Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Protests reflect need for community organising skills

Reflecting on the many service delivery protests, the latest clashes being in Soweto, I believe that there is an urgent need for the rollout of community organizing skills.

I must begin by citing a friend and colleague, Owen Stuurman, who insists that a clear distinction be drawn between community development and community organization. Community development aspects are always needed, but community development usually implies communities organizing themselves and starting community projects.

Communities are seen (and positively so) to drive the projects themselves, but they take and use whatever they can get from donors and government. Community organization– on the other hand – points much more clearly to the need to engage with authorities, with official plans, with budgets and to take action that will ensure the delivery of vital community-wide infrastructure and services.

Community organization has a strong inward-out focus, seeking to impact on wider systems. It seeks to make those systems more enabling and supportive of development in the community. In the SA context both are needed. Communities must launch their own projects and bring other players and resources to the party. At the same time, there needs to be community organization.

Such organization improves democratic local governance and helps to bring about a proper and balanced distribution of resources that has already been approved by Parliament(s) in order to improve the lives of people.

The Department of Social Development, as part of its shift away from welfare to effective development, has over the years been placing increasing policy emphasis on community-based facilitation. They have linked this to the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) and government’s Community Development Worker (CDW) programmes which are ventures that seek to provide skills to the unemployed through a kind of internship. In the EPWP, for example, the focus might be on social public works such as door to door HIV/AIDS work. The CDWs would fan out into communities, informing households about key government programmes and – using internet-linked laptops – help people in poor communities to access social grants and other services. Should these programmes not also be providing workshops on the basics of community organisation?

The social workers in government - who focus on psychosocial work (counseling services and group work with vulnerable groups) - also have the scope to include activities that enhancing community organization skills. In recent years, the Department has experimented with income-generating projects, inter alia through using UN funding. All pretty good work, trying to build self-esteem and initiatives based on group trust in communities battered by poverty. But, I would argue, there is now immense opportunity to enhance levels of empowerment through supporting communities to engage more effectively with government.

Aggrieved groups should recognize that protesting well and with impact is a skill. The answers to the following questions emerge only after planning and careful consultative work at local level. What are your demands? How deep and wide is community support for your demands? How long can you sustain your action? How will you appeal to the wider public so they side with your just demands? How will you leverage knowledge of the law, plans and budgets, etc – to advance your case?

A deeper grasp of community organization would suggest that effective protest (although from a distance it sometimes looks similar) is distinct from “running amok”, angry outbursts, spontaneous violence and wanton attacks on property. These latter forms may as easily lead nowhere, especially if you lack the capacity and support to sustain the protests through crackdowns and state action.

I know, as one community protester from the Ekurhuleni area told me recently, an outraged oppressed group finds it offensive that any individual from outside should try to prescribe how it should protest. I am aware that many things affect decisions about tactics: knowledge of tactical options, levels of anger, number of times official promises have been broken and depth of leadership experience and insight into social change processes.

And yet … as an observer, I am often left in the dark about what the specific demands are and who the specific target of the protest is. I am also puzzled why passers-by (and sometimes hawkers along the route of protests) are attacked. And given that these are anti-poverty protests (and many people may want to show solidarity), how can sympathetic individuals or groups forge any alliances with an amorphous group?

My views are that:
++ We should make full use of the channels that exist in the democracy we fought for. Don’t start breaking down the door before you have actually ascertained that it is bolted shut.

++ Once you have exhausted options (and there is no positive change in the lives of your constituency despite your petitioning and appeals over a long period of time), you will logically move to more radical protests. In the end, your focus is on making sure you meet some or all of your objectives – not necessarily on whether you bring discomfort to officials or not. Although used more sparingly in a functioning democracy, no-one can take away your right to toyi-toyi.

In the literature on advocacy (changing dominant views and shifting policies), the types of possible actions to demand change form a continuum. Actions can range from passive resistance (doing it on your own), co-operation/collaboration (working with government) through to open and forceful opposition. In our legitimate and democratic government, the focus is surely not on planning to overthrow the government, so any calls to violent action must be rejected as destructive and ill-advised.

All in all, there appears to be a widespread and dire need for enhancement of old-fashioned community organizing skills. Such enhancement will seek out continuities with past struggles and will draw out experience and knowledge, possibly neglected in the heat of the moment, that resides within poor communities.

With deeper understanding of community organization history, processes and case studies, protestors are likely to do better at forcing officials to face up to rather than avoid the real issues. Demonstrators can also minimize clashes with police and are more likely to garner wider public support and a positive overall outcome.

Many officials may like the idea of respectable leaders of community groups sitting at the table rather than toyi-toying in the streets. They may imagine that dealing with organized communities means tame groups sitting in paneled boardrooms sipping tea and listening to presentations and speeches by officials. But such a view would be cynical and shortsighted. Embracing community organization as a feature of local governance will require a change on the part of officialdom as well.

On their part, officials need more generally to understand that active citizenship is part of a process of realizing a rights-based society. They need to accept that “Batho Pele” (the public service slogan, People First) can only be effectively implemented if communities are active in following up on the rights formally accorded to them by law.

Officials should have their doors open to engage with organized communities and leaders of campaigns on burning socio-economic issues. During meetings, they ought to listen, clarifying needs and getting a clear understanding of community perceptions of what changes are required. Officials need to be committed to reporting back within agreed time lines. Mutual respect, rather than disdain and arrogance, should be the preferred style. Officials should impart facts, and openly discuss their constraints and challenges. Initially angry groups dismiss official reasons and explanations, but even the poorest communities prefer to hear the truth rather than empty promises.

What are your views? Kindly leave a comment.

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