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At your service

9 November 2009

Source: The Presidency 2009

In recent months, as the first post-election glow faded, all eyes have been on President Zuma to see how he would go about living up to his election promises – in particular his promise to be a president who cared more – and who did more for the interests of rural people. One of his first actions was to launch, on 14 September 2009 a presidential hotline. The hotline is meant to give South Africans direct access to government ears so that they can lodge their complaints (or compliments) on service delivery matters. Statements were made in the media by Zuma who apparently had handled some of the first phone calls himself. One of these first callers, an elderly woman from Mount Frere, was having trouble accessing her deceased husband’s pension money from his employer’s pension fund. Zuma stated that staff would follow up on this matter until the money had been handed to her. And of course, he added, after dealing with some initial hiccups in the start up phase of the initiative, the presidential hotline call centre existing of 43 call centre staff, would continue to answer calls and follow up each and every one of them until a satisfactory result had been reached.

Many of the criticisms in the media on this ambitious undertaking have focused on the functioning of the hotline itself, especially whether the average caller has been able to get through, and how long one must wait in a queue before a call is either answered or spontaneously cut off.

Clearly this is a valid concern. A hotline that doesn’t answer your call clearly isn’t very hot to begin with. But my concern is not whether individual callers will be able to get the ear of government and be heard by ‘patient and humane’ call centre staff, as instructed by the President. Nor is it if those lucky ones that do get through will eventually have their problem resolved by ‘immediate, professional, efficient’ action from local, municipal or other civil servants. What worries me is the implicit assumption behind this approach to tackling service delivery issues.

The rationale seems to be that service delivery backlogs occur because officials in the relevant government departments don’t know that certain people are not receiving access to water, electricity, sanitation, pensions, etc. What follows from this assumption is that if we can only ensure that each and every case of non-service delivery is reported to government, and through pressure from the authority that comes from the direct involvement of the President all these cases are actually acted on and resolved – and let’s for the sake of argument say that this is feasible – we will have addressed the service delivery problems in this country. If this were true, it would be quite reasonable to put a lot of emphasis at this stage of the intervention on whether or not callers are able to get through to the call centre. The model of action would look something like this:

1. get your call through the presidential hotline
2. report your service delivery query
3. your query is attended to and service subsequently delivered


The problem is that this does not really go to the heart of the problem. I can see how this intervention has become an integral part of a campaign to confront service delivery problems head on, and appease growing hordes of service delivery protesters. It is true that people usually take well to a personal approach – that’s why the automated response to your complaints on an online feedback form will always be headed by a friendly “Dear Ms Ukpabi,” giving me the illusion that this big faceless bureaucracy really cares about me. But to assume that this is really all that is required – to assume that what we need to do is to make people feel Government cares about them and to just ‘tweak’ the machine of delivery – this is to misunderstand the nature of the crisis, and to misread the crisis of poverty. Poverty in South Africa is not the result of little glitches in the machine of delivery. It is a result of fundamental structural aspects of the way in which our economy is working. Rather than try to tweak the machine, or to give it a friendlier ‘interface’ we should worry about whether it is delivering the right thing at all. So though we should acknowledge that the presidential hotline is a brilliant, beit risky pr stunt, I’d say that in general we should encourage governments, and especially those levels of government that are at the top echelons, to focus on the structural dimensions of otherwise very real and on the ground problems. I think that in the long run it would be more efficient if government thinks about the big problems in society in such a way that includes as much as possible all the different, inter-related factors and dimensions of the problem itself, as well as those variables, both internal and external, that cause the problem to persist, and then think about how to tackle this problem in a holistic, systemic way that brings results to individual citizens, but does not necessarily address each South African individually.

This brings me back to my initial question, and more specifically, to the Department for Rural Development and Land Reform’s (DRDLR) pilot approach to tackling rural development, starting in a small number of impoverished districts such as the Greater Giyani municipality in Limpopo. In Giyani, DRDLR aims to implement all the interventions as listed in the Comprehensive Rural Development Programme (CRDP), which leans on the three pillars: Agrarian Transformation, Rural Development and Land Reform. The draft programme was developed shortly after the April elections and reshuffling of government departments which resulted in the slicing up of the Department of Land Affairs and the birth of DRDLR and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) among other changes. The objective, or vision is said to be the achievement of ‘vibrant rural communities’. Through the three pillars mentioned above interventions will focus on increasing agricultural production and food security, improved economic and social infrastructure, accelerating land redistribution, restitution and land tenure reform, and effective post-settlement support.

The infrastructure projects are envisaged to create much of the employment opportunities together with village level industrialization mostly agricultural processing enterprise. A pictorial project progress report that was produced last August shows how the first phases of the intervention: Community Mobilization, Community Food Production, Housing, Education, Health, Sanitation and Water are being addressed in Muyexe Village. For example, an organized food producing group of 36 women called the MACENA Women’s group produces a variety of vegetables for the local community needs and also to the Giyani Spar. In addition to the women’s group, 200 household gardens will for a period of 3 years be supported through a public private partnership agreement. The agreement will see the women and household gardens receiving training, mentoring and support on traditional organic farming methods that are water efficient, and a trainer will be on site daily for the next 36 months.

After implementation of the pilots, DRDLR expects a yet-to-be-established Rural Development Agency (RDA) to draw lessons from its experiences, tweak the CRDP into perfection and implement the programme nationwide. We are not sure how the RDA intends to draw these lessons, nor what lessons can be learnt from constructing houses and school buildings, health and sanitation facilities such as ‘enviro-loos’ and providing internet access in mud structures, that has not already been learnt many times before by (rural) development agencies worldwide. Of course, the argument is not that linking rural dwellers to the internet, and even increasing production in small scale farming enterprises is bad. And if public works and public and private partnership can provide jobs for rural people this is clearly a positive development, as it will certainly impact on poverty levels for the specific people that have been helped, at least in Giyani, and certainly in Muyexe. But how will we be sure that small farmers in another village will be able to sell their surplus to the local supermarket? And how about the MACENA women’s group’s access to markets in three years time, when nobody remembers that Muyexe was once a poster village for state driven rural development? And how do all the new structures: a clinic staffed by a full time nurse; a crèche, primary school and a high school; enviro-loo’s; a house for a family found staying in two leaking small huts, because the mother, widowed had been unable to access her husband’s pension without ID’s of their children; fences and boreholes contribute meaningfully to a change in the rural economy, and ensure that vibrant, sustainable communities will continue to have access to sustainable livelihoods?

It can be reassuring to have our government provide us with progress reports laced with photos of ‘mobilized communities’ and newly erected sanitary facilities, especially as 2014 – twenty years of South African democracy – is approaching rapidly. Also, let me be clear that I think it is a key responsibility of government to make sure that all the arduous tasks and services, like access to health care, safe water and sanitation, education, infrastructure like roads and internet are delivered to all people equally. But the efforts of making sure that these local, sometimes individual needs are addressed should not distract from another, more difficult task, which is to address the underling structural and systemic processes that determine how economic rewards and resources are allocated and people are enabled to make use of these resources to improve their own lives.

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