28 May 2024 Photo Supplied
Dr Ina Gouws
Dr Ina Gouws is Senior Lecturer: Programme: Governance and Political Transformation, Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Dr Ina Gouws, Senior Lecturer: Programme: Governance and Political Transformation, Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of the Free State.

Community-based governance refers to the systems and processes involved in the interface between community participation, community engagement, and public sector decision-making. This requires a partnership between civil society, business, and government. For this partnership to work, all partners must commit and invest in these processes for the sake of better services to communities. In recent years, communities have had to approach community-based governance with regional and local governments as mostly absent partners.

As South Africa approaches the national and provincial elections this week, voters need to reflect on the indispensable role civil society organisations have assumed in bridging the governance gap left by ineffective local and provincial governments. These organisations, driven by a profound commitment to community welfare, have extended their reach beyond their designated mandates, skillsets, and financial capacities to address pressing community needs. Their tireless efforts have underscored the significance of community-based governance and the urgent need for collaboration between civil society and government institutions.

Embracing community-based governance

In most provinces across South Africa, communities have found themselves grappling with the consequences of governance failures, ranging from inadequate service delivery to systemic corruption. Faced with these challenges, civil society organisations have emerged as beacons of hope, leveraging their grassroots networks and intimate understanding of local dynamics to deliver essential services, advocate for change, and empower communities.

However, the burden should not fall solely on the shoulders of civil society. As the nation prepares for a new phase of post-election governance, incoming national and provincial governments must acknowledge and appreciate the pivotal role played by these organisations. They must recognise the wealth of expertise, connections, and trust that civil society brings to the table.  By rebuilding the fractured relationship between government and communities, which is fundamental to effective community-based governance, a collaborative approach is therefore required. Moreover, governments must move beyond mere acknowledgement and actively engage with civil society organisations as equal partners in the pursuit of sustainable development and social justice. This entails fostering open channels of communication, soliciting input from communities and civil society in policy formulation and decision-making processes, and allocating and then PROVIDING resources to support the initiatives and projects driven by these organisations.

By embracing community-based governance and forging genuine partnerships with civil society, provincial governments can tap into a valuable reservoir of knowledge and experience that is essential to addressing the complex challenges facing South African society. Together, they can work towards a future where governance is not just about top-down directives, but is rooted in the principles of inclusivity, responsiveness, and accountability. South Africans are not experiencing such partnerships at all in most provinces. Voters MUST reflect on this before they cast their votes.

Reimagine governance in South Africa

Voters must not forget the impact an ineffective national and provincial government has had on their communities. We must vote with the expectation that our national government's ultimate goal must be to ensure that communities at the grassroots level receive the services and support they need for the people living there to thrive. This includes providing essential utility services such as water, electricity, and sanitation; social services such as health care, education, and welfare; and fostering economic growth through investment towards job creation and infrastructure development.

Provincial governments are supposed to play a crucial intermediary role by bringing national objectives to the regional level, tailoring strategies and policies to the specific needs and circumstances of their areas. They therefore set the tone for local governance, and by extension, community-based governance, by interpreting national policies and ensuring their implementation in a way that addresses local priorities. South Africans have not experienced this level of good governance in recent years; some never have.

So, if this interpretation and implementation does not happen – which is the case in most provinces – the tone set for community-based governance is one of disarray, failure, and suffering. There are of course a few cases that are the exception.  South African voters can change this by voting for a national and provincial government that will impact communities in constructive ways and pave the way for the local government elections to follow.

We are on the cusp of a new electoral cycle. As voters, we must seize this opportunity to reimagine governance in South Africa – governance that puts the needs and aspirations of communities at its core, nurtures collaboration between government and civil society, and paves the way for a more equitable and prosperous future for all. With this vision, we can truly realise the promise of democracy and ensure that no community is left behind. These may be national and provincial elections, but you are voting for your community!

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