By Paul Smith
In the wake of COVID-19, the pandemic has exacerbated the growing unemployment rate, increasing poverty and the mental health issues associated with an unpredictable future. Impoverished communities are more vulnerable than ever before and need radical leaders who promote unity between councilors and municipal managers communities.
COVID 19 has contributed to stagnating the economy as lockdown saw people lose their jobs and companies failing to operate in the new climate. The million-dollar question is do communities have the sustained resilience to absorb prolonged socio-economic turmoil and what can leaders and stakeholders do to extract communities from this precarious situation?
The presidents “Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan” (ERRP) sites a three-pronged approach, a heath response, a socio-economic relief response and thirdly an economic recovery response. The recovery plan is the crux of the matter as it focuses on sustainable job creation through infrastructure investment, growing small businesses, unblocking investment, fighting crime and corruption, and improving the capability of the state. The plan’s key enablers are, to create social partnerships, promote consultation, reaching consensus on actions and then take firm action to recover the economy.
The plan seems reasonable as it deals with protecting lives, providing the social support required during tough times, and much needed job creation. The challenge as usual is the execution of the plan which in this scenario here are two main execution challenges, the first is establishing a capable state and the second is getting polarized communities to collaboration, these are two key enablers.
Chapter 7 of the Constitution of South Africa 1996 defines the objectives of Local Government (LG), and places service delivery, poverty alleviation and Local economic development in the hands in this sphere of government that closest to the people. Municipal service delivery is arguably one of the most effective economic enabler and social support mechanisms for marginalized communities.
Based on this understanding and reflecting on the various elements of the recovery plan, one must take note of the current state of local government and its ability to execute the plan. The Auditor General reported that 79% of municipalities were financially vulnerable with 34% disclosing a budget deficit. This raises the question about the state’s capability and specifically that of local government to implement the president’s ERRP.
Having spent several years supporting local government it must be highlighted that many small and rural municipalities have limited capacity, skills, or resources to deliver the socio-economic change desired by communities. Overcoming this deficit requires both municipal and community leaders to find new creative ways to close this gap and deliver change through collaboration. This is no easy task as many municipalities have neglected authentic community engagement for many years widening the thrust gap between communities and municipalities. Communities no longer believe that municipalities operate in the interest of community and can be relied on deliver sustainable services
Polarization the Achilles Heel of Collaboration
Stakeholder collaboration, seeking consensus and community engagement as per the ERRP, is within the constitutional mandate of municipalities. However, in many cases is the opposite is experienced in many of our communities where leaders do not understand the scope and mandate of each other and the lack of resources to execute plans as planned.
Leaders need to find ways to solve their issues and find ways to achieve goals with the respect that is due, and that cohesion is achieved to attain n effective socio-economic transformation. Polarity creeps in when there is a difference in how key issues are viewed and dealt with accordingly. We need to overcome polarization before meaningful development is possible. Leaders and peace makers must start creating safe spaces for interpersonal dialogue where relationships can be rebuilt, where difficult conversations can be normalized, where people can gain insight into issues, where consensus can be achieved and impactful action can be taken to create the future we desire.
The Makana Circle of Unity (MCU) is an example of a civil society coalition collaborating for the greater good of community. The MCU provides community and government with the opportunity to embrace the value of community centered development and through its inclusive structures promoted community led development. Many Makana stakeholders have understood the concept of shared value and contribute to the MCU. However, many stakeholders are still too angry with the state and remain skeptical and polarized. Convincing people to be part of the solution and not part of the problem takes time and patience, and this is the credible and ethical leaders need to address.
The MCU with all its imperfections enables collaboration and provides the state with the opportunity close the capacity, skill and resource gap by collaborating with community to deliver a meaningful ERRP.
Leadership and Combatting Polarization
Authentic leaders need to need to narrow the gap between traditionalist and progressive approaches to leadership and to adopt leadership approaches that enable communities to play an active role in their own futures.
The current challenge for leaders is to distil the negative community energy associated with polarization and find ways to redirect this energy into meaningful collaboration that will enable development. Achieving this social change requires leaders to have specific attributes that enable the change required. The modern leader first needs empathy and perspective to serve the people they lead and empower communities to design their own future. The following are some of the key attributes required by modern leaders.
Adopting these attributes requires a significant mindset change, shifting from egocentric grandstanding to adopting the core value of community centered development. This shift must be followed up by the deliberate action to create inclusive structured that promote collaboration and community led development. Political leaders specifically will be required to place community agendas ahead political party agendas if they are to turn the tide of community mistrust in the municipality.
Communities will only be persuaded to bury their hatchets and collaborate if they trust that leaders are invested in community centered development, and if they genuinely intend to empower communities to play a meaningful role in their own development. This means that leaders need to be open to alternative and diverse perspectives and must accept that collaborative outcomes may not be in line with their own or organization perspective. Adopting this approach emphasize commitment to strengthening local governance and community led development.
When adopting this new collaborative approach, and as experience within the Makana MCU coalition, collaboration requires patients as it takes time for people to become comfortable with the vulnerability associated with meaning full engagement and sharing of ideas. To start off an influential group of early adoptees subscribed and committed to the MCU collaboration concept and as the civic coalition becomes more structured and organized more people have joined. There are still many people in Makana who do not yet agree with the MCU collaborative approach, but they will hopefully join the coalition as they experience the benefits and see the practical impact.
As the MCU gains more traction, more focused clusters emerge to tackle local socio-economic issues. It is through the MCU structures that the opportunity to enhance municipal capacity is realized. Community capacity, skills, and resources to support development are in abundance and once harnessed improve the prospect of development and prosperity for communities. The key question is, are leaders brave enough to abandon leadership patters of the past and adopt new unpredictable diverse patterns that focus on building collaborative networks of people that think differently.
If we believe in community centered and community led development as a key enabler for change then the following quote by Simon Sinek is relevant,
“Leaders are not responsible for results; leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results”.
Therefore, leaders must not focus on change required but on the enabling environment that will deliver the change required. Leaders must enable the people they lead to changing the way people feel about their future and encouraging them to participate in designing this future. It is in the interest of impactful socio-economic development and the execution of the presidents ERRP plan that leaders focus on enabling collaboration and harnessing the power of community, the results will look after themselves.