Where are the leaders?

2009-07-28 00:00

LAST week, Gwede Mantashe gave a candid assessment of the problems facing ANC structures in the Eastern Cape, North-West and Western Cape after the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) had reflected on public protests by its members in some areas.

First, he reported that the party’s NEC found that its provincial leadership structures were riddled with divisions, infighting and incompetence. Secondly, he said the crisis of leadership in these provinces has been allowed to persist for a long time, suggesting a lack of decisive intervention in the past. Thirdly, he said that nepotism is undermining the ANC government, especially at provincial and local levels.

These challenges are a factor in the current upheavals in poor communities that are protesting weak leadership in local government. We have known for some time now that internal ANC troubles frequently spill over into the government and influence community politics. This is not surprising because the ANC is a dominant political movement, especially among the poor. With the decline of civic structures after freedom and the bundling of mass democratic institutions, the ANC became the main vehicle for community action. Other parties assumed importance as well, but to a limited extent.

In the process, there was a weakening of local leadership, which saw a sharp decline in the quality of branch leadership in the case of the ANC, but also in general leadership at the local level. Communities that were vibrant during the struggle suddenly lost capable leaders for positions in the government, NGOs and the private sector. This loss of leadership left a void at a time when communities needed strong leaders to help them take up opportunities that opened with changes in government. Post-1994 interventions, from the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programme, were based on the idea of smart partnership with communities in pursuit of needs-based development. This assumed that communities were sufficiently organised to develop a common vision and bring realistic plans to the table when interacting with the government.

But many communities had lost organisers, civic leaders and inspirational role models. It now turns out that the branch leaders and councillors who were supposed to take their places lacked the skill and will to organise, mobilise and stabilise communities. Without conscientious community leaders, rabble-rousers and trouble­makers exploited people’s concerns, to position themselves for election to local and provincial government positions. There has also been a weakening of community structures, such as street committees, volunteer formations and community development forums, that helped sustain community cohesion in poor areas during the eighties. This weakening could be seen as early as 1997 when studies showed high levels of discontent and a dearth of leadership at grass roots.

Under these conditions, social ills, such as crime, drug and alcohol abuse and high levels of violence, frequently burst into the open. In the absence of development-oriented structures, communities have become more dependent on charity and government delivery of services. In place of community initiatives to build livelihoods through self-help and wealth creation, communities are impatiently waiting for weak munici­palities to provide enough for them to survive on until the next round of delivery. While income support is a crucial means of survival for many poor families, it is discouraging community-empowerment initiatives.

We have seen a lot of young people drop out of school and loiter in the streets after failing to find employment. Long-term thinking and planning has given way to the pursuit of short-term palliatives from gruelling poverty. This means anything from dependence on income grants to petty crime. Role models for the young are no longer principled community builders or development facilitators, but celebrities given to crass materialism.

Politicians are no better. They have become professional, which, in many cases, means they work for their stomachs rather than for a cause. Those who used to be selfless organisers are immersed in office work far away from communities and they have not groomed local leaders to take their places. In the ANC, these people focused so much on getting national structures right and running the government that they let the rot deepen in provincial and local structures. In this sense, the protests we see flaring up in various parts of the country are symptoms of this gradual decline in local leadership and community empowerment.

Under these conditions, no amount of accelerated service delivery will stop the ubiquity of community upheavals. Neither will deployment of police be adequate. The call for councillors to act quickly is unlikely to help because they have lost credibility. I have noticed that even in my area, KwaHhobhu at uMshwathi, people hate, even loathe, councillors.

What is needed is a frank analysis of the problem, acceptance of mistakes made and urgent rebuildin­g of community structures and leadership. Communities must get rid of the scumbags and opportunists. To do so, they need to be mobilised to help in the process of reconstruction and development. The Community Development Policy Framework currently being developed may provide opportunities for rebuilding community cohesion and leadership. If the ANC has in mind something less than an RDP of communities and their leadership structures, then it will fail in its efforts.

• Dr Siphamandla Zondi is director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global dialogue.

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