A civil society organisation's engagement in collective action to access basic services: the case of the electricity action group in Pietermaritzburg (EAG).
Basic services are defined in the Constitution of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996) as services that include the provision of housing, education, health care, social welfare, transport, electricity and energy, water, sanitation, refuse and waste removal. Of these basic services, electricity and energy, water and sanitation, refuse and waste removal are considered to be the most critical in improving the lives of people. The South African national government has committed itself to providing a basic amount of free water, which is 6000L per household (Water Services Act, 108 of 1997), and electricity, which is 50kWh (Electricity Basic Services Support Tariff Policy Framework, 2003) to poor residents, as they are deemed essential basic needs (Dalton, 2000:48). This provision is facilitated by indigent policies which are adopted by each municipality. Each municipal indigent policy is case specific and is thus customised to the specific needs of the municipality concerned. In instances where municipalities do not adopt the Indigent Policy Framework or fail to implement it, indigent citizens have the right to demand the municipality to recognise theirs status as per the provisions of the National Indigent Policy Framework, 2006. This can be done through civil society organisations advocating for the rights of their members and/ those of citizens in general. In a democratic country, civil society may hold government accountable to the electorate, not only during election times, but at all times, thus ensuring that government fulfils its roles, including that of service provision. The aim of the present study was to investigate how the Electricity Action Group (EAG) and other civil society organisations engage the Msunduzi municipality through collective action to gain access to their constitutional right to free basic, affordable and adequate electricity. This study made use of an interpretative research methodology. The researcher collected primary data through semi-structured focus group discussions. Two focus group discussions were conducted with the members of the EAG. A total of 10 members participated in the focus group discussions. A non-probability sampling technique, convenience sampling, was used to identify respondents, because the group was only accessible when they met for their scheduled meetings. Secondary data consisted of data from minutes of meetings, organisational reports, letters, memorandums, media statements and newspaper articles. Thematic analysis was used to analyse the collected data. Thematic analysis was most ideal to this study because it emphasises key points through pinpointing and recording patterns from the data presented. This study used themes such as collective action rationale; aims and objectives of collective action; civil society partnerships; and collective action strategies, to examine the relationship between what must be done according to legislation and what indeed happens, in practice. The findings of the study showed that the EAG, in its engagement with the municipality, had employed various strategies of collective action which included writing letters to the municipality, making written submissions and oral presentations to the municipality, holding marches and pickets where memorandums were handed over and having sit-ins in municipal offices. These actions were informed by: 1) the municipality’s response or lack thereof to the demands of the EAG; 2) the number of people participating in the collective behaviour. The study revealed that the EAG had employed both destructive and non-destructive tactics of collective action in engaging the Msunduzi municipality. The study showed that, although the collective action strategies employed by the EAG did not always yield the desired results, it produced valuable unintended consequences such as to conscientise and educate its members on basic services and constitutional rights. Two important findings which played an important role in explaining the collective behaviour of the EAG were that, firstly, although there were policies in place for the provision of basic services and free basic service provision for the indigent, they have not been provided adequately due to non-implementation. Secondly, the study found that binding decisions taken by the municipality were documented but not implemented.