Izimbizo in our own languages can avert protests

THE deep rumbles of discontent that have exploded into violence and the destruction of property show that the government has not exactly succeeded in speaking to the people.

Instead, it urgently needs to address its messages to the people who put it into power.

It was none other than Sicelo Shiceka, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, who - at the height of community upheavals in Gauteng and Mpumalanga last year - put his finger on the pulse. Shiceka said people are up in arms because of "the failure of government communications".

Of course, it is not true that the government has failed to communicate with the people, especially the people who elected it.

It is just that for a very long time, the government has chosen to use mainstream media - including billboards, advertising, inserts in newspapers and magazines, television and radio interviews - to carry its messages to the people.

Unfortunately, these media have not only used a difficult language - that is, English - but were largely targeted at the privileged people with some degree of education.

Consequently, government communication has resulted in the slow filtering of messages to the people who matter and thus left confusion or lack of faith to emerge.

Significantly, there is now a small but growing view in government communication circles that more than R100million spent on newspaper adverts and television campaigns, for instance, has not delivered the expected results of bringing the government closer to the people.

Instead, mainstream communications has not only left the government unprepared for 1980s-style "service delivery protests" but has revealed the lack of practical links between it and the people on the ground. But now the government has taken the decision to strengthen its community engagement strategies through African village-style izimbizo.

This is a decisive moment to strengthen democracy through public participation and promises to put a stop to so-called service delivery protests that are based on lack of information and knowledge as to what the government is doing. The renewed izimbizo campaigns, instead of being propaganda, are intended to be no-holds-barred information-sharing sessions that will go beyond the usual griping.

They will be guided by research to identify issues and leaders will be expected to emphasise feedback on communities' concerns.

Each minister will be expected to host, at least, 10 izimbizo per year to heighten the community's understanding of the government's programme of action.

The fault that exists at the moment is the presumption that if a minister appears on television or newspaper that automatically means that he has reached the people.

But relying on mainstream communication channels like top-end television programmes or glossy magazines in a highly illiterate country has not delivered the goods.

These are cracks in the communications edifice that show a harmful process that cuts out the people who matter in favour of privileged and elite audiences.

The shift towards izimbizo is the most positive development to happen in forging closer links and partnerships between the government and the people.

In a developmental state, it will never be enough for a government minister to appear on TV or hold an extensive interview with a single journalist. They must consolidate the gains of people's democracy by speaking the language of the people.

Izimbizo are an opportunity for the people of this country to reclaim their power through directly engaging their leaders to make them accountable.

In fact, there is no place for a community to engage in service delivery protests that reverse the first steps of progress that have been made after more than 350 years of oppression and exploitation.

For this country to continue on its successful path, the minister and the people must critically engage each other at the izimbizo to reshape and redefine what this country ought to be.

We are all required to be part of the solution through effective communication that will happen inside communities themselves.

The time for protest is over.