Business Day: ‘Development by force’ is a recipe for rejection

‘Development by force’ is a recipe for rejection

by Jacob Dlamini

IT IS said that in the early days of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), government bureaucrats descended on a village in the Eastern Cape, intent on bringing “development” to the village. The village was in a former homeland and was, like most villages in the area, without electricity and running water. Villagers fetched water from a stream some distance away, where they also did their laundry and tended their scraggy livestock.

The bureaucrats, imbued with a missionary zeal to bring about a “better life for all”, set about installing a communal tap for the village. Not long after the tap started running, a government official who was also high up in the African National Congress (ANC) showed up in the village to open the tap officially. The official, like the bureaucrats who had preceded her, expected gratitude from the villagers, especially the women whose job it was in the village to fetch water and do laundry.

Imagine her surprise, then, when the local women proved to be the least grateful of the villagers for the “development” delivered to them by the state. The women, so the story goes, pulled the official aside and berated her for placing the communal tap close to the centre of the village. The women told the stunned official that, had the bureaucrats bothered to ask the women, they would have discovered that the women preferred to have the tap placed away from the centre.

What the bureaucrats did not know was that the fetching of water was a gendered enterprise with both negative and positive sides to it. It was negative because it was governed by patriarchal social relations that determined what women could and could not do. But it was also positive because it gave village women the time and the space to be by themselves, away from the chief, the men and their children.

Fetching water and doing the laundry were, for the women, precious time they had to themselves. They valued that time.

Placing the communal tap close to the centre of the village took that away from them. They could not gather like they used to by the stream. They could not shoot the breeze or do anything they fancied without the surveillance of the men. The women wanted a communal tap all right. They just wished they had been consulted. They were not opposed to “development”. They just wished the bureaucrats had consulted them before giving them “development”.

I heard this story years ago and, for all I know, it may well be apocryphal. You may find similar stories in the former Soviet Union, Tanzania, India or many other societies subjected to top-down “development” by government bureaucrats who always knew better than villagers, peasants and poor people about what these “masses of our people” needed.

I have, since then, heard similar stories from politicians and regular folks.

When I interviewed the mayor of Standerton last year, shortly after she had been ousted by a “service delivery” protest and then “recalled” from office by the ANC, she spoke with pride about what she had done to bring “development” to Standerton. The mayor mentioned one case in which, she said proudly, she had brought “development by force” to an area. The case concerned a hill that, before the mayor’s intervention, had been dotted with shacks sited irregularly along a steep incline. The municipal council wanted to give the hill’s inhabitants electricity, running water and a sewerage network.

It could not introduce these things to the hill. It wanted the inhabitants to move to a housing development some distance away called Rooigrond. The inhabitants would not move. They liked the hill and its centrality. They would not budge. But, no, the council could not let these simple folk get in the way of “development”.

The council moved them by force, destroying their shacks in the process.

By the time colleagues and I arrived in Standerton last year to conduct research, the hill had lost all but two shacks.

All that remained of the former shacks were indentations, cleared plots, on one side of the hill to show where the shacks had been. Of the two shacks that remained, one belonged to an epileptic man and his mad wife. No one could explain how the couple had survived the removal. The other shack belonged to a mineworker-turned-farmer. He kept goats.

Asked why he did not move so he could get an RDP house with all the amenities, the man said he would have to give up his goats if he moved. There was not enough land for people and goats in Rooigrond, he said. The hill was better. His goats could roam up and down without hindrance.

I am sure the mayor meant well when she gave her constituents “development by force”. But I can’t help but wonder if she would still be in office if she had bothered to listen to her constituents, instead of presuming to know what was good for them.