Thabang Motsohi
Thabang Motsohi

Balance of power contests are driving violent community protests

As a society we must all resist and reject the temptation to accept that the violent protests and political killings that seem to occur all the time during the local election years is the new normal. It should not be! The time has come to take responsibility, show leadership and engage through all our stakeholder structures to understand the underlying causes and find collective and sustainable solutions. Intervention is critically urgent in order to ensure that this horrible practice does not entrench itself as a culture that will certainly undermine our nascent democracy. What we have is a crisis and it demands extraordinary leadership and political will at this time than ever before.

Knowledge and experience gained from how organisational systems function may assist us to understand the underlying problems and reveal the real causes. Organisations tend to achieve their objective successes when their energies and efforts coalesce around a principle called common purpose. This entails having in place the following key drivers and critical components to successfully execute on the common purpose; vision and common purpose aligned strategies; appropriate governance architecture; supporting organisational processes and protocols; responsive accountability and performance criteria; funding and visionary leadership.

The task of defining the common purpose has been carefully and elegantly articulated in Chapter 7, Section 152 of the Constitution and the enabling legislation that forms the foundation of local government structures and governance architecture. In summary, the legislative package aims to introduce two paradigms and objectives. First, the implementation of developmental municipalities that are designed to provide social services effectively and efficiently. Second, to ensure that communities participate effectively in the decision-making processes that affect their lives and material interests.

This was not going to be an easy task given the dispensation prior to 1994. Much success has been achieved through the cycles of transformation interventions that have been pursued up to now. However, the protests that have organically erupted during the years of local elections point to a deeper malaise. The reports by the auditor general on municipalities have identified many faultlines and point to the need for very serious introspection as to whether they are capable of achieving their common purpose as required by the Constitution.

Research aimed at measuring community perceptions and the real causes for the violent protests is very thin. Academic work that has been done identifies, as top of the list, the lack of effective and democratic participation and a weak or non-existent framework for accountability as the main causes. This clearly undermines the intent of the common purpose as stipulated in Chapter 7 of the Constitution. Perceived corruption, sudden enrichment and conspicuous consumption by municipal and elected officials take a close second. There is also a perception that the composition of the municipal councils ignores the will of the communities and that the proportional list candidates are considered more important than the constituency candidates.

What these observations reveal and confirm is that the real challenge and nexus of the problem is one of balance of power. At the moment power is tilted in favour of the political parties in the municipalities they govern. There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that points to very serious, and even violent, contestation between the parties and their branches for who should rightfully be on the candidate lists for the coming elections. This is not a new phenomenon. It has just assumed alarming proportions and violence. Naturally, the parties fight hard to retain their decision-making powers and privileges and on the other hand, the determination by the communities to demand their rights and powers has become very intense and violent. This tension points to very serious faultlines in the governance architecture and decision-making processes and protocols.

The lack of political will to address this issue is understandable given the obvious possibility that the outcome will not favour the parties. However, the political landscape has changed significantly and become more competitive with the entry of the EFF. Communities are beginning to have a different perspective about their rights, powers and responsibilities and this will only exert more pressure to review the balance of power issue. For the ANC this development has an interesting dynamic. The ANC considers itself to be a national movement whose influence and leverage must go beyond the government and its agencies into all the civil society structures of influence. The doctrine of “democratic centralism” has become a dominant paradigm and it is evident in its organisational culture. The balance of power tensions at the local government level will put this culture to a serious disruptive test.

The reality is that the ANC is the dominant party at this moment and how it manages the transformation and fractious succession issues confronting it internally, has an important bearing on how the balance of power issues will be resolved at the local sphere of government. Under the current low growth and low employment trajectory and given the intense pressure on the household incomes, a position on the candidate list can mean the next step in the escape ladder from poverty. Contestation and the determination to success at all costs can therefore assume violent proportions. Basically, the weaknesses in the system have a direct correlation to the violent protests and killings that we now see. This is very worrying.

The rating agencies have correctly pointed to the political risk as inherently worrying because it directly impacts investor confidence. In particular, they are concerned and are very watchful of how the succession battles within the party will be resolved. The balance of power at the local government level is a critical driver. Unless it is resolved through a structured engagement process, the country is set for a certain downgrade and descent into a prolonged recession. That will certainly test political stability and shake our democracy. Selfless and visionary leadership is urgently required.

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