EMBOLDENED by the president's state of the nation address, as well as a wave of nation-wide mass action over better wages, and using as leverage the state's failure to deliver basic services and create jobs at the rate required over the past two years in which the Zuma administration has been in power, residents in townships and informal settlements have taken to the streets. The "service delivery" protests in Wesselton township earlier this year bear reference. Residents living in conditions of poverty and squalor are beginning to flex their muscles ahead of the municipal elections scheduled for May 18.

Preliminary research suggests the unrest is likely to continue, and could become a national phenomenon. While not gainsaying the legitimacy of protest action with respect to a lack of basic service delivery in impoverished areas, the term has often become a pretext for a range of other issues that need highlighting. Most of these are political in nature, and appear to coalesce around the need to signal to the ANC-led government, unambiguously, that all is not well, and that the ballot as a means of participation in an electoral democracy is insufficient.

In simple terms, it is a statement of intent suggesting that conventional forms of political participation - such as elections, ward committee forums, community meetings and presidential "imbizos" - may not be working optimally. It is also an attempt to signal to the ANC that the centralised "cadre deployment" system may be the reason local government is incapacitated and delivery compromised.

It is the above scenario that is the most likely basis for aggrieved residents in our many underserviced townships and informal settlements to conclude that a more effective way of engaging the state (in realising development goals) are national mass action campaigns - from strikes over better wages, to protests over a lack of basic "service delivery", to mobilisation efforts aimed at enhancing the prospects of job creation, to national campaigns advocating the benefit of a more interventionist developmental state.

It is an interesting and curious feature of our celebrated constitutional democracy that, despite its infancy, a large majority of South Africans feel that conventional mechanisms of engaging the state are failing, and that alternatives may be more effective.

The irony should also not be lost on us that, during a highly repressive pre-1994 period (particularly in the late 1980s), it was mass action at a local level over access to items of collective consumption that brought the apartheid state to its knees. The struggle for freedom during this time revolved around local pockets of resistance - often violent - that provided the basis for mass mobilisation. "Illegitimate" local councillors bore the brunt of residents' frustration.

Interestingly, 16 years into our democracy, local protest action continues to coalesce around issues such as access to basic services, with councillors again the target, and burning tyres and looted shops very much a feature of the local political landscape. The pictures from Wesselton, or for that matter Orange Farm last year, or Balfour the year before, bear striking resemblance to the visuals captured in Tembisa, Katlehong and Khayelitsha in the late 1980s.

It is interesting that in Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's budget, despite the emphasis on infrastructure spending over the next five years (more than R800bn, which, no doubt, will have a crosscutting effect across all spheres of government), he allocated only 9% of the total budget of R950bn to local government. Having said this, the government has emphasised that spending on a number of priority areas, such as education and housing, will have a direct effect on municipalities, as will the intention to create locally generated job opportunities.

Other key issues in the run-up to the elections will revolve around state capacity, what constitutes appropriate delivery mechanisms in achieving key objectives, what the necessary policy instruments should be, and whether the country's often contradictory policy imperatives - driven largely through ideological doggedness and political intransigence - impairs the development mandate articulated by the government recently. The future of provinces, the highly contentious boundary demarcation process, and intersphere co-operation are also likely to feature, as will the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs' ability to deliver on a critical mandate.

The ANC local government election manifesto promises to "fix broken local government" by, inter alia, creating 400000 housing units close to working centres; upgrading informal settlements in 45 municipalities; creating 80000 mixed-income and social renting housing units; fast-tracking provision of water, sanitation and electricity; and creating jobs through infrastructure projects.

Clearly the disconnect between councillors and communities will make these targets difficult to achieve, as will a lack of capacity at a local level. Locally driven "social compacts" may assist the process, but what is needed is bold, assertive and accountable leadership that drives and champions locality-specific interventionist strategies; identifies the technical skill and capacity that is required; makes adequate resource allocations (for example, accessing a municipality's portion of the Municipal Infrastructure Grant by cutting through red tape); identifies a time-lined plan of action; enforces accountability mechanisms and transparency measures; and makes sure that assessments are undertaken of this model's effect on the lives of communities in disadvantaged areas.

Case-study research conducted in Latin America, East Asia and parts of central and North Africa are replete with examples of how effective implementation of the above model has mitigated poverty levels, reduced income inequality, created access to jobs and livelihoods, reduced dependence on social welfare grants, given communities a stake in the economy, and allowed them to access credit to improve their lives. It is specifically outcomes-based, and far better than the precepts and principles embedded in the many "turnaround" strategies and dormant "integrated development plans" that are a common feature of SA's municipal landscape.

There is no gainsaying the importance of long(er)-term strategies that are the feature of municipalities throughout the world. But in local communities afflicted with high levels of poverty and inequality, evidence from throughout the developing world (reinforced by rigorous impact-assessment research) has confirmed the effectiveness of multiple strategies of intervention that, in tandem, address the complex interplay of factors specific to local government

Had President Jacob Zuma articulated his and the ANC's election manifesto in the above manner, the scepticism that has already been expressed, and the sense of resignation felt, could well have given way to a sentiment that affirmed the role and value of local government as the first point of delivery in our constitutional democracy, despite party loyalties and political allegiances. It would make 52-year-old Wesselton resident and shopkeeper Sandi Mkhwanazi feel a lot better. She has vowed to keep her vote to herself, recently commenting that "the protests here were justified. Nothing works in this municipality. Service at the clinic is pathetic. You have to be in the queue before 4am."

- Pillay is executive director: democracy, governance and service delivery at the Human Sciences Research Council.