Perpetuating the myth of service delivery

2010-11-23 00:00

LAST week, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) took Parliament to the people through a sitting in the Free State that drew a lot of media and public attention to this struggling province.

The assessments of this in the press suggest that it was a futile exercise. The reason for this is that while the meeting helped “the people” to speak about weak public services, the NCOP, being toothless, is unable to force the government to act decisively to strengthen its work and plug the gaps identified.

The chair of the NCOP, Mninwa Mahlangu, reinforced this perception by making statements designed to lower people’s expectations by making the point that the lower house of Parliament is merely an oversight institution and the responsibility to act on the challenges pointed out rests with the government.

The only value that news reporters found in the exercise is that they heard directly from victims of weak and corrupt government agencies. With graphic details in testimonies, commentators criticised the government’s poor service record. In the process, positive developments, including the very idea of an imbizo, paled into insignificance.

This is what philosophers would call myth-making. Of course, myths are not necessarily falsehoods, but are a construction of a reality on the basis of a single idea. Myths lurk at the back of our minds as commentators and reporters as we attempt to explain the conditions that the people who attended the parliamentary imbizo in Phuthaditjhaba live in. While the people themselves would have a grasp of the complexity of the reasons they lack this or that, we from the middle class construct a sort of a fugitive reality by which we explain their condition, often resorting to one-reason narrative.

One powerful myth lurks behind our choices of stories to report and how we analyse poverty — this idea of service delivery. I have written before about this obsession we have with the idea that the poor by necessity must rely on external agencies for their upliftment.

The fact that many have come out of poverty and joined the working and middle classes as teachers, nurses, entrepreneurs, performing artists, taxi owners, and even oracles is ignored in preference for the “you are poor because there is poor service delivery” story.

The government itself exaggerates its power and capacity to deliver the goods that the poor supposedly want, thus contributing to this myth-making. Government leaders and officials brandish quantitative targets on houses to be built, households to be connected to energy and water, children to get free entry to schools, thus raising expectations of delivery among the poor. Although this can only be delivered to a few each year, the people of KwaHhobhu, eFaye and Mtulwa under the dismal uMshwathi Municipality also think they are going to benefit from this state kindness. When it does not happen in the same year, they hold out the hope that it will come to them soon.

We commentators and media outlets call this a failure to deliver, an idea that emanates directly from and actually sustains the myth of service delivery. In this sense, success must be seen as an outcome of one’s abilities, including talent and clever decision- and choice-making, but failure is a result of factors be­y­on­d one’s control. Weak service delivery is the problem. The solution is to improve government delivery of goods. Thus, the issues of life are easy and require simple solutions. In this sense, Parliament is designed to encourage the originators of government sovereignty, the people, to vent their concerns and compliments. The word “Parliament” has its roots in the verb “to talk” in French. So, Parliament is successful when there is much talking about everything.

So, Mahlangu is wrong to be apologetic about the NCOP’s inability to do anything because Parliament is designed to “talk” about issues. We are also wrong to conclude that because of Mahlangu’s explanation izimbizos are futile.

We have to accept that humans know their own world better than outsiders do. We should be mindful of the fact that words create realities and the words of the strong carry greater weight.

This is why it has been found time and again that in fact the weak describe themselves by words coined by the powerful. One such phrase, I suggest, is “service delivery”. It is about time we think carefully about how each one of such phrases recreates myths that are disempowering and limiting when we explain issues around us.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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