CITIZENS’ KNOWLEDGE AND PERSPECTIVES ON SOCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY INFORMATION ACCESS AND DISTRIBUTION IN GRAHAMSTOWN, A SMALL SOUTH AFRICAN TOWN

Grahamstown, with an estimated population of 82 060, is well known for being the home of Rhodes University and the famous National Arts Festival (Stats SA, 2016). Regardless, however, of the many successes the town enjoys with the Arts Festival and education institutions, the municipality has been struggling with serious administrative challenges. Makana Municipality was placed under administration[1] in 2015, following their inability to pay staff salaries, due to huge debts accrued (Maclennan, 2017). The 9 months intervention did not yield the expected outcomes, however. The town still suffers, amongst other issues, from debt, high rates of unemployment, and poor service delivery, particularly water and infrastructure. Water outages are consistent and almost every road in town has potholes due to lack of maintenance and mismanagement of the public resources (Maclennan, 2017). The local civil society organisations collective calling itself the Makana Unity League has started calling for administration again, however, others are concerned that getting outside intervention is futile, as proven by the previous experience (Penxa, 2017).

Grahamstown citizens have become accustomed to protests and marches, heading to the municipal offices to make their concerns known and demand answers for the poor state of the municipality. Research studies show that it is to the best interests of society to ensure that duty bearers manage public resources in an efficient, transparent, and socially accountable manner, as demonstrated in the protests and advocacy campaigns. In order to do this, the citizens need to understand how the various government processes work. Therefore, social accountability pertains to the citizens’ ability to hold the government accountable for its actions, through demanding explanations and justifications for their actions. Furthermore, the willingness and ability of the government to provide those justifications and explanations to civil society and take corrective measures (Halloran, 2015). The right to social accountability, therefore, promotes citizen’s engagement and transparency regarding the use and management of public resources (Ackerman, 2005).

In order to efficiently exercise their right to social accountability, citizens need to be informed about the operations of the public resources management system and the various channels to follow when interrogating the use of public resources. It was this reason that drove the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), a local social movement and the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), a university-affiliated CSO, to want to understand accessibility of the social accountability information in Grahamstown. Social accountability information refers to information that can be used by citizens to monitor and demand justifications for the use and management of public resources.

The Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) is a university-based organization involved in social accountability monitoring. The Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) is a community based social movement that assists the public deal with various issues in Grahamstown. The UPM and PSAM, working in the social accountability sector formed a partnership to conduct a research study to understand the accessibility of information to the Grahamstown community.

Due to limited resources and timeframes, only 30 people (15 females and 15 males) between the ages 18 and 69 years old were interviewed. The informants were from Joza, Vukani, Hlalani, Ethembeni, and Fingo, Grahamstown West and Central. Informants indicated that they had sufficient knowledge regarding the roles or the various public servants, however they needed information related the various government process that affect them as the public. Informants identified the social accountability related information they would like to receive as:

  • All sorts of information that concerned them as community members and civil society.
  • Basic rights and grants information.
  • Municipalities expenditure records and the mismanagement of resources where applicable.
  • The Integrated Development Plans (IDP), their budget allocation and how they are spent, as well as having access to the [municipal] 5-year plans and progress reports.
  • How the government advertises their posts and recruits officials?
  • Tenders and the criteria to accessing them.
  • Who gets the services and the various steps an individual needs to take to access adequate services and employment?
  • Water and sanitation issues, especially when they affect the community, like water shortages, etc. and be regularly informed about municipality affairs.
  • Who to approach or where to report when your rights are being violated?
  • Would like transparency concerning the management of resources.
  • What resources are there that the municipality can provide for the people?
  • How government officials ought to behave because I see that they are all corrupt starting from parliament to local and provincial, to me they are the same?

The informants wanted the resource management process to be transparent enough to allow the community to monitor and assess the use of funds and ensure that proper regulations were followed when spending. There seemed to be a clear understanding that the resources the government was working with were limited. Some members wanted to understand:

  • The process of editing [financial management within the municipality] and the nature of services being delivered.
  • The basis under which the needs [of the citizens] are identified and the strategies that inform service delivery.
  • What happens when the resources are not being managed adequately?

There were informants who explained that they did not want to depend on the government, but needed the government to assist them to start their own enterprise, as stated in the sentence below that they would like to know:

“Where we can go to get resources to start our own business and what help can we get from the government to have those businesses?”

Some informants stated that they have been kept in the dark by their government officials regarding the state of affairs in their local regions, and that it was the responsibility of the public themselves to ensure that the government officials change their behavior and become more engaging and transparent. They emphasized the fact that every citizen should benefit from the resources of the country, especially since the new democratic regime prides itself on being for the people.

With regard to the accessibility of social accountability related information, the study shows that out of the thirty informants interviewed eighteen of them receive social accountability information via word of mouth, ten of them receive it in meetings and nine of the receive it via television and newspapers. Leaflets, internet and radio were rated the lowest. With regard to the preferred medium of communication as a means of circulating and distributing social accountability information, radio was rated the highest. Twenty informants indicated that they would have preferred to receive their news via radio, sixteen preferred newspapers and meetings. The internet or online services came after at fifteen, as well as word of mouth. Leaflets were rated the lowest, as it appeared that only ten people wanted to receive their information via leaflets. The informants further indicated a need for engagement platforms, to learn to interact with the various process and the circulating information to strengthen their social accountability initiatives.

The major study findings imply that:

FINDINGS

  1. Most of the informants do not have access to adequate information to inform the social accountability initiatives they engage in, which often creates problems that hinder their progress in advocating for their needs. Their lack of knowledge regarding the roles of the government officials, and the connection between policies and public services indicated that the information they receive, or the way they receive the information, is not adequate to empower them to understand the public resources system and be involved in decision-making.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • It is necessary to create a bridge of information flow between the various stakeholders of the social accountability sector. The availability of an organogram of the government officials and qualified personnel in every public institution will assist the public to direct their concerns to the right people.
  • Social accountability practitioners should consider creating more knowledge sharing platforms where they can engage the general public. The majority of people do not have access to information and knowledge sharing platforms that will empower them to be active citizens.

FINDINGS

  1. The majority of informants indicated that they are able to receive information via word of mouth, meetings, television, radio and other means. However, the findings also show that often times information recipients are not equipped to translate the information they receive to inform their interventions in a systematic manner.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Social accountability practitioners and knowledge distributors should consider a multiple media approach when distributing information. No one method is able to reach everyone.
  • Because the majority of study participants seem to prefer to be receivers of news and not become makers of news, it is important for knowledge distributors to understand their target’s information needs and expectations when disseminating information.
  • Capacity building for grassroots civil actors might assist them to interpret the information in a productive manner and increase their awareness of the issues and the need to get involved. The knowledge gained might also assist them to translate the information to improve their interventions.

FINDINGS

  1. The availability of knowledge sharing platforms in the social accountability sector is undeniable, however, their value and impact is often influenced by other social dynamics that affect the sharing of knowledge and information. Dynamics that include overflow of information, and restricted knowledge sharing platforms amongst others.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Information distributors need to be cognizant of the characteristics of their target audience when designing knowledge sharing platforms. Paying careful attention to economic, resource and time constraints, accessibility to informal and formal meeting spaces, and difference in national or community culture amongst other things.
  • It might be helpful to create platforms where diverse groups or individuals can congregate to share their expertise and/or experiences. This will ensure that information does not remain restricted to certain groups or individuals.
  • To merely be informed without action is not enough. Therefore, it is important for both the government and the civil society sector to establish mutually beneficial relationships to share skills and expertise, and build solidarity.
  • Civil society practitioners need to consider establishing systems that will allow for a consistent flow of information between government officials and the citizens, especially at the grassroots level, where people are most affected by lack of service delivery. This will ensure that citizens take ownership of the state of affairs and work in collaboration with the government to improve conditions.

The full report is available on http://copsam.com/literature/ under social accountability case studies

Produced By Lindelwa Nxele PSAM AIP Officer- February 2018

[1] Municipalities are placed  under Section 139 1(b) provincial administration if they have been deemed unable to fulfil their administrative duties to receive a clean audit for a number of consecutive years. An administrator is deployed to a municipality to assess and clean their records to ensure future progressive operations. For more information on Makana under administration, visit, http://www.dispatchlive.co.za/news/2014/10/02/tough-job-to-fix-the-chaos-in-makana/

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