Government needs to connect with citizens

13 06 2008
Imraan Buccus
June 04, 2008 Edition 1
Source: Mercury

The print and electronic media have had - and continue to have - an overwhelming amount of news and analysis around the crisis of xenophobia that has gripped our country.

Surely, this is justifiable when you have figures of between 50 000 and 100 000 people who have been displaced and when such a complex occurrence has such far-reaching implications for a country like South Africa.

The pogroms against foreign-born people have, as many commentators have noted, smashed the idea that South Africa is somehow an exceptional country.

It is now clear that we, like other developing countries that have suffered terrible communal violence such as India and Nigeria, are in serious trouble.

Now that much has already been said about the crisis of xenophobia we turn our attention to what should happen in the aftermath of these terrible attacks - a critical reflection that helps us move forward.

There are two clear priorities. One is taking on the appalling way in which the South African government has responded to the refugee crisis.

We need vastly better support that can quickly reintegrate people into society. Refugee camps are simply another outrage and are utterly unacceptable.

But we also need to work out what has gone so terrible wrong in our society.

There has been a lot of discussion around this, some of it quite good. All commentators seem to agree that poverty is, quite clearly, a pre-condition for the desperation and alienation that leads to this kind of barbarism.

Mahmood Mamdani, perhaps the greatest living African scholar, argued, together with leading South African scholar Sampie Terreblanche, that the economy required fundamental restructuring towards the interests of the poor.

This is clearly correct. If we continue to orientate our economy around the interests of the large corporations and the elites that profit from them we will simply slip deeper into this morass.

It is essential that we break with the fantasies of trickle-down economics and begin immediately with concrete measures to give some hope to the poor. A basic income grant would be a good first step.

However, a great deal of the analysis has not paid sufficient attention to the idea that there is a serious disconnection between the government and its citizens.

With all of the wonderful talk of participatory democracy in our country, one would surely have expected government stakeholders to know the burning issues in communities.

Given the profound nature of our social crisis generally, our politics should be about putting ordinary people at the centre of public life. Had this happened then we would have known how communities felt about foreigners and how they understood their socio-economic context.

A key element in this regard is the issue of housing. The tensions around the housing crisis, and in particular the widespread allocation of housing on a corrupt basis, were a key factor in driving the explosion of rage.

But very few have noted that the deep social tensions around the housing crisis are not merely a question of stepping up delivery. It has clearly emerged in the so-called “service delivery protests” of the past few years that the whole approach to housing is causing deep social tensions.

By trying to eradicate shacks the state is forcing the urban poor into more and more crowded and smaller and smaller bits of land.

By forcibly removing people to “human dumping grounds” outside the cities, like Parkgate in Durban and Delft in Cape Town, the state is taking people away from access to work, schools and so on.

And because housing development is being undertaken in a totally top-down manner without consultation with communities, anger has not had constructive channels and rumours often run wild.

If there were proper forums where communities could meet the government on the housing question and plan it together we could build a social compact.

Without exception, every instance of genuinely successful public housing provision is based on democratic planning partnerships between governments and community organisations.

At the moment people generally don’t know what the plans for them are, have no real way to get clear information and, most importantly, have no way of influencing the planning that will aff- ect their lives.

Planning needs to become a genuine partnership. Without such a partnership, even the best intentioned projects can do more harm than good.

The simple fact of the matter is that the government needs to work with people, not for people. All citizens need to feel that they have a genuine stake in society.

If our own citizens actually felt like citizens they’d be far less likely to turn on others.



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