DISCONtent runs deep

Research done in parts of the country, some of which were affected by xenophobic violence against immigrants, is illuminating.

Research done in parts of the country, some of which were affected by xenophobic violence against immigrants, is illuminating.

The initial findings seem to suggest that the underlying cause of xenophobic violence might be popular discontent with high levels of poverty, inadequate access to social services and the poor quality of social service delivery.

The study sought the views of ordinary people in South Africa and other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries on their experience of socio-economic and developmental benefits stemming from the momentous democratic changes in the 1990s.

In South Africa in-depth interviews were conducted in Gauteng (in Alexandra and Diepsloot informal settlement) and in Limpopo (the urban district municipality of Capricorn and rural Sekhukhuneland).

Interviews were conducted with members of civil society organisations, residents and community development workers (CDWs).

The interviews were done just a week before the outbreak of the xenophobic attacks in Gauteng.

While there was overwhelming consensus and support for the political freedom and liberty brought about by democracy, there was also a deep sense of dissatisfaction with perceived government failure to deal effectively with poverty.

Respondents in Alexandra blamed the failure on an inability to coordinate and implement government policies and programmes effectively. The local government sphere was identified as the biggest culprit.

Many respondents were able to differentiate between the national and sub-national spheres in apportioning blame for the failure to deliver services effectively.

This, perhaps, reflects a clear awareness of the policy making-implementation division of responsibilities between the national and sub-national spheres of government, hence the social and political anger aimed at local government for poor service delivery.

There was generally strong support for South Africa's current democratic political system and the range of broad social policy programmes and services introduced during the past decade, particularly education, low-cost housing, social welfare and community development.

Yet many respondents were deeply dissatisfied with the perceived poor quality of the services and poor implementation and coordination of government policy programmes at local level.

The delivery and allocation of RDP houses was a burning issue.

Strong perceptions were prevalent in Alexandra and Diepsloot that official corruption and bias in the choice of areas for RDP housing projects was also responsible for illegal immigrants being allocated RDP houses at the expense of South Africans.

The researchers found that in many instances foreigners were merely renting RDP houses from locals.

Some respondents in Alexandra were also convinced that immigrants were receiving social and child support grants.

It was clear in many instances that these strongly-held perceptions were based on rumours and innuendo, but failure by the local authorities to communicate effectively with citizens has created misunderstandings manifested in xenophobic attacks.

While the country's democratic institutions seem to enjoy broad political legitimacy, this was tempered somewhat by widespread negative perceptions of a lack of capacity to manage policy implementation and effective coordination.

Many good policies were being passed by the national government but failed to achieve their objectives owing to poor local level implementation and coordination.

In both provinces ineffective local government structures were seen as central to the problems communities were experiencing.

The loudest criticisms were reserved for ineffective or non-functioning ward committees and ward councillors. In Alexandra residents reported debilitating internal political squabbles, rivalries and factionalism that impeded the proper functioning of ward committees.

Respondents spoke of the inability of local level service delivery agents to cooperate and coordinate their activities.

Some respondents in Alexandra indicated that local government officials were not only unaware of the nature of the work of CDWs, but actively resisted working with them.

They felt that the national government should intervene to resolve the disputes among local level developmental role players to avoid key developmental projects such as the Alexandra Renewal Project being derailed by petty squabbles.

While the broad thrust of some of the key social policies of the government received support among respondents, the specific aspects and consequences of some of these policies were vigorously contested.

The benefits of the freedom of choice regarding abortion were criticised for promoting questionable moral values by encouraging girls aged 12 to be sexually active and able to receive free abortions without parental consent.

Child support grants was seen as promoting underage parenthood, which locked many families into a cycle of poverty.

Some respondents felt that the child support grant should be restricted to a limited number of children to eliminate what they see as its perverse incentive encouraging women and girls to fall pregnant to receive the grant.

The general thrust of these initial findings seems to point to a paradox of South Africa's democracy enjoying broad political legitimacy among grass roots communities amid fairly high levels of service delivery discontent.

It would appear, therefore, that the challenge for policy makers is not so much to generate political support for the country's democratic institutions among ordinary citizens, but to create the necessary material conditions, including focused grass roots community regeneration and poverty relief programmes, to sustain and entrench the current political support among ordinary citizens.

Failing this, the potentially corrosive effects of sustained high levels of popular discontent with service delivery on the political legitimacy of the country's democratic institutions might be immeasurable.

lLungi Zakwe, Thabiso Sebei, Ebrahim Fakir, Robin Richards and Thabo Rapoo are researchers at the Centre for Policy Studies.