Recent shocking images of the police shooting at South Africa’s poorest citizens were beamed around the world as people in poor communities were protesting. The damage to the country caused by these images that looked like a flashback to the 1980s is incalculable.

There were more than 6 000 protests in 2005 and one academic has calculated that this makes South Africa “the most protest-rich country in the world”. With the rate of protests at local level currently, we are set to break that record.

However, despite the incredible scale of these protests, analysts have battled to properly understand them. There have been many problems with local government, including a lack of capacity, too much influence over service provision by party and business interests and, in some instances, outright corruption. But the one consistent problem is a technocratic top-down approach to policy formulation and implementation that assumes that experts should make unilateral decisions on behalf of communities. This kind of approach has been tried, and rejected after decades of painful experience in places such as Port Alegre in Brazil and Kerala in India. The wave of community protests across South Africa indicates a clear rejection of top-down local governance here too.

Quite clearly, the people organising and participating in these protests are very seldom given a chance to speak about what they think, what they are doing and why.

We need to remember that democracy is not ruled by experts. That is oligarchy. Democracy is ruled by the people. If we pay attention to the thinking of people organising and participating in these protests, one thing becomes immediately clear. And that is that these protests are in response to a crisis of local democracy rather than a crisis of service delivery.

It is true enough that in most instances failed service or misguided delivery is where things begin to go wrong. But even here the problems with service delivery are often due to a lack of democratic public participation in decision-making.

For instance if people are not consulted about whether it is in their interests to be moved from urban shacks to RDP houses, protest is likely even though service delivery is happening.

But time and again people organising these protests explain that they didn’t take to the streets because of failed or misguided service delivery.

They explain that they took to the streets because there was no way for them to get to speak to government, let alone to get government to listen to them.

For as long as government officials continue to assume that a mandate at the polls gives them a mandate to act in a unilateral and top-down manner for five years, these protests will continue.

Ordinary South Africans had a taste of popular democracy in the great democratic upsurge of the 1980s and expect the post-liberation democracy to take the same popular form — to be ruled by the people rather than by experts. Especially now, with the Zuma administration in power, poor people expect him to be the “service delivery president” because he embodies the aspirations of millions of poor people.

This level of intense social conflict is potentially very damaging to society and could, for instance, be extremely embarrassing come 2010. Imagine if the eyes of the world turn to us to see an action replay of the 1980s with burning tyres, teargas, rubber bullets and pitched battles between the very poor and the police on our streets.

Already both police and protesters are taking an increasingly hard-line stance with very negative social consequences.

These protests are clearly about a crisis of local democracy. It is the nature of local democracy that needs to change.

The government needs to take public participation seriously and to recognise that ordinary people have every right to be part of the deliberations and decision-making that will affect their lives. And commentators and experts, be they in the media, NGOs or the academy, need to learn that they should listen carefully to the voice of the poor rather than just make easy assumptions about what they think people are saying.

Experts would like this crisis to only be about service delivery because then the response to the crisis would be to bring in more expertise. But a crisis of local democracy means less reliance on experts and taking the intelligence and experience of ordinary people more seriously. It means fewer Powerpoint presentations and more community meetings. And we wait anxiously for Minister Shiceka’s turnaround strategy for local government expected by the end of 2009.


  • Imraan Buccus is a university-based researcher in Durban. He is also a PhD Research Fellow at the Centre for International Development Issues, Radboud University, Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Imraan is the editor of Critical Dialogue, a journal on public participation in governance, and his academic interests include issues around civil society and poverty, participatory democracy, social accountability and local governance.


Imraan Buccus

Imraan Buccus is a university-based researcher in Durban. He is also a PhD Research Fellow at the Centre for International Development Issues, Radboud University, Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Imraan is...

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