Giving the voiceless a voice

Tip number 1 for the SA government

Below you’ll find the article by Rejane, the BI Director published in the Mail&Guardian newspaper on 14 May 2007.

We at the BI believe that if our government were to implement this idea, it would contribute significantly to giving the poorest a means to voice their problems to the government.

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Imbizos on speed

Rejane Woodroffe                                                                                           

14 May 2007 

The government imbizos (meetings) held in April were heavily criticised. While they are meant to be an opportunity for government to engage with the broader community, only a limited number of people are able to make it to the venues, there is limited time for discussion and issues are often focused on the area of expertise of the government official that is being hosted. Furthermore, it is often the poorest community members, who are most dependent on government service delivery, who have had limited access to education (or are illiterate) that are unable to make it to venues. Often, they don’t know their rights or don’t have the confidence to challenge authority. While the idea of opening the channels of communication between communities and government is a critically important one, the organisation of the imbizos facilitates the process of consultation in an inadequate manner. 

The inequalities between poor and rich South Africans are growing exponentially. The access to good quality of life for wealthy South Africans is akin to that of the developed world, where the challenges of technology extend to whether to get a bluetooth-enabled device or high speed internet access. The technological problems facing poor South Africans include access to running water, clinics, mud huts collapsing during heavy rains or losing a child to a bout of diarrhoea — problems that we’ve had the technology to solve for hundreds of years. Then there are the issues of basic service delivery and corrupt local councillors that remote communities have no way of communicating to higher authorities. 

What do remote communities do if they need to report their difficulties to government officials other than their own non-performing local councillors? Unlike the communities in urban and peri-urban areas, facilitating information flow is harder because the vast majority are illiterate, do not know their rights and, if they did, are not confident enough to challenge authority or bureaucracy. Even if they knew the relevant phone numbers to lodge complaints, they do not have telephone lines, nor can they afford the cost of using a cellphone. The various departments’ 0800 numbers are meaningless to the majority of the poor who would have to pay normal cellphone rates to call them. 

In an ideal world, these communities would be listing their grievances to local councillors, but many of the latter are still very patriarchal, the women and youth are excluded from meetings, there is a lack of clarity as to the role of local councillors and traditional leaders while local elites are able to make councillors prioritise issues that do not necessarily represent the needs of the broader community. 

One of the most important technological advances in communication, which can go a long way to facilitating the information flow from communities to government and to improving productivity in local government, is the cellphone. There are no landlines in remote areas but almost all families have access to their own or a neighbour’s cellphone, though little money to pay for calls. Government, whether local, provincial or national, needs to establish one free-call cellphone number, like 10111 (20222 perhaps), to report problems with any government service, no matter how big or small. This widely publicised, free-call cellphone number would open up the lines of communication — think of it as the ultimate government hotline. You would call one number, be given a reference number and the relevant department or local office will get back to you within a week. 

The main benefits of this free-call government hotline would be: 

  • A quick, direct flow of information from citizens to government to allow for speedy solutions to problems before they become widespread or chronic. For example, when swine fever broke out in the Eastern Cape earlier this year, all the pigs were slaughtered, which in remote areas means that the toilets disappeared because pigs are the main method of disposing of human sewage. This caused outbreaks of diarrhoea and dysentry that could easily have been prevented if local authorities were notified and water purification tablets and bleach were distributed.
  • The ability to identify problem regions quickly. At the moment, remote rural areas with the worst poverty are often ignored as they suffer in silence. This hotline would give communities like mine a voice. This will stop the urban/peri-urban development bias.
  • The identification of problematic government departments and offices. If thousands of people from the Mthatha area struggling to get birth certificates call the hotline, this would help national/provincial government to quickly allocate more resources to the Mthatha home affairs office.
  • The promotion of inter-related, joined-up government. Many of the problems in service delivery cross local, provincial and national government jurisdictions. In order to solve a citizen’s hotline complaint, the various disconnected levels of government have to be forced to work together. For example, in a particular region, the widespread lack of access roads may lead to numerous complaints about the inability to get to hospital in an emergency. The municipality may be able to resolve this issue (that is, build a road) only after a few years. They would thus fail to solve this problem immediately and would then have to escalate the problem to the provincial government, which may then be forced to temporarily provide the relevant hospitals with 4×4 ambulances.
  • The promotion of a rights-based culture: the poorest would hopefully soon realise that clean water and other basic services are not benevolent gifts from a loving government. Rather, they are rights enshrined in the Constitution — and the absence of these services means someone is not doing their job.

With the lines of communication open, government will have a database of information and be able to track the most common complaints, measure the sources of inefficiencies in the different municipalities and find creative solutions to improve the lives of the communities they serve. Instead of making sweeping generalisations about the lack of delivery, government will be able to measure productivity and effectiveness at a community level, thus ensuring that the voices we hear most often are those most in need of help. Now there’s a good way to spend some of that budget surplus!

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Rejane Woodroffe is the Director of the Bulungula Incubator. See www.bulungulaincubator.org
 

View the original article at:http://mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx?articleid=308286&area=/insight/insight__economy__business/#

  1. Thank goodness you are working with the community and are able to be the voice for the many Xhosa families that are suffering and that have no hope of fighting for what is their right. Certainly the industry does not care for the families- they only seem to care about profits and exploitation.
    I am appalled that a company like this does not have people in their HR department who would ensure that widows are cared for.
    I am going to see that this article reaches some of the International media.
    Keep up the great work!

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