CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that the violence flaring up periodically around the country arises from anger over poor "service delivery". Headlines on news reports reflect that wisdom. Polls testify to plenty of frustration about "delivery", although household surveys report that the provision of water, sanitation, electricity and housing has continued apace.
Not everyone can afford much electricity, so many households use it for lighting but not for heating or cooking, which defeats the objective of rolling it out to people who still have to use wood or coal as well.
So poor quality of services, or failure to provide them as fast as local communities expected or were promised, is part of the reason for the demonstrations. Though many of these pass off without violence, there is always a risk that heavy-handed action by the police will provoke it.
Two other issues are now cited more and more frequently as causes of protest. One is high unemployment, often described as a "ticking time bomb" - but one that explodes only at local level amid other grievances and so does not seem to be much of a threat to wider stability.
The other is the procedures used by the African National Congress (ANC) to nominate candidates. All over the country, a supposedly enhanced democratic process has generated vociferous complaint and sometimes violence. When he opened P arliament this year, President Jacob Zuma said, "The ANC will put in place a system that allows greater community participation in choosing candidates for the local government elections." This promise seems to have backfired.
The most frequent objection is that the party leadership manipulates lists and imposes candidates from on high. Although party officials dismiss the complaints as sour grapes on the part of losers, they have also expressed concern about the formation of parallel wards or party branches in various places, notably the Eastern Cape.
Whereas the proportional representation electoral system ensures that parliamentarians and members of provincial legislatures are chosen from party lists rather than by constituencies, our local government system is a hybrid in that half of local councillors are ward representatives. In this sense government is more democratic at local than central or provincial level.
But the manipulation of the nomination process undermines even this limited grass-roots democracy.
Whether in the form of violence or the establishment of alternative structures, the opposition to the party's nomination procedures amounts to dissatisfaction with some of the key aspects of the ANC's modus operandi - "democratic centralism" and cadre deployment.
Cadre deployment, of course, dictates who should be members of the boards of parastatals and other agencies in the gift of government. Most of these institutions seem to just grin and bear it. Ironically, the biggest revolt against it so far is coming from within the ANC's own ranks.
Also ironically, the establishment of alternative structures was a key component of the ANC's campaign to destabilise local government under National Party rule. So the ANC is probably right to see it as a threat.
Last year, after the National Taxpayers' Union had organised for ratepayers to withhold payments from local authorities that failed to provide services, the government condemned this as a "racist and unconstitutional parallel government".
When the newly elected Egyptian parliament convened in Cairo in December last year, dissatisfaction that it was merely a puppet of then president Hosni Mubarak's ruling party prompted former opposition parliamentarians to announce the formation of a parallel parliament to provide real opposition to Mubarak.
The Egyptian parallel parliament was swiftly superseded by events. How far parallel structures will go in SA remains to be seen. They may disappear after the municipal election on May 18.
But they are yet another sign of the deficiencies of the ANC's centralised model of government.
The party is talking of restructuring local government. This will necessitate more than redrawing boundaries, redistributing powers or fixing up finance. Real democracy will also have to enter the picture.
- Kane-Berman is CE of the South African Institute of Race Relations.