When good people do nothing

2013-05-16 00:00

ABOUT 350 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato said: “The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”. More than 1 500 years later, the Irish political philosopher and statesperson Edmund Burke warned of social complacency when he said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. The indictments of Plato and Burke of their societies could be made against present-day South African communities with the same justification.

Apathy prevails until we become disgruntled and we take to the streets in protest, often accompanied by violent behaviour. Instead of exercising our democratic and constitutionally entrenched right to have a say in public affairs, we are indifferent to the public processes in which we have a voice. Instead of voting out of office those who fail us, we perpetuate the incompetence, corruption and cronyism of those in power by re-electing them to public office.

Why is it that those who will readily participate in street protests against the lack of service delivery shun the formal processes that are intended to deliver the very services that have provoked anger?

municipal planning

In 2010, the Constitutional Court ruled that municipal planning is the exclusive domain of municipalities. The court ousted the jurisdiction of provincial development tribunals, the planning authority appointed in 1995 to fast-track South Africa’s reconstruction and development programme. Although the Constitution spells out the areas of legislative competence of the three spheres of government, these provincial tribunals encroached within the functional areas of municipalities and allowed developers to use the tribunals to fast-track commercial developments. In such processes, the municipalities were sidelined, as were communities. The powers of the tribunals included the power to suspend all laws that stood in the way of development. Often, communities looked on in dismay as unwanted development was foisted on their area. Their concerns were ignored and their protests dismissed as “anti-development”.

Ashburton is such a community. Located in a rural setting on the eastern boundary of the Msunduzi Municipality, the area is acknowledged by conservation authorities and ecologists to have significant biodiversity value. Important endemic species of both fauna and flora occur in the area. The Mkondeni and Mpushini rivers have their sources in the area and they flow into the Msunduzi River, which in turn joins the Umgeni River, KwaZulu-Natal’s most valuable and hard-working river. It has a special rural sense of place, despite its proximity to the provincial capital.

Ashburton has been a hotly contested developer territory. The affected community has fought and lost many battles before development tribunals. The community has participated in many of the flawed processes leading to environmental authorisations issued by the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs. The community has spoken out against unwise development proposals, but has never been taken seriously. At times, the treatment of its members in these processes has been downright insulting.

It is significant that none of these ill-conceived developments has commenced. It remains to be seen if they ever will. In a depressed economy, they are unlikely to be revived. So be it. The developers and the authorities are the authors of their own misfortune and the landscape remains unaltered.

From a planning point of view, however, matters have become complicated. Islands of land have been rezoned for commercial and industrial purposes, and these have no logical links into the ambient community, municipal infrastructure, or the N3 that passes through the area. The municipality, now re-vested with its planning powers, must plan around these predetermined land uses, making its already difficult task nigh impossible. What is more, it is expected to provide the infrastructure for these developments, albeit with a contribution from the developers.

In planning for the future of its inhabitants, the municipality is bound by three core statutes: the Constitution, the National Environmental Management Act and the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act. The Constitution places land-use planning squarely within the competence of the municipality. The National Environmental Management Act imposes principles for sustainable development of the municipality and an environmental duty of care on all developers. The Municipal Systems Act obliges the municipality to consult the local community in planning and service delivery, and confers on the community the right to contribute to the decision-making process of the municipality.

As part of the planning process, the municipality is obliged to adopt an integrated development plan (IDP) that is supposed to be a comprehensive, inclusive and strategic plan for the development of the municipality. The IDP sets out a five-year plan, which is reviewed annually. It is through this process that the needs of communities are identified and resources are allocated to meet these needs. The IDP includes the provision of a spatial development framework that creates a land-use management system for the municipality. Detailed planning at the local area level is done by way of the compiling of local area plans, which may include precinct plans, taking planning down to the finest detail within the community.

public process

In order to make communities part of the IDP process, and thereby have a say in planning, the municipality embarks on a public process in which communities are invited to make written submissions on the content of the IDP and to attend public meetings at which they can voice their concerns or expectations. These meetings are generally very poorly attended. Written comments are few. In short, the community does not have its say, and the resultant IDP fails the people.

Why do communities not participate in these processes? The community has the legal right to speak and the municipality has a constitutional and statutory obligation to hear the community. If the community does not speak, how does it expect the municipality to understand and provide for its needs? If it is pure apathy, then it is inexcusable. It devalues our hard-fought constitutional rights.

local area plan

The process towards the compiling of a local area plan for Ashburton is well under way. The project is being undertaken by a competent team of experts from the private sector. Up until now, consultants have worked out of the public eye to produce an inception report and an assessment of the status quo. The project will soon enter the public phase, with the holding of the first public meeting towards the end of May. It is expected that communities will be told how they can engage in the process, and have a say as to the way in which the process is to be conducted. The Preservation of the Mkondeni Mpushini Biodiversity Trust (PMMBT) has campaigned over the past decade to ensure that the community is heard in both planning and environmental decisions. PMMBT intends to mobilise the Ashburton community to ensure that it has a meaningful say in the compiling of the Ashburton Local Area Plan.

The local area plan will feed into the municipality’s land-use management system and will ultimately be incorporated into the town-planning scheme, at which point, it becomes legally binding on the municipality and all of its inhabitants. The community, therefore, has the opportunity to have a say in the “law” that will govern land uses in its area and it must not miss the opportunity. The local area planning process provides an excellent forum for communication with the municipality, and even civilised protest. If the municipality refuses to heed the concerns of the community, or if the community is excluded from the process, it has a legal remedy. Resort to the courts is good practice in a democratic society.

If the community does not act in the face of a threat to its wellbeing, then perhaps, in the words of Plato and Burke, it has itself to blame “if evil triumphs”.

• Jeremy Ridl is an attorney and environmental law specialist.

community meeting

The Preservation of the Mkondeni Mpushini Biodiversity Trust is hosting a public meeting to prepare Ashburton residents for participation in the local planning process at the Ashburton community hall at 5.30 pm today. Inquiries: Call Nora Choveaux at 082 771 6324 or ­e-mail nac@pmmbtrust.org.

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