Plans to beef up ward committees

2011-05-18 00:00

Globally, the percentage of the electorate that votes in local elections is significantly lower than in national elections. In this country we have to reduce that gap. In some instances, it's even more important to vote in local than in national and provincial elections. After all, the most immediate basic services, such as water, electricity, sanitation, refuse removal and roads are provided at local level. And it's only in local government elections that there are ward candidates. People need to be mobilised not just to vote, but to take an active part in local government issues. Without this, local government will not function effectively.

Legally, we have one of the most progressive and far-reaching systems of community participation in local government in the world. The legal definition of a municipality is that it comprises not just the councillors and the administration, but the local community as well. Yet it's clear from community protests that the model of community participation in local government is not working well. Why? What can be done about this? And why is this so important?

In the first place, the value of community participation has not been sufficiently internalised by councillors and administrators. Understandably, some councillors and administrators are wary of community participation as it is time-consuming and costly. Most municipalities don't have the funds or other resources for effective community participation. Many municipalities comply in a technical manner with the legislative requirements for community participation. They have a top-down, technocratic approach that is aimed at seeking endorsement for decisions rather than effective participation in which communities have a say in decision-making and play a role in implementation.

Often, though, engagements with communities on their needs as part of the Integrated Development Plan (IDP) process ends up with popular "wish lists". There is an understandable tension between the communities' immediate needs and the municipality's strategic considerations of a five-year plan that has to take into account various competing needs and be implemented with limited resources.

Communities must also take some responsibility for the inadequacies of public participation. We should not romanticise community participation. Many communities, particularly in informal settlements, are highly contested, complex and multilayered, with fluctuating leaderships. Identifying needs, priorities and targets in these communities and ensuring participation in implementing programmes can be difficult. Allocating resources at times fuels further conflicts within these communities.

So what do we do? Strengthen community participation. This will be discussed at the ANC's December 2012 conference and the proposals will be taken to Parliament. A stronger ward committee is likely to emerge as one part of an overall strategy to improve community participation. The law may be tightened to ensure ward committees do not comprise political party activists but representatives of residents' organisations.

Within a clear framework, municipalities could, incrementally, consider delegating limited powers to ward committees. Ward committees could shape ward-development plans that connect with IDPs. They could also oversee the delivery of services in the ward, including possibly contributing to the municipality's assessment of the quality of new services provided before the contractor is fully paid out. Ward committees could take on some responsibilities, such as fixing potholes, pavements and streetlights, using local labour.

These and other proposals will have to be implemented incrementally, depending on capacity, funds and other resources, and the specific conditions in each municipality. National and provincial government will have actively to assist, including with funding. Ward committee members should get at least out-of-pocket expenses. Given the unemployment and dependency on the state for income, there will, understandably, be a scramble to serve on the ward committees and tensions could arise.

It's important to avoid being populist or technocratic. We need a new strengthened model of community participation that balances giving residents the fullest space to participate in municipal affairs and ensuring the right of elected councillors to govern.

We must make it work. So let's vote today in large numbers. And become more active in local government issues.

• Yunus Carrim is deputy minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs

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