Holding leaders accountable

2011-03-01 00:00

THE African National Congress launched its local government elections manifesto last weekend, with more expected this week.

We are fast approaching the third local government elections, an opportunity for communities to renew their contract with political parties for better local dev­elopment and democracy.

The first local elections in 1999 were meant to establish new municipalities. Weak outcomes in terms of service provision could be excused as a result of complex local government transformation.

The second elections in 2005 were to lead to the further building of institutional structures to accelerate tangible socio­economic development. As this term ends, there is great dissatisfaction on the ground and the task is for citizens to ensure that parties and candidates commit to building sustainable and prosperous communities. The effectiveness of municipalities is not merely about right structures and the formalities of financial accountability, but it is about whether municipalities succeed in stimulating local economic development, fighting poverty and creating the conditions for local-level democracy to flourish.

The flurry of protests over the past five years suggests that many local communities have not seen enough change. They have been unable to express themselves directly to municipal councils about the non-provision of essential services, corruption and the lack of accountability.

At the heart of the disgruntlement and protests in many municipal areas is weak leadership and weak structures for real local democracy. Often people have taken matters into their own hands because councillors and municipal managers have not been open about plans and budgets for building communities, about the difficulties they encounter in the process and the opportunities they envisage.

In many cases, officials have failed to engage with communities. They have hindered local developmental democracy by failing to create opportunities for regular feedback by citizens on municipal plans and programmes. In the absence of formal channels of communication some disgruntled communities have risen up in violent protests.

These local protests have served as a warning and could potentially be an impetus for the government to do better, a second chance that governments in Egypt and Tunisia did not get before they were toppled.

One reason protests have not translated into revolutions is that communities are mostly unhappy with leadership closest to them, but have a sense that the political system as a whole is generally democratic and able to respond to discontent.

The upcoming elections must be used to respond to fundamental weaknesses that have angered many communities. Citizens cannot shirk their responsibility to elect leaders of integrity and ability.

Since election manifestos are not enough of an indicator of potential leadership, voters should ask candidates directly about how they will ensure action on commitments they make.

Elected leaders tend to draw away from voters as they focus on the complex business of governance, but voters should not allow them to drift away. When they fail to get satisfactory answers, citizens should report the councillors to their political parties, write petitions, and name and shame them in the media. They should ask parties to appraise the performance of officials and act accordingly.

Citizens must be active participants in political party structures and they must form community development committees with the help of community development workers. They should challenge their parties' constituency offices, the MP and the MPL for their area. Communities should take matters into their own hands by using existing structures and legal routes to contribute to local democracy and community prosperity. Leaders should not be allowed to relax. There should be no room for lazy and corrupt leaders. They rob the poor by failing to do their jobs.

The commitment over the weekend by the ANC president to an effective, accountable and efficient local government implementing affordable and achievable interventions with the support of provincial government, will not happen until communities hold councillors and officials accountable. The energy we readily use to toyi-toyi is better used in joining hands to build better communities and holding leaders accountable.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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