The power of community driven oversight to promote social cohesion

Providing Civil Society Organisations with the tools needed to drive community driven accountability is connected directly to promoting social cohesion and a community’s ability to address violence, chronic tensions and marginalization.

Social cohesion refers to positive relationships between individuals, groups, and institutions within a shared space, community, or society. Community driven accountability and oversight initiatives support social cohesion because they bring individuals together and have the potential to build solidarity and trust, inclusion, social capital, and reducing poverty in society.

CSOs are critical role players not only because they provide essential services to and are in touch with the challenges faced by vulnerable and marginalised members of our society. They play a critical role in driving democratic oversight and community driven calls for accountability thereby directly promoting social cohesion.

Democracy Works Foundation (DWF) is working on a number of initiatives promoting social cohesion. A minimally cohesive community is understood to be able to deal with conflicts and tensions in ways that do not result in violence or extreme marginalization of sub-groups. Social cohesion is promoted when people share a sense of belonging, experience a willingness to engage and have successes in affecting change through these engagements. Social justice is inextricably intertwined in this conceptualisation of social cohesion.

The Civil Society Participation in Provincial Legislature project builds the capacity of CSOs in their efforts to engage with their MPLs or Legislature staff and its various Units.  At the same time the project engages with Provincial Legislatures to support their public participation initiatives. Co-funded by the European Union and with technical support from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), the project is built on the premise that legislatures have a critical role to play for providing the public with an avenue to engage and participate. They also have the constitutional mandate to oversee the executive and hold them to account. This is particularly relevant at the provincial level which is closer to and much more directly located where service delivery issues continue to remain unaddressed and have only been exacerbated by the Covid crises.

The project works with around 30 CSO partners in Limpopo, the Northern Cape and the North West. Broadly speaking our partners work in the areas of health and safety, and represent marginalised and vulnerable key populations. They promote social cohesion through their work as they seek to deal with and address the causes and consequences of violence and work towards the inclusion of marginalised people. Examples of work include addressing and preventing Gender Based Violence, providing developmental social services, health and health services, and working towards inclusive education, protecting the rights of key populations like sex workers. The project provides ongoing support to our partners in using democratic avenues to address the challenges which affect them and the people to whom they provide services. With a focus on engaging the Provincial Legislature and on their mandate to oversee the provincial executive, responsible for delivering many essential services,  CSOs produced individual and group based Advocacy Plans in which they mapped out the steps to take and information to gather. These plans include engaging the relevant local and provincial councillor, identifying the correct Portfolio Committee at the Legislature, drafting submissions and following up on these.

The project’s key success lies in the Northern Cape, where it has signed an MoU with the Provincial Legislature to support their public participation and outreach initiatives. Knowledge co-creation workshops skilfully facilitated by the WFD provided a unique insight into the lived realities of MPLs in conducting their work. Oversight and public participation were the key activities during and in the aftermath of the Covid crises. MPLs also shared challenges they faced in engaging with CSOs generally but also as a result of working almost exclusively in virtual spaces. In training sessions MPLs have specifically highlighted their understanding of the agency they hold in curbing violent protest and destruction of property due to service delivery strikes.

The focus of all the engagements between CSOs and the MPLs aims to build and strengthen the relationships between provincial legislatures and communities. One example that stands out is the meeting between MPLs and CSOs to discuss potential partnership opportunities. The CSOs present were elected by the network of CSO partners in the Northern Cape. They talked about some of the challenges they experienced in their communities and shared ideas for collaboration. MPLs expressed their interest in being more involved about the activities of the CSOs and guided them how best to submit requests for oversight using the petition system. DWF is providing support to CSOs in building on these commitments; CSOs are also taking the lead to implement recommendations themselves such as developing or expanding existing networks and sharing more about the participation opportunities provided by the NC PL.

The significance of this beyond discussing serious, life and death service delivery shortfalls in some of the most far flung communities in our country, is that relationships between people are being built. Most MPLs and CSOs ultimately want to support their communities – and building these relationships ultimately promotes social cohesion.

CSOs have reported that making their voices heard and participating in what are perceived as very “high level” platforms supports a sense of belonging, inclusion and recognition. Democratic institutions and the relationships they have with communities gain in legitimacy increasing their potential impact on good governance. In line with DWF’s understanding of social cohesion these relationships are central to supporting social justice in that it allows the experiences and claims of marginalised groups to be heard at a level where they can be addressed through oversight and requests for cooperative governance and collaboration. While this is in no way sufficient these initial conversations can assist law makers in systematically understanding and analysing the social, cultural, and political conditions that underlie unequal distributions in society. Of course, for this initial sense of excitement to be sustained Provincial Legislatures have to continue to implement the agreed action plans beyond initial meetings and social media likes.

Ultimately, if these relationships can result in actual engagements between the different arms of government to collaborate in identifying and implementing solutions to some of the most dire conditions people live under, social cohesion can flourish. If communities are able to use democratic processes and institutions to address the service delivery challenges they are also collectively addressing the direct causes of violence, dealing with issues of structural violence and cultivating positive, peaceful spaces – ultimately supporting social cohesion.

Mira Dutschke has a master’s degree in Human Rights law and 12 years of international research, advocacy, and teaching experience. The focus of her work is on supporting democratic participation and inclusive decision-making processes. She has also been active as a multi-media producer in Southern Africa and America. Her work has been published in books, in peer-reviewed journals media outlets like the UK Guardian, The Mail and Guardian, LinkTV and numerous other media outlets.

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