Diary pages: Community Leadership

The COVID-19 crisis has made the need for compassionate, imaginative, democratic and dynamic leadership more pressing than ever. Community leadership can be hotly contested in South Africa’s crowded civic landscape. Since the lockdown began, Community Action Networks (CANs) have sprung up, joining the NGOs, social movements and political parties that are already active in many local communities. We asked out diarists: Who has been leading the response to the lockdown in your area? 

Civic groups playing a crucial role

Most diarists’ spoke of the big role that non-governmental and community organisations have played in the communities. Most mentioned that CANs play an important role. For Lindz, in Seapoint, the ‘CAN has been very active in most areas. Not only in townships’. 

China, in Khayelitsha, relays the work her local CAN is doing ‘raising awareness’ around COVID-19 as well as ‘distributing food parcels, masks and sanitizers to all those that are needy. Now the CAN is distributing warm soup to almost all other informal areas.’ Also writing from Khayelitsha, Zukiswa claims that her local CAN will ‘distribute equally and no fights.’ 

Of course, CANs are not the only groups active in people’s local communities. Ameena, in Salt River, reports that her community are ‘really blessed to have so many NGO’s…seeing that people gets a meal every day.’ 

Linking areas across the city

The CANs and NGOs have become channels through which more affluent areas can assist poorer areas. In Phillip’s words, they ‘link to and supply some of them with food and in some cases financial assistance‘.

Thoma’s CAN in the Central Business District of (CBD), for example, partnered with Khayelitsha CAN, and provided ‘care packs, food packs… (fundraising R40 000 via online pub quiz), also emergency food during shack evictions’. In their own area, they also assisted those being evicted ‘to find new accommodation in the CBD.’  

These links between areas are also being made by other NGOs, community groups and more informal groups. In some cases, though, the links between different groups are opaque. People do not always know who is delivering in their area, nor why they have been chosen. Samkelo, from Imizamo Yethu, writes, ‘there is a group of whites who are giving food to us, not sure [where] does it come from. We see some white company vehicles up and down giving out these food packages. I have no idea where it comes from.’ For some, this is a cause of concern. Philip, in Hangberg, for example, would have preferred distribution to go through the Community Policing Forums that have been running in the area for several years. ‘It would have been more neutral if CPF’s took charge of the crisis’, he wrote, ‘but now all NPOs and NGOs are doing their own things’.

Ward councillors: Filling the void? 

Some councillors have been present during the crisis, at least periodically. Anonymous has seen ‘the ward councillor has [been] leading the Houtbay community here by us n the NGOs has been helping the people by handing out parcels.’ Neziswa’s councillor, in Shukushukuma has been working to ‘make sure everyone is wearing mask and go to the centre to make sure there is social Distance in between people. 

Our ward councillor…organise the political parties, the NGOs and the health department to help the communities in our area, he was in a meeting with the Philippi CAN last week…he organized the food parcels from Sanco and SACP…we distributed the parcels to the poor of the poorest, the Health Department officials also came in the area to ask people to go to test for Covid 19…’ –Mavis, Block Six

In other areas, however, councillors were absent. For many, this absence predates the lockdown. Zukiswa, who lives in one of Khayelitsha informal settlements writes, ‘our ward councilor doesn’t care about us…local leaders are the one who lead our community from the start of lockdown. We never see our ward councillor before and during lockdown.’ Ayanda echoes this verdict, arguing, ‘…ward councilors have gone into hibernation. There is a Khayelitsha CAN which is operated by 3 organisations which are leading the response to the lockdown crisis in an effective way’. 

‘The councilor and his ward committee are supposed be leading as response team in the ward but now it’s organization such as SJC and groups like Khayelitsha CAN who are coming to aid of people in relation to Covid 19 pandemic.’ –Bonga, Khayelitsha.

‘It’s mostly the NGOs because they are the only ones that I have seen during this lockdown around the area. …the food parcels they giving away in weekly basis and they are making sure that every person gets the food and they getting the mask to protect themselves and I haven’t seen anyone doing that beside them’ –Gift, Imizamo Yethu

In some cases, councillors were present, but they seemed more focused on re-election than community assistance. Nolusapho, in Khayelitsha, writes that she ‘suspect[s] that the councilor is campaigning for next year’s local government elections.’ She attended a meeting convened by the councillor and ‘we were asked to campaign for 2021 municipal elections, recruit members for the ANC…they do not mention anything about the lockdown or how people need to be educated about the virus. They seem to have already shifted their attention to ensuring their own ‘safety’ in 2021 elections. 

Patchy coverage across the city

Ultimately, the coverage across Cape Town looks patchy. In some areas, community organisations are filling a void left by councillors; in other areas, a whole range of groups and individuals have come together to help with provision. Ameena, in Salt River, notes that ‘so many [people] doing something for the community.’ 

Since the beginning of this pandemic all the stakeholders in my area have played a significant role to assist the government in many instances. I have seen political parties, churches, NGOs, Government officials, business sector including ordinary people. What I have observed in this period of Covid-19 is the unity of all the stakeholders in our societies pulling together for one objective. Different stakeholders have voluntarily stood up and led this fight against this Covid-19. Great unity displayed.—Khaya, Khayelitsha 

In other cases, there seemed to be an absence of leadership and assistance. For Luyolo, in Khayelitsha, ‘there’s no one who is responsible for the lock down in my community, everyone is just minding their own business. There’s no who’s been giving us hope of any change or service delivery’. 


Who is active in the CANs? Are we seeing the emergence of new leaders or the re-packaging of existing forms of leadership? 

To what degree should the government try and play a co-ordinating role in local distribution networks?

Will the lockdown shift the balance of power in local communities? Will this have an electoral impact in 2021?



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