Balancing Democracy with Service Delivery: Power Relations, Politics and Accountability in Cooperatives Supporting Emergent Livestock Farmers in South Africa

Lovemore Christopher Gwiriri, James Bennett

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    7 Citations (Scopus)
    22 Downloads (Pure)


    In South Africa, cooperatives are the primary institutions through which delivery of governmental agricultural support programmes for rural communities is realised. Although these cooperatives are governed by clear national guidelines that encourage transparency and accountability to their membership, in reality their ability to realise this may be compromised by an imperative to achieve service delivery in an environment of limited governmental support. Drawing on empirical research undertaken at five agricultural cooperatives in the Elliot area of Eastern Cape Province, we examine the extent to which they are able to balance democratic function with effective programme delivery. We show that the limited capacity of local government to reach out to rural areas promotes heavy competition between cooperatives for government programmes, resulting in a highly skewed distribution of benefits determined primarily by how effectively each can ‘reach up’ to local service providers to secure them. This encourages cooperatives to elect powerful actors to represent them because they are perceived to have the greater political ‘connectedness’ required to access these benefits. However, these powerful actors are often less accountable to membership and therefore more likely to disburse benefits to suit their own vested interests. We suggest that, under current conditions, the process of creating effective and legitimate cooperatives must balance strong leadership with a high degree of accountability and transparency to ensure that benefits are disbursed as widely and appropriately as possible to members. Separating executive, judicial and legislative power structures associated with the securing and disbursement of resources to ensure processes are transparent, might be the most practical way of achieving this. Ultimately, if the capacity of the state is strengthened to enable them to ‘reach down’ to cooperatives more effectively, the need to vest leadership in powerful actors and risk compromising accountability and egalitarian service delivery, might be reduced.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)123-138
    Number of pages16
    JournalInternational Journal of the Commons
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 18 Feb 2020

    Bibliographical note

    Open access under a Creative Commons licence CC-BY


    • Accountability
    • Cooperatives
    • Democracy
    • Emergent smallholder farmers
    • Leadership

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science


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