I have applied ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’ to mean the same thing, for necessarily driving the point that in the context of general interaction with communities, through going consultation must mean participation.
For some time now I’ve been troubled by the [mis]use of the word participation. The thing is, I suspect, I tend to take things too literal at times. As a matter of attitude, I plunge myself head first into what I belief to be true and sincere. And I tend to harbor so resolute a principle that I don’t imagine people who are with me on a common course may not be as equally resolved, which makes me a sucker for manipulation. This outlook to things has in other instances being referred to as the passion drive. And I think it was Ben Okri who gave a warning about the dangers of passion. How a passionate approach to things often borders on irrationality. But believe you me, I have paid for my sins (read: attitude). In some cases I became estranged from the lot.
Take a case of a born-again Christian Joe back in 1998, who’s just been elevated to leading a group of young believers (youth) in a church called Ebenezer in Mohlakeng. I was called Mzalwani, dutifully going to church, taking prolonged hours buried in the holy book. Consistently attending bible study, leading cell groups, and taking to singing in a youth choir. Oh, and I was also the leading singer – for real. As a youth leader, even though I haboured some creative thoughts about one young female with particularly luscious lips (Yes – I was troubled by that verse which says that by these creative thoughts, you have already committed a sin), I strongly condemned young boys coming to youth gatherings for singularly fulfilling their lechery. This was the abomination of all things holy. It could not be allowed. And I fought my creative musings with incessant late night prayers, for God to PLEASE intercede. Anyway, as you would have guessed, young people were going to be young people. Going behind my naïve back and doing what is egregiously tempting. After some serious guilt-talk, I’d have them line-up to give testimony about their sinful deeds. To the elders of the church I was a true believer, a God fearing disciple, bound for great things. But to these young people ‘of the world’, I was an enemy – A counter revolutionary to the proliferation sphere. To a very, very few I was looked upon with admiration, to many I was ostracized. I started hanging with ‘senior’ members of the church.
And then there was this innocent Joe again, arriving on campus back in 1999. Always consumed by debates, one evening over supper in the dining hall, I met up with these two charismatic gentlemen who introduced me to SASCO. I was moved by SASCO’s stance on clean governance, intolerance of corruption and sincere intentions to help students. My naivety about political rhetoric was to be terribly exposed later on. You see, SASCO used to preach – hard work, clean governance, and abomination of any corrupt conduct. I joined SASCO, and with much zeal, threw myself into that whole “corrupt free” talk. Unbeknown to me that certain things are not mentioned literally, I was elected the Secretary General of the SRC (2000/1) and insisted that because the constitution gave me authority over administration of SRC assets, it was my responsibility to ensure their proper management. After all I was deployed by an organization with zero tolerance to corruption. I implemented my responsibility with no compromise. I refused the SRC President access to SRC vehicle for shopping. The vehicle had to be dropped off by the University vehicle pool compound and not overnight by the President’s residence. The latter for me, was corruption and it could not be allowed. Not under my watch. Now because I had not immersed myself with that whole democratic centralism principle, and because my SASCO branch fully supported me, I resorted to writing articles in the campus paper about the wrong things in the SRC. Sadly, this was to be the beginning of my last days in the SRC. With my experience, I now tread careful.
Now there’s this concept “participation”. I remember my fascination with the concept. Thinking wow, this is actually an opportunity, as they say, for ordinary people to partake in decisions that have a bearing on their lives and often livelihoods. I thought – profound. For me it was the most perfect concept. I was to immerse myself with its true meaning, and thinking that all its drivers must hold as much true to the concept as I do – clearly oblivious of the unspoken. I even read quiet a bit about the concept, and have presented a paper or two about this whole participation thinging, but soon realized how I’ve fallen into that trap again – believing that people’s intentions are almost often sincere.
Late last year, City Press (16/11/08) ran a story of a community in Limpopo which complained about one section 21 organisation set up to represent its interest with one mining house. It appears, from reading the story, that this Section 21 organization was to be used by this mining company as a vehicle to claim community participation, knowing very well that a mere carrot dangling before the leadership would sway issues towards their favour. Until the stories about kick-backs from the mining house started making the rounds in the community. Leaders were to be regarded with suspicion. Their intentions were not at all entirely sincere. They were apparently out to earn a buck or two for themselves; and this divided the community; the very people whose unity defeats poverty, helplessness, crime and the many other social ills. The mining house could easily absolve themselves from the mess, the problem was not theirs. They had consulted a legitimate body that represented the community, even though there was much underhandedness. They could easily claim to be ‘participatory’ in their approach.
And then there was the Khutsong issue, with community insisting that there was no consultation before a decision to demarcate them into the North-West province. True to obscuring the real intention of thoroughgoing consultation, government was to apply the phony consultation. That is with no intention to accept or imagine the plan of action (against their plan) in the instance where the community refuses to be incorporated into the North-West province. Indeed, it probably was administratively logical and best to move the community into the North-West province, but that is besides the point. The issue here is, an impression had been created that the new democratic government listens to its electorate. I suspect the mandarins never imagined the kind of resistance they were to face. Again, it appeared this “participation” issue was to be a boil that sat awkwardly before the government’s face.
There are many other such issues, I could write on endlessly on this clear obfuscation of the genuine interaction with the people. Clearly this concept has morphed to mean something totally different. And in most cases, existing social networks are broken for some selfish course. This calls to our concerted effort as young people, to insist on a true form of participation.