TOWNSHIP citizens are protesting not because they want "service delivery" but because they want to escape it.

The current round of grassroots protests - which have been happening for three-and-a- half years but are now receiving some rare attention from our public debate - may have done us an immense service by prompting voices to warn against the claim that the protesters are demanding "service delivery".

On this page last week, Xolela Mangcu and Richard Pithouse convincingly showed that the phrase "service delivery" does much to obscure what is happening on the ground. But more needs to be done to challenge this label: not only is the tendency to insist that citizens are protesting for quicker "service delivery" sloppy and misleading - it is deeply antidemocratic.

An example of how deep the gulf is between the mainstream debate and events on the ground was provided by another article on these pages last week. It acknowledged that the protests in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, were triggered by news that some families were to be moved from their homes. It then insisted that this showed that the "pace of service delivery . is inadequate".

In what way does people's desire to prevent officials from moving them show that "service delivery" is too slow? On the contrary, Diepsloot is only one of many cases in which "service delivery" is far too fast and peace can best be restored by stopping "delivery" altogether.

There is a great difference between "service delivery" and "public service". The first entails officials - and commentators - deciding what people need and then dumping it on them. As Mangcu and Pithouse point out, and Diepsloot shows, this refusal to allow people to make their own choices is particularly prevalent in housing, but it happens in other areas too: the removal of small traders from areas where some "service deliverers" think they ought not to be is another grievance that prompts protest. Many local protests are reactions against this high-handedness and so are, in reality, protests against "service delivery".

To suggest, as the article does, that the solution is to ensure that officials impose their preference on citizens more quickly and vigorously is to invite at least another three-and-a- half years of protest.

Public service, by contrast, starts from the recognition that, in a democracy, the government's job is not to "deliver" to citizens. It is, rather, to listen to them, to do what the majority asks, if that is possible, and, where it is not, to work with citizens to ensure that what is done is as close to what they want as it can be. It stems from the core democratic idea that government works for citizens and that it cannot do this unless it listens to them.

The protesters are demanding public service, not delivery. While the causes of the protests differ from area to area, in every case people want to be heard and to be taken seriously. The protesters are saying that they are citizens with rights and that they insist on being treated accordingly.

In some cases, people do want cleaner water or better neighbourhoods. But that does not mean they want officials to "deliver" to them. A study of people who benefited from government housing subsidies in the 1990s found that those who had larger and better houses were not more satisfied than the rest: the only people who were happy were those who said they had been able to choose their housing type. The beneficiaries were saying that they did not want the houses officials thought they should have, even if they were technically "better" - they wanted the houses that they chose.

Constant claims that citizens want "service delivery" are antidemocratic because they deny citizens a voice: reporters and commentators do not have to listen to what protesters are saying, they can decide for them what they do not like.

It is antidemocratic, too, because it assumes that the test of democratic government is not whether it does what the people want, but whether it is technically good at forcing on the people the technical solutions that appeal to the elite.

As long as we understand popular protests as demands for "service delivery", we will continue to make the government the master, not the servant, and we will continue to treat grassroots citizens as people fit only to receive the products devised by their betters, not as thinking and choosing human beings.

And as long as we do that, people at the grassroots will remain unheard unless they take to the streets.

- Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, an initiative of Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.