Joburg Advocacy Group (JAG): Taking a Break

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Taking a Break

Folks, we're taking a break from advocacy work for a while, and will re-assess JAG's viability at the end of the year. For one thing, running the group has become a more-than-full-time occupation and, as we're all volunteers with work and other commitments to meet, we just can't sustain our current level of activity.

Also, when we established the group nearly three years ago, we hoped to be able to use advocacy to address some of the very pressing governance, service delivery, social justice and environmental protection issues in the city - on behalf of all of its residents.

The state of play

A few years down the line we're the first to admit that our success has been patchy. This is because advocacy, as powerful as it can be, only really works in a system that's at least notionally functional which, increasingly, ours isn't.

And our lack of success hasn't been for lack of trying.

Some of our work

Since 2009, we’ve run or supported campaigns to address such issues as crime, poor service delivery, surface water pollution, acid mine drainage, financial mismanagement in the City of Joburg, the racialization of politics, the need for a more accountable form of direct democracy and, above all, the Joburg billing crisis.

More recently, we've made several submissions as part of the city’s Growth and Development Strategy public participation process (GDS2040), and we participated in the National Planning Commission’s first-ever online jam, which was constituted to canvass public input on national strategy.

We’ve also opposed the huge hikes in councillor remuneration being proposed by the SA Local Government Association (SALGA) and the proposed Municipal Property Rates Amendment Bill, as well as the recent indecipherable hikes in electricity tariffs approved by the National Energy Regulator (NERSA).
We’ve debated local and national government officials on radio and television, issued dozens of media releases and statements, and have taken part in town hall meetings in many parts of the city.

We also drafted and published a report on the 2011 Local Government Elections earlier this year, published a comprehensive billing crisis information booklet for residents and businesses and, amongst many other information initiatives, have been running a very active social networking campaign on Twitter and Facebook. And, of course, we've repeatedly lobbied for the people of the City of Joburg at all levels of government and with all of the relevant oversight agencies.

Where to from here?

We believe local government as a whole is pretty much in a state of crisis, and that the institutions we should be able to turn to for help in a situation like this, such as provincial government, national government and the courts, are in much the same state of crisis - or are hide-bound by inefficiency, mismanagement, corruption and/or red tape.
The same could be said for some Chapter Nine institutions like the Public Protector's office which, other than making a few placating noises, has basically ignored JAG's pleas on the billing crisis, effectively leaving the city's administration unaccountable for the monumental failure in good governance that the crisis represents. 

The National Consumer Commission (NCC), on the other hand, while doing everything possible to assist individual residents affected by the billing crisis, is simply being subjected to the obfuscation that the city’s administration subjects its residents to. The NCC may, in time, be able to fine the city for non-compliance in terms of the Consumer Protection Act, but that fine will have to be paid out of the public purse, and the politicians and municipal officials responsible for this mess - like the Travelgate MPs - will never be held to account.
In a situation such as this, advocacy becomes the very definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result.

What are the alternatives?
The only viable alternative to advocacy at this stage is broad-based peaceful direct action, but so far our efforts to encourage residents' associations and community groups to organise have largely fallen on deaf ears.

We feel change is very unlikely to come from the within the system of government, and is only likely to come from concerted collective action. If the city's people won't organise, though, there's little more that groups like JAG can do. They either need to oppose the developments taking place in government in a meaningful way, or live with the consequences.

In short, they can no longer just make a cross on a ballot paper every five years and claim they're partaking in the establishment and protection of a non-racist, non-sexist, just, effective and accountable democracy. And they can no longer hope that someone else will sort out the problems arising in the city and around the country.
Democracy is as democracy does, and it's something that comes about through active citizen involvement - it's not a task that can be left to a few committed activists running themselves ragged trying to make a difference - without any real support or any hope of actually achieving anything.

Perhaps the growing civil society movement, which includes such organisations as the Black Sash, the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC), the Occupy SA movement, Direct Democracy SA, The September National Imbizo, the Homeless People's Movement, the National Taxpayers' Union (NTU), the Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN), the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) and such locally-based organisations as the shack dweller's movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, and the Northern Federation of Ratepayers (NORFED) in Joburg will eventually be able to hold government to account.

If they don't, and if ordinary citizens don't join together to take action against the systematic destruction of the South African democratic project, we will find ourselves in a very bad situation indeed in this country - and sooner than many would like to believe. 

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