When accountability is life or death: reflections from the city street

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Joanna Wheeler

“You continue to ask me where does that information come through. But if it comes up through the wrong people, people get assassinated. That is life.” Delft community safety group member

‘Accountability’ can seem to be a boring, technical term, far from the most important issue in peoples’ lives. But when you start to dig below the surface, as we have in the SLF pilot for Participatory Monitoring and Accountability for the SDGs, it becomes clear that real accountability is not just a ‘nice-to-have’:  the lack of accountability, for people on the margins, is a life or death kind of problem.

In the post-1994 (post-apartheid) settlement of Delft, in Cape Town, South Africa, there are deep frustrations. More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, exclusion runs deep. In Delft, which is ‘mixed-race’ in the categories of apartheid, levels of violence have reached epidemic proportions. Research conducted by SLF with the Delft Neighbourhood Watch between 2014 and 2015 found a homicide rate of 40 people in 6 months, from a population of only 36,000. Currently gang-based and police-based violence is on the rise, alongside already very high levels of interpersonal and intimate partner violence. Community activists and honest police officers are being threatened and targeted.

Representation of safety issues by Delft community member

These acts of violence occur within a wider system of profound insecurity and uncertainty: opportunities for formal employment are low, and political parties mainly operate through patronage and populist strategies that leave post-election hangovers without doing much to improve conditions.  This social and economic exclusion sits alongside an invisibility of Delft in the media and public discourse. When people die in Delft, we just don’t hear about it.

Within this context, SLF has been exploring how to build accountability through an action-learning pilot as part of the on-going Participate initiative. We have focussed the pilot on Goals 5, 11 and 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular on the theme of community-based safety. Since January, we have been working with a group of about 15 residents from Delft, including members of the Neighbourhood Watch, young people, and community leaders.

The group went through a powerful process of telling their own personal stories about their experiences of safety and insecurity in Delft. Together, we analysed their stories in order to better understand the structural roots of their experiences. Now the group is busy making two films about themes they have chosen and developed. The ideas within the group about how to address community safety have evolved, and we are working together to develop a shared strategy to address the lack of accountability they face.

Here are some of the emerging findings around what it will take to bring about accountability in the context of a South African township:

Bringing corruption into focus

Making sense of the insecurity issues faced in Delft

A striking finding throughout this process is the extent of the effects of corruption. Corruption filters into the everyday lives of people living in Delft and is a major contributing factor to the erosion of social fabric and legitimate leadership.

What has become very clear is that there are actors within the township that can influence the outcomes of an accountability process through their relationships with other power-holders, but their ethics are often questionable:  they may be aligned with gangs, factions of the police using brutal force and extortion, or drug dealers. So people from the research process who are seeking a more accountable form of political leadership and want to see transformation happen are forced to choose:  make bargains with those who have the power, or be side-lined and keep hold of their principles.

The compromises that participants and we, as researchers, are having to make within contexts of corruption and violence are a reflection of the reoccurring need to face impossible choices – the question is how far are we willing to go to make a shift happen, and how can we set ethical boundaries we can keep.

Gaps in representation and uncertain legitimacy

In our pilot, a key issue has emerged around gaps in representation at the local level. To constitute legitimate representation at the grassroots level is difficult for a number of reasons: entrenched patterns of party politics; the influence of armed actors including the police and gangs; and the daily struggles to survive and to make ends meet for leaders and their families. It isn’t necessarily the case that grassroots representatives have legitimate political power to speak on behalf of others in their community, and constructing that legitimacy is not easy. Through the pilot, there have been some important and promising developments:

  • Participants describe how they feel more able to speak to others in their community about issues of community safety, and their sense of their capacity to represent issues in their community is growing
  • The action learning process is contributing to the necessary conditions to build the basis of legitimate representation in order to build answerability and enforceability for accountability
  • We have all seen the importance of constructing a more equitable basis of representation that doesn’t leave out certain voices and experiences (which is what is happening through the formal political process). We have all become more aware of the issues of people being silenced and or edited out of the process

Accountable political leadership and the action research process

Creative methods support discussions on safety and accountability in Delft

On the other hand, we have also encountered the precariousness of political alliances and promises, and there is still much to come in terms of what we can learn about how more accountable political leadership can be sustained in Delft and in South Africa.

Local community leaders from the research group are exploring how they can move into political roles, and they have been using the action research process as a platform to gain political legitimacy. This raises tensions between the potential for co-option of the research process and need for legitimate political representation at the local level.

Within the action-learning group, there are divisions along lines of political affiliation that are at odds with an emerging shared position in terms of the issues facing Delft. It is difficult for members of the group to align with party positions that are motivated by struggles for national political control and are contrary to what they see and want to change in Delft.

As we move into a more public engagement and dialogue with policy makers and community residents, we will continue to explore how to contribute to the shifts needed for greater accountability. For the group in Delft, and for many others living on the margins in South Africa, these shifts are what really matter.

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