Kagiso Trust Twitter talk: Active citizenry and ageing infrastructure

Kagiso Trust Twitter talk: Active citizenry and ageing infrastructure

Kagiso Trust Twitter talk: Active citizenry and ageing infrastructure

Mankone Ntsaba, Kagiso Trust Chairperson

There must be meaningful engagement by local government with the public on civic projects

South Africans must become more involved in planning what infrastructure they require in their communities, how it should be built and where, and should participate in its construction. In this way they will acquire a sense of ownership of the infrastructure, and will be less likely to destroy it when they feel their grievances are not being addressed. The South African Constitution actually obliges municipalities to involve citizens in this process.

The three panellists in a Twitter talk hosted by the Kagiso Trust and the Mail & Guardian on 17 August 2023 were unanimous about this fact. They also discussed the shortcomings of local governments; how the staff are often inadequately trained, how unresponsive they often are to the needs of their communities, and how infrastructure has been allowed to degenerate. When infrastructure is ageing, citizens are even less likely to feel that it belongs to them.

Moderator Khaya Sithole opened up the proceedings of the Twitter talk by asking Mankone Ntsaba, Chair of Kagiso Trust, what the Trust is about and what it has been doing. 

Ntsaba said that the Trust was established about 30 years ago to benefit all South Africans. After identifying gaps in local government, the Trust has set up programmes to plug these gaps and support local government. Citizens are seldom involved in the planning or budgeting processes of local infrastructure, and usually only protest when infrastructure has already collapsed and, for instance, sewerage is already running through their homes. 

Kagiso Twitter Talk
Dr Sthembile Mbete

Dr Sithembile Mbete, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, said most people don’t understand the role of infrastructure as a public good. Every South African pays for it via tax, even if only via VAT. Infrastructure is there for everyone’s benefit, so that we can for instance, be educated, get from A to B safely and lead our lives decently. It has common ownership and its construction and budgeting should be planned with the public as well as the state, as stated in the Constitution. Unfortunately, citizens are usually not involved in this process and often destroy infrastructure when they become frustrated. South Africa’s infrastructure has been in a state of decline in recent years, particularly our railways. 

Academic and thought leader Sam Koma said that the democratic process that began in 1994 was flawed, because the government told the public that they should just sit back and that it would provide them with services and houses. This created a lack of a sense of ownership and buy-in, because citizens felt they were not involved in the planning process — the planning of the infrastructure was decided upon in boardrooms. This is why they target public facilities when they feel their needs are not being met. 

There must be meaningful engagement by the government with the public on local projects, said Koma. The public becomes frustrated with initiatives such as the Giyani water project, which has been ongoing for 10 years and is still not complete, though it is obvious that a lot of money has been spent on it. 

Koma said that there are often funds and good intentions on the part of the local government, but a shortage of technical skills and management problems can result in infrastructure collapse, such as the water crisis at Hammanskraal. Not enough funds are delegated towards maintenance of infrastructure, and this is a big problem.

Kagiso Twitter Talk
Dr Sam Koma

Ntsaba said that there are often people employed in municipalities who shouldn’t be there, and they can’t prepare proper financial reports and statements. She also stressed that there are not enough mechanisms in place to involve the public in planning processes; citizens are not consulted, or consulted too briefly. Many don’t even know that they have the right to be part of the decision making process. People will be less inclined to attack infrastructure if they have been part of deciding how and where it is built. Faith must be created in citizens, who must be brought closer to process; a relationship with the infrastructure must be built.

Mbete said that civic education is lacking, so people don’t know what their responsibilities or rights are. Politicians and civil servants have also largely been unresponsive to citizens’ grievances. The Hammanskraal crisis, for instance, had been brewing for many years, but officials did not respond. When this relationship to the public is poor, then unfortunately it is no wonder that people resort to extreme actions such as burning schools, because they know that this draws an immediate response. The mechanisms are there for officials to respond, but are seldom used. 

A sense of public assets belonging to the people must be created, so they get a sense of ownership. Sadly, assets like community centres are often built, but then not staffed properly or maintained. When these become dilapidated, people are less likely to look after them or feel that they belong to them. 

Koma said that the paralysis of governance is due to poor leadership. At the local level, the municipal staff are not attuned to what is happening on the ground, and people feel that they are not being listened to. We require leaders who are fit for purpose, said Koma, who can respond to the changes that have taken place; for instance, since 1994, more of the population has become the youth, and they have different needs, and require different interventions. 

There is no sense of urgency in tackling the situations that are occurring, which can result in destruction in public property. We must focus on public-public partnerships; people must participate in building their own public assets, and in this way, they acquire a sense of civic responsibility, said Koma.

Kagiso Twitter Talk
Moderator Khaya Sithole

Ntsaba said what happens in the building of public assets is that a tender is given out, a contractor does the job and leaves, and the community doesn’t even know who that person was. When people are involved in the labour of building an asset, they are far more likely to protect it, as they have benefited from being involved in creating it; they feel they are part of it. It really helps when people are given the space to become involved. 

Many people and communities were involved in organisations prior to 1994, and this sense of organisation should be revived, outside of political structures, because it empowers people when they work together. Where this has happened, then the sense of “us” and “them” disappears. The attitude of citizens towards the government has hardened, but this softens when people work together with the local municipal structures. 

Mbete said that even educated people often have a very poor sense of how the system works. We need a professional civil service, in order to effectively address the pressing infrastructure needs that we have.

Koma said that universities are part of the community, and have a duty to educate the people about their civic responsibilities. There are various programmes to educate students about citizenship, maintaining the environment, community empowerment, sustainable development, eradicating poverty and the like. Universities also educate counsellors on how to respond to the needs of the community. “I believe that we can intensify our efforts, in tandem with community members, who are supposed to be part of this empowerment process,” said Koma.

How do people access what Kagiso Trust has done, and how do they become involved, Sithole asked? Ntsaba said Kagiso is open to discuss what they are doing. Members of the public can follow what Kagiso is involved with by following the Trust on its website and through its social media platforms, and engage through these channels.  

Closing remarks

The lack of accountability on the part of local and national government is something citizens can act upon; they can demand that public servants are held accountable, said Ntsaba.

Mbete said very few people attend local meetings. Citizens must take an active role in maintaining their local infrastructure, find out where it is, and who maintains it, and build up a relationship. 

Koma said we must reignite a sense of civic duty and participatory democracy. The Constitution obligates municipalities to involve people in the affairs of local government.

To listen to the Twitter talk, visit: https://twitter.com/i/spaces/1YpJkglYkXNJj

Source: https://mg.co.za/partner-content/2023-08-18-kagiso-trust-twitter-talk-active-citizenry-and-ageing-infrastructure/