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Journal for Development and Leadership

Volume 2, Number 1


Citizen participation, decentralisation and inclusive development in South Africa
Robino, C. and Haines, R.

Decentralisation and participation are words that form part of today’s mainstream development thinking. It is argued that under decentralisation reforms, the political objectives of increased political responsiveness and participation at the local level can coincide with the economic objectives of better decisions about the use of public resources. Both strands should therefore contribute towards the legitimisation of the democratisation project. We will demonstrate, however, that the frequently assumed symbiotic relationship between decentralisation and citizen participation is not such. The relations between decentralisation, citizen participation and more democratic and inclusive models of local governance are far more complex than what is frequently assumed. Drawing from an empirical study conducted in South Africa, this paper identifies and analyses the key challenges and constraints restricting the incorporation ofparticipatory development approaches in local governance. Beyond the diagnosis based on the lack of capacity of local government, the paper identifies and analyses two additional critical issues to explain the gap between the actual results and the faith being placed on decentralisation and citizen participation. On the one hand, it examines the degree of fiscal autonomy. On the other, it explores the informal dimension of the participatory spaces by examining the understandings of local government officials of citizen participation and the articulation of power in practice. By revealing how different dimensions of decentralisation and citizen participation operate and intersect, the findings demonstrate that, cotrary to most studies and literature, citizen participation and decetralisation can be frequently at odds. There is the threat that opening new spaces for participation in decentralised local governancecould result in fewer changes and disappointing results at best, udermining the trans-formative potential of the concepts of citizen participation and decentralisation with the potential to deepen citizens’ lack of trust in local governments, thereby enhancing the perception of local government illegitimacy.

Keywords: citizen participation; decentralisation; local governance; participatory development; inclusive development; South Africa