No meaningful participation without effective representation: the case of the Niall Mellon Housing Project in Imizamo Yethu, Hout Bay
Access to adequate housing is one of the most debated issues in democratic South Africa. The government continues to battle with existing backlogs in the provision of housing and a seemingly increasing demand. At the same time, urban populations take to the streets to register their anger and frustration at the slow progress of service delivery as a whole, including housing and other basic services. Clearly this is an important issue in the country, one that has inspired great public debate and further engagement between the state and the people. Notably, this dissatisfaction endures despite the fact that South Africa’s post-apartheid government discourse on state-society relations has centred on greater participation, especially at local government level, as reflected in the commitment to participatory democracy in the South African constitution. Despite this, in general government housing policy has focused on ensuring the delivery of houses to the people rather than the participatory processes in the provision of housing. The 1994 Housing White Paper took an ‘incremental’ or ‘progressive’ approach to housing, which is a developer driven approach that limits the participation of ordinary citizens in the provision of housing, despite the government’s commitment to enabling participation. The introduction of the People’s Housing Process (PHP) in 1998 (later revised and became the Enhanced People’s Housing Process) was a breakthrough in government’s efforts for the involvement of communities in the housing process. However, even this initiative was criticised for its lack of any meaningful participation, as the contribution of individual residents and communities was limited to the implementation process, while the policy decisions were still in government hands. The revision of this policy and the broadening of the housing policy through Breaking New Ground were meant to encourage community ownership of housing provision and empower them beyond the limitations of the PHP. Notably, the meaning of participation encoded in housing programmes, particularly those such as the PHP, is taken for granted. It is assumed that participation will occur in a straight forward process. However, as this demonstrates, effective participatory processes necessitate particular forms of representation for beneficiaries. Designing an effective participatory mechanism thus requires paying attention to new practices of representation as well as new practices of participation. In the participatory housing processes in particular such representation is essential as the direct participation of communities in decision making might not be feasible at some points in the process, hence, community residents need people that will communicate and make decisions on their behalf in engaging with government. The South African literature on state-society relations is largely silent on the relationship between representation and participatory processes, thus there is limited analysis on local level leaders that become part of these participatory processes. This is the gap that this study explores in relation to housing through a case-study of the role of local community leaders in a People’s Housing Process housing project in Imizamo Yethu, Hout Bay. It aims to understand the significance of the representative role played by local leaders who are not part of the formal democratic system of representation in development participatory processes. In exploring the Niall Mellon Housing Project as a case study, the research illustrates three main points: first, local leaders played a crucial role in the housing project. They initiated and implemented the programme and contributed to the overall success of the project. Indeed it is sensible to assume that organised and legitimate local leaders are essential to development projects as they are able to provide an effective link between government and the community. Second, since these local leaders are not part of the established democratic system of representation, their status is vulnerable to contestation. Local leaders lack the formal authority that usually occurs in representation modes that require explicit authorisation or those formalised as part of the state system of representation. Their position can easily be challenged and their legitimacy questioned. Third, development projects such as the one under investigation also create these kinds of legitimacy crisis. This is due to the competition for scarce government resources introduced by the development projects. Thus, those who feel excluded from the project may retaliate and question the actions of the local leaders. Hence, even though community leaders are useful in this participatory process, the state of their position is vulnerable and their legitimacy can be undermined by the very process that needs their participation.