Between state and society: the work of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 26 May 2015

Although South Africans all signed up to a new constitutional path in the immediate post-apartheid era "based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights," constitutional ideals at times also appear to be flouted both by government and by a society which remains grossly unequal and appears increasingly divided. The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) is one notable non-profit organisation seeking to bridge such divides. Building on the nation's constitutional framework, it provides dedicated socio-economic rights assistance for individuals, communities and social movements. We spoke to Kate Tissington, senior research and advocacy officer at SERI, about the organisation's work and challenges.

Explain briefly what SERI does and how it was established.

SERI was established in 2010 to pursue an integrated approach to research, litigation, and advocacy work in order to support groups trying to enforce the socio-economic rights contained in the South African Constitution.

SERI currently works across four strategic, thematic areas: inner city housing; informal settlement upgrading and basic services; participation, protest, and political space; and informal trade and livelihoods. For example, in SERI's inner-city housing work, existing inner-city evictions jurisprudence has shaped and focused the organization's strategy to advocate for and develop a model of affordable rental accommodation.

With respect to SERI's focus areas, how are South Africans faring, as a government, a private sector, or a society?

While the Constitution guarantees socio-economic rights to everyone and there have been many progressive laws and policies developed since 1994, implementation in real terms has been disappointing, especially given South Africa's status as a middle-income country. The provision of adequate housing and basic services is devolved to the provincial and local government level and it here that a crisis of delivery and accountability is being witnessed. The proliferation of so-called "service delivery protests" around the country points to mass dissatisfaction with local governance, especially in underserved communities and poor municipalities. Linked to this is the broader phenomenon of the increased use of policing and the criminal justice system to shut down dissent. These are worrying developments.

There has never been a greater need for new models of interaction between state and society on the scope and content of socio-economic needs and obligations. SERI views its work as being as much about the consolidation of constitutional democracy as about delivering material benefits and public services to poor communities.

What are some of the greatest challenges that SERI engages?

In SERI's inner-city housing and informal trade work in Johannesburg, litigation has gone so far and a different type of engagement and negotiation on the broader strategic and policy issues is required. Unfortunately, the local state does not seem interested in really attempting to engage with SERI and its clients on this. Operations like Clean Sweep and Ke Molao, and the abuse of the criminal justice system to silence dissent, are challenges which highlight the often very anti-poor and antagonistic approaches that dominate with the local state, despite there being progressive policies in place.

What are some of the key disciplines that can engage these challenges?

SERI consists of people who have not only studied law, but also social anthropology, sociology, economics, development studies, history, social work, development planning, and urban studies. These disciplines bring different dimensions to SERI's work, and are all extremely useful when responding to challenges facing clients, conceptualizing research, and positioning advocacy. In terms of housing issues in cities and urban areas, the solutions are complex and require a nuanced, multi-dimensional approach.

Photo 1: Evicted inner-city traders gather outside the local government offices, November 2013 (photo by author). Photo 2: An inner-city Johannesburg apartment (courtesy of SERI).

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