Covid-19 is an opportunity for better & effective public democracy in our government

Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

In addressing the media again on Monday 11 May 2020, minister of social development Lindiwe Zulu re-iterated once again that no ward councillor should be found to be distributing food parcels during the Covid-19 lockdown. 

The minister went on to explain that food parcels, or in fact any assistance given by the state during this time of the national disaster, should not be used as a “political football”. 

Rather, the minister is reported to have said, councillors should be working with community organisations and other non-governmental organisations who instead should be the ones distributing the assistance. The minister insisted though that “at all costs” councillors should not be “physically” involved in the distribution of food. 

The issue of food parcels has indeed been an issue that has long plagued the South African landscape and is not something that is new. The usage of food parcels as a ploy has been used by parties across the political spectrum to entice supporters. It is not uncommon that food parcels are used in elections campaigns, especially during by-elections. 

Yet the current crisis has exposed the misuse of food parcels and this is an indictment on all public representatives, not only councillors. If councillors cannot be trusted with distributing food parcels, how can they be entrusted with municipal budgets or the allocation of services in wards?

Covid-19 is, therefore, providing a perfect opportunity for both public representatives and the public itself to ensure that local councils, provincial legislatures and national parliament are used as transparent and responsive spaces of oversight. This must happen in order to ensure that the state at all levels serves the people of South Africa in the long run. The relationship between the public and deployed public representatives become critical in this regard.

Therefore, while in democratic society assistance of state services is one of the twin-tasks of civil society which we must encourage and strengthen, as public representatives we must also work with civil society to ensure that they, and we, fulfil their other task which is holding us, as public representatives, and government accountable. 

One of the things that struck me during this lockdown was that it exposed the vulnerability and frailty of our people. What civil society, whether religious organisations, churches, mosques, community organisations, among others, do on a weekly basis, has become evident for all of us to see. 

Every day of the week, people in poorer areas go to a different soup kitchen or community food distribution point. Many in our broader society did not realise this until the lockdown took place and until these very organisations needed assistance to manage the influx of people. In other words, our community organisations are doing this every day, feeding our people, whether during a lockdown or not. 

Government, at national, provincial and municipal level must, therefore, ensure that they give support to these organisations and encourage these organisations to widen their scope so that more people and more services may reach our people. In this sense Minister Zulu is absolutely correct that public representatives must work with rather than replacing community organisations.  

Muhammad Khalid Sayed MPL is the Chairperson of the ANC Youth League in the Western Cape and Deputy-Chief Whip of the ANC in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature.