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Strengthening civil society to engage with local government

The Democracy Development Program (DDP) has been involved in strengthening civil society capacities to engage with local government structures for the last two decades.

Over the years, the organization has focused on enhancing civic organizations capacities working in local municipalities, collaborating towards effective local governance through partnerships with ward committees and other key stakeholders such as local traditional leadership. The intervention has focused primarily on rural KwaZulu Natal, working with ward committees in local municipalities in partnership with the DDP. The effect of the intervention has continued to yield positive outcomes.

One major effect of the intervention has been enhanced relationships between civil society and local municipalities, demonstrated by collaboration on activities such as convening local community dialogues jointly to address any community concerns as equal partners. The municipal officials together with civil society representatives agree on the agenda and collectively convene citizens to engage with each other in a facilitated conversation, addressing all issues of concern.

Through these dialogues, citizens together with their ward committee and civil society representatives come up with mutually agreed upon solutions to the challenges including an action plan to implement the solutions. The dialogues have demonstrated that citizens are aware of their rights but lack the agency to enforce those rights. Moreover, citizens are ostracized from key development planning processes especially where municipal budgeting processes are concerned. Access to information, especially as relates to community economic development as espoused in the Integrated Development Plans (IDP), is still a challenge.

While implementing of the project in the 2013-2015 period in Umkhambathini (Kwa Zulu Natal), Gugulethu and Khayelitsha in Cape Town (Western Cape); a sentiment shared by participants was that of a prevailing perception of local councillors often overlooking community engagements on such processes for a range of reasons, mainly political camouflaged as nepotism and favouritism where economic opportunities are awarded to their associates and closely related individuals. Through interventions such DDP's, ordinary citizens gain courage to confront such issues with local leaders and over time their confidence increases as they challenge every issue of concern without fear. Community engagement processes such as izimbizos are now conducted differently with organizers being conscious of the multi-faceted nature of stakeholders and the important role they play in shaping community development.

To address the various challenges mentioned above, citizens need to be empowered through interventions that improve their understanding of local government, the role of municipalities, their roles and responsibilities as citizens. Additionally, access to information needs to be improved. Local civil society organizations should continue advocating for access of information, exerting pressure on government agencies to disseminate information as efficiently as possible to citizens so that they can hold their leaders accountable and engage in public discourses with confidence.

For more information on the project, contact Paul Kariuki, DDP's Programmes Director, on +27 31 304 9305 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Written by: Paul Kariuki, Brian Bhengu and Sthabiso Mdledle

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Sharing the common goal of promoting participatory, effective, accountable and pro-poor local governance, the network strives to provide an interface for civil society organisations to network and share information towards strengthening local democracy in South Africa.

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