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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 7, No. 9, 4 June 2008

In this Issue:


Red Alert

A perspective on street committees

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

The call by the ANC President, Cde Jacob Zuma, for the formation of street committees as part of a crime-fighting strategy is indeed an important call and initiative. As we have pointed out before this is perfectly in line with the SACP’s own 2008 programme of action, to build safe and healthy communities.

However, there seems to be very little visible activity in this regard, yet this is a very urgent task if we are to urgently deal with the scourge of crime, and other pressing local challenges. It is therefore important that we simultaneously launch a debate on the character, tasks and challenges in building street, village and block committees. Some of the questions we have to pose and answer, both theoretically and practically, include, but not limited to, the following:

  1. What lessons do we need to learn from our 1980s experiences of such committees, and what are the challenges in building these post-1994?
  2. What should be the relationship between street committees and Community Policing Forums (CPFs)?
  3. What should be the relationship between such street committees and ward committees, and what are the possible areas of conflict between the two, and how can these be overcome?
  4. How do we rebuild such committees as organs of people’s power and a new platform to intensify the struggle for the renewal of the revolutionary values of our movement?
  5. What relationship, if any, should exist between street committees and a progressive civic movement?
  6. Should street committees only be limited to dealing with crime or should they be broadened to play a much broader developmental role?

Whilst it is important to debate the form and character of street committees, we must also bear in mind that such structures may take different forms in different localities and therefore we should not be too prescriptive. In addition, it is through practical work on the ground that we can better learn about the shape, character and role of such structures post 1994. But at the same time we do need to develop some broad guidelines and shared perspectives on our strategies in building such structures. It is to some of the above questions that this edition seeks to provide some answers, hopefully as part of initiating a debate.

For purposes of this edition, the term ‘street committees’ will be used to also include block and village committees.

Liberation movements as ruling parties and mass driven organisations

It is important to state up front that street, block and village committees should not be built as part of party political structures, as they should seek to organise our people irrespective of their political affiliations. But at the same time, our movement has an important leading role to play in building these structures, not through a bureaucratic imposition, but through hard organisational work in our communities.

Before seeking to answer some of the questions posed above it is important to locate the task of building street committees within the context of challenges facing (former) liberation movement now in power. The SACP has consistently pointed out that one of the more serious fault lines that emerge after liberation movements ascend to (state) power, is the tension, and often conflicts, between, on the one hand, the role of such movements as ruling (and governing) parties, and, on the other hand, maintaining their character as mass driven movements. The tension between these two roles is not necessarily a negative thing, but is a healthy, and sometimes necessary, tension for any dynamic liberation movement.

Unfortunately in many instances former liberation movements now in power have chosen to resolve this tension through the progressive demobilisation of the movement, and privilege the role of the movement as a ruling party over the day to day mobilisation of the people. This in itself has tended to create a gulf between the movement and its mass base, and, in a number of cases, leading to the very same constituencies turning against the movement itself. Indeed it is not the issue of the breaking down of this relationship alone that has led to the degeneration of many liberation movements, but also conservative and anti-people policies pursued by some of the liberation movements in power.

Our own ANC and the alliance it leads has not been immune to these tensions, and the outcomes of the Polokwane Conference can, inter alia, be regarded as an expression of dissatisfaction by ordinary ANC members in what they saw as the demobilisation of the movement and attempts to turn it into a narrow ruling political party driven by the agenda of elites, both within and outside the state structures.

To its credit the ANC decided to remain and strengthen its character as a broad-based, mass driven national liberation movement even after 1994. This was informed by the fact that there is no necessary contradiction between being a ruling party and a mass based liberation movement. However our experiences show that there has been serious conflicts arising out of the progressive demobilisation of ANC structures, outside of election campaigns, and concentration of power within a narrow circle of comrades in the state, often working together with elements of the black and white sections of the bourgeoisie.

The above tensions within our movement have sharply manifested themselves in what was a clearly deteriorating relationship between the ANC and its alliance partners in the run up to Polokwane. However, these conflicts were not necessarily always between the ANC and its allies, but more often a tension between certain government policies and the policy perspectives of allies. This is because the ANC itself was often sidelined in the adoption of some of the key policies by government at all levels.

Another manifestation of the difficulties surrounding the relationship between the ANC as a broad liberation movement and a ruling party has been the weakening of the mobilisational capacity of ANC structures on the ground. Sometimes the mobilisation of ANC structures to, for instance, confront a corrupt ANC ward councillor, has been seen as mobilising the ANC against itself. As a result, this has led to a political vacuum in many of our localities, giving rise to the emergence of ‘concerned groups’ and unguided mass mobilisation, sometimes resulting in violence and destruction of property.

It is important to locate the task of rebuilding street committees within the above challenges, as these structures, even if led by our cadres, may have to now and again raise problems and challenge some of the decisions of local ANC structures. Also, much as these structures must not be ANC structures, it is only the ANC and its allies that have the capacity to rebuild such street committees. By taking a lead in rebuilding such structures, the ANC will be affirming its ‘dual’, but necessary, roles as both a ruling party and a mass mobiliser of the people. Much more important we are seeking to rebuild street committees in a vastly changed terrain than in the 1980s.

Our attitude should indeed be to re-affirm the Alliance’s own perspectives that there is no inherent contradiction between governing and mobilising the people at the same time. In fact, governing that is not buttressed by mass power and activism is bound to degenerate into a bureaucratic and technocratic process that is divorced from the people. Put differently, consolidating and deepening the national democratic revolution requires governance buttressed by a mobilised and vigilant people. It is failure to consistently implement these perspectives that have, in many instances, created a fertile ground for patronage, careerism and corruption.

Street committees and CPFs

There is indeed a potential for conflictual relations between street committees and CPFs. In order to avoid this it is important that street committees must not be seen as a substitute or parallel structures to existing CPFs, but as the revolutionary nucleus of such CPFs. It is true that in a number of instances where CPFs exist, they tend to ‘float’ above communities that they are supposed to serve, without a dynamic involvement of the community. Usually this is because CPFs tend to be populated only by a narrow circle of activists and volunteers who happen to take an active involvement in such structures. Street committees have the potential of rooting CPFs in every street, block or village where they operate. Where CPFs do not exist, it is street committees that should play a leading role towards the formation of such CPFs.

As we know from our past experiences in the 1980s, a number of street committees that sprung up quickly degenerated into vigilantism. It is absolutely important that such committees must be vigilant against the emergence of vigilantism! Vigilantism tend to arise in instances where such street committees degenerate and are captured by taxilords, shacklords, warlords and such other similar regressive and opportunitistic elements in our localities. That is why it is absolutely essential for our own cadres to play a leading role in the formation and functioning of these structures.

Failure to guard against vigilantism will not only weaken and kill CPFs, but can quickly turn street committees into the opposite of what we intend them to be, thus providing a fertile ground for counter-revolution as was the case in some instances during the 1980s.

Street committees and municipal ward committees

As with the CPFs we should guard against a ‘fight for turf’ between street committees and municipal ward committees. Like CPFs in a number of instances, ward committees are very distant from the communities they claim to represent. They have in such cases become nothing more than an ‘advisory council’ to the local councillor, and less of a voice of a community in a ward.

The SACP’s 12th Congress in 2007 adopted a far-reaching resolution of restructuring the SACP branches away from ward based branches into branches based on voting districts. This is indeed a tall order but this resolution was, amongst other things, informed by the fact that in most cases municipal wards, especially in rural areas, are too large to forge a closer relationship between the SACP branch and a ward community. The same challenges face the ANC and its councillors.

Given the lack of adequate resourcing of local government in general, and councillors in particular, in many of our municipal wards, local meetings tend to take place closer to where a ward councillor resides. This tends to marginalise the rest of the community in a ward.

One critical role therefore of street committees is to bring the ward committee and local councillor closer to the community. There should therefore be a dynamic link between street committees and ward committees, even though such street committees are not a substructure of a ward committee as such.

Street committees and a progressive civic movement

It is indeed correct that the initial priority focus for street committees must be on crime. This will give such structures a dedicated focus, thus laying the basis for building viable, dynamic and strong street committees.

However, as we know from our 1980s experience, because of the proximity of street committees to the people, they are better placed to begin to identify and act upon a whole range of other challenges facing households in a street, including levels of poverty, orphans and child-headed households, need for social grants, domestic problems including domestic violence, etc. Even if street committees initially prioritise the fight against crime, they cannot turn away from tackling many of these other problems, especially those facing poor households. Local challenges and people’s need are, after all, indivisible!

The above realities pose very serious challenges that need to be carefully thought through.  This must include a deliberate strategy to progressively expand the role of street committees to become broader organs of people’s power and revolutionary nuclei to deal with the many developmental challenges facing our localities. Expanding the role of street committees beyond focusing on a single issue – crime – obviously carries the danger of defocusing such structures.

Another challenge will be that of the relationship between street committees and a progressive civic movement, where these still exist. Again, such street committees should have a dynamic link with such civic organisations. Perhaps such street committees should be consciously and progressively strengthened and transformed into the nucleus of (re) building a progressive civic movement.

We do indeed need to pose the question of whether such a street committee-based civic movement should be a revived SANCO or a completely new initiative. For instance one main weakness of SANCO was that it became a ‘nationally’ driven rather than a ‘locally’ driven civic movement. That is why, conflicts amongst leaders of SANCO at higher levels have actually destroyed whatever has been left of a SANCO driven civic movement on the ground. Street committees may well be, in the medium term, an answer to this anomalous situation.

Most importantly, street committees can be an important weapon of our liberation movement to lead a process of rebuilding and deepening revolutionary morality and consciousness of our movement and people as a whole. They can also act as peoples guardians for development, and an important mass counter to patronage, careerism and corruption. We should rebuild these structures with this in mind.

However, what is urgent is to debate and begin to build street committees whose priority focus must be to defeat the scourge of crime.