[DEBATE] : A perspective on street committees, Umsebenzi Online, Volume 7, No. 9, 4 June 2008
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Wed Jun 4 14:15:39 BST 2008
Umsebenzi Online, Volume 7, No. 09, 4 June 2008
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
a. What lessons do we need to learn from our 1980s experiences of such
committees, and what are the challenges in building these post-1994?
b. What should be the relationship between street committees and
Community Policing Forums (CPFs)?
c. 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?
d. 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?
e. What relationship, if any, should exist between street committees
and a progressive civic movement?
f. 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
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 Community-Police Forums (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,
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 have a huge potential to rebuild
and deepen revolutionary morality and consciousness of our movement
and people as a whole. They can also act as guardians for development,
and an important 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
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