Hivos International

Iliso Labahlali and the vibe in the townships

By Siebe Anbeek

Gugulethu Township is unsafe and unhealthy. Jobs are hard to find and there are few schools. The South African government comes up short in every way in this Cape Town province slum. Hivos’ partner Iliso Labahlali is trying to channel the inhabitants’ discontent and get local officials moving.

Iliso Labahlali, "the eye of the community', was founded in 2012 after violent protests broke out against the local government in response to a lack of basic services such as education and sanitation. Roads were blocked and government buildings set on fire. Director Mzwandile Nxokwana witnessed the violence with dismay: "It's good that people are angry if the government fails to its job, but we only punish ourselves if we destroy in protest the little infrastructure we have."

A government for us all
Gugulethu is not the only township where so-called 'service delivery' protests turned violent. Mkhululi Mazula, programme officer of Hivos in South Africa, points to an underlying problem. "During the struggle against apartheid, young people saw that they weren’t able to change things with peaceful protests. So they started paralysing government infrastructure – they felt the state had to be sabotaged. Now we have a government that ought to be there for all of us, and where we should be able to direct our complaints, but many South Africans don’t know what they can demand of the government or how. "

Unfortunately that’s not all, Nxokwana adds. "If a drain backs up and sewage flows into homes in Gugulethu, the municipality is supposed to take action. But when you call, no one answers the phone. It’s a half hour walk to the nearest municipal office, and when you get there you’re very lucky if you’re helped. Officials easily take three hour lunch breaks and are rarely willing to lift a finger for you. If you want help, you’ve got to have connections or money."

Iliso Labahlali focuses on citizens who do not know how to access information and services from the government, and poorly performing local officials who do not provide the information and services citizens need. The organisation brings both sides closer together by collecting citizens’ complaints and requests and submitting them to the proper counter at the town hall. This also saves people the trouble of making the long, often fruitless trip themselves. The organisation is aware of its rights, sees all the paperwork through, and does not let up until township officials take action. The list of problems both big and small that have been resolved thanks to Iliso Labahlali is long.

Iliso Labahlali lives up to its name by acting as the eye of the community at every town council meeting. Everything discussed by the town council is repeated by Iliso Labahlali at its own well-attended meetings in the township, where other issues are also dealt with, such as citizenship, what rights people have and what they as citizens can demand of their government and how to do so.

A vibe
The young staff members Andile Nelani and Natasha Badyi glow with pride when they talk about the success of these meetings. "Events and meetings are organised in townships pretty often, but young people don’t show up – unless you give a party,” says Nelani. “We don’t give parties and yet we see that it’s young people in particular coming to our meetings. Apparently they want to find out how they can change things. You feel that there is a good vibe around again. Just like old times. "