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South Africa

People are demanding public service, not service delivery

Township citizens are protesting not because they want "service
delivery" but because they want to escape it.

The current round of grassroots protests - which have been happening for three-and-a- half years but are now receiving some rare attention from our public debate - may have done us an immense service by prompting voices to warn against the claim that the protesters are demanding « service delivery ».

On this page last week, Xolela Mangcu and Richard Pithouse convincingly
showed that the phrase « service delivery » does much to obscure what is
happening on the ground. But more needs to be done to challenge this
label : not only is the tendency to insist that citizens are protesting
for quicker « service delivery » sloppy and misleading - it is deeply

An example of how deep the gulf is between the mainstream debate and events on the ground was provided by another article on these pages last week. It acknowledged that the protests in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, were triggered by news that some families were to be moved from their homes. It then insisted that this showed that the « pace of service delivery is inadequate ».

In what way does people’s desire to prevent officials from moving them
show that « service delivery » is too slow ? On the contrary, Diepsloot is
only one of many cases in which « service delivery » is far too fast and
peace can best be restored by stopping « delivery » altogether.

There is a great difference between « service delivery » and "public
service". The first entails officials - and commentators - deciding what
people need and then dumping it on them. As Mangcu and Pithouse point out, and Diepsloot shows, this refusal to allow people to make their own choices is particularly prevalent in housing, but it happens in other areas too : the removal of small traders from areas where some « service deliverers » think they ought not to be is another grievance that prompts protest. Many local protests are reactions against this high-handedness and so are, in reality, protests against « service delivery ».

To suggest, as the article does, that the solution is to ensure that
officials impose their preference on citizens more quickly and
vigorously is to invite at least another three-and-a- half years of protest.

Public service, by contrast, starts from the recognition that, in a
democracy, the government’s job is not to « deliver » to citizens. It is,
rather, to listen to them, to do what the majority asks, if that is
possible, and, where it is not, to work with citizens to ensure that
what is done is as close to what they want as it can be. It stems from
the core democratic idea that government works for citizens and that it
cannot do this unless it listens to them.

The protesters are demanding public service, not delivery. While the
causes of the protests differ from area to area, in every case people
want to be heard and to be taken seriously. The protesters are saying
that they are citizens with rights and that they insist on being treated

In some cases, people do want cleaner water or better neighbourhoods.
But that does not mean they want officials to « deliver » to them. A study
of people who benefited from government housing subsidies in the 1990s found that those who had larger and better houses were not more satisfied than the rest : the only people who were happy were those who said they had been able to choose their housing type. The beneficiaries were saying that they did not want the houses officials thought they should have, even if they were technically « better » - they wanted the houses that they chose.

Constant claims that citizens want « service delivery » are antidemocratic
because they deny citizens a voice : reporters and commentators do not
have to listen to what protesters are saying, they can decide for them
what they do not like.

It is antidemocratic, too, because it assumes that the test of
democratic government is not whether it does what the people want, but whether it is technically good at forcing on the people the technical
solutions that appeal to the elite.

As long as we understand popular protests as demands for "service
delivery", we will continue to make the government the master, not the
servant, and we will continue to treat grassroots citizens as people fit
only to receive the products devised by their betters, not as thinking
and choosing human beings.

And as long as we do that, people at the grassroots will remain unheard
unless they take to the streets.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.