its appeal to the youth has shaken the political landscape in a dramatic sense and ignited competitive politics. This development should present a pressure valve for the communities that feel they have been neglected for a long time. It also provides an opportunity for those who feel neglected to adopt a different protest language that eschews violence as a means of expressing frustrations.
This can only be good for our young democracy.
The next two years are going to be very challenging, as it seems clear that the rating agencies will drop our national debt to junk status. Rising inflation and recession are certain to follow in a period of great political uncertainty. The consequences will be dire, especially for the poor in an environment in which protests easily assume a violent dimension. Our young democracy is facing the toughest test in its 22-year history, and the moment calls for visionary leadership and a focus on the national challenges that should matter.
• Motsohi is organisational strategist at Lenomo Strategic Advisory and this article first appeared on Business Day Live dated 31 May 2016.