Imraan Buccus
Imraan Buccus

Durban breaks new ground in participatory democracy

I have written previously about the need for democracy to be about more than just voting every few years. It has been about the need for democracy to be an everyday way of life for all citizens. Active citizenship is the essence of what is sometimes called radical or deep democracy and active citizenship ultimately comes down to the right of ordinary people to participate in governance.

Most of the time what academics call “invited spaces” for public participation are little more than spin-doctored road shows aimed at showcasing government policies in the best light with very little opportunity for real debate. But what academics like to call “invented spaces”, “insurgent spaces” or “contested spaces” are a completely different form of public participation. These are spaces for interaction that emerge from the meeting of popular and government forces. They’re often messy and often conflicted and governments very often wish that they didn’t exist for the simple reason that they’re unpredictable and can’t be stage-managed.

These spaces always entail a degree of risk for governments and it takes a particular kind of government to genuinely open itself up to this kind of public participation. Interestingly it is often the more local level of government that get it right — like the municipalities of Porto Allegro in Brazil and Naga City in the Philippines or the state of Kerala in India. This is probably because most social movements tend to only really have power at the local level and it is at the local level that they are successfully able to force governments to open themselves up to popular participation.

Where movements have forced governments to share power, the results have been extraordinary. Porto Allegro has won world-wide acclaim for its participatory budgeting and Naga City is recognised as the leading municipality in the world when it comes to the treatment of shack dwellers. In Kerala, people live longer, are better educated, and have better access to health care than elsewhere in India. But this has never come easy. The devolution of power from states has always been hard won after years of grassroots organisation.

Unfortunately, and despite a lot of rhetoric about public participation, post-apartheid South Africa largely followed the top-down approach to development that characterised all kinds of authoritarian governments during the last century including IMF structural adjustment programmes, nationalist regimes and communist states.

But recent developments in Durban suggest that we may be in the midst of an intriguing rethink. Many may be aware that for years there has been bitter conflict between the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo and the eThekwini
municipality. There have been all kinds of disputes over marches, evictions, shack fires and more with the clergy, academics, the New York Times, Al Jazeera and international human rights organisations all weighing in.

However, recently in Durban the Mercury published an excellent article by Mathew Savides on the need to revitalise civil society and quoted the shack dwellers’ movement chairperson expressing his happiness at a “definite shift on the part of the municipality”. Intrigued I dug a little deeper and discovered that after 18 months of negotiations, the movement and the City have recently signed a deal to provide services to 14 settlements and to upgrade three, with formal houses, where they are. This is an extraordinary breakthrough. It is true that both sides recognise that there are issues on which they continue to disagree, notably the vexed questions of shack fires and the need to electrify shacks, but the fact that so much has now been agreed on is really remarkable.

Interestingly the movement continues to be in sometimes bitter conflict with the state but most of the major battles are now, as with the profound opposition to the Slums Act, against the provincial government. In fact in a recent eviction-related court case in Siyanda, the shack dwellers’ movement and the City were both listed as respondents against the provincial department of transport!

The step away from conflict and towards fruitful engagement must have required compromises on both sides. But if both sides are happy enough to move forward with this new deal it’s clear that they must both have gained more than they have lost from this shift from conflict to genuine negotiation. And it is that fact that is so encouraging.

Given the obvious benefits from the intriguing new spirit of openness in Durban there is every hope the City will be tempted to negotiate in a similar mode with other smaller organisations such as those representing street traders, refugees and so on. And if this happens there is every hope that other municipalities will begin to look at Durban as a place of collaborative innovation rather than, as in recent years, a place of acute conflict between civil society and the state.