Being a councillor

2011-01-04 00:00

AN important item on the political agenda is the forthcoming municipal elections. In the run-up to any democratic election aspirant councillors are bound to vie with one another in their attempt to become their party's chosen candidate. In South Africa this struggle is at times worryingly fierce. The reason for this seems to be partly that we are a new democracy in which some people haven't yet learnt the necessary restraint, but also, perhaps more important, that there is so much unemployment in the country that becoming a paid municipal councillor is a far more attractive prospect than it would be in many democracies.

On the question of pay, how-ever, I must note that it is wrong to assume, as many seem to, that municipal councillors are very well paid. They are not. Some top municipal officials have high salaries, but elected councillors are paid at a far lower level. Mayors, deputy mayors, speakers and members of the executive — all full-time jobs — get more money than part-time councillors, but what they earn is certainly not grand.

What should we expect or hope for in municipal councillors? Many would answer: "They should be in it in order to serve the community, not for themselves." I strongly approve of the general sentiment, but I don't quite accept that formulation. I agree that the main motivation should be a desire to serve the community, to move the municipality towards its own part in "a better life for all", but it is unrealistic to expect that the job should not bring some satisfaction, both personal and monetary. But yes: service should be the key factor.

And what should service to the community involve? The task of a municipality, if it is carried out properly, is extremely complex. There are many issues that involve the municipality as a whole, and there are also all the particular issues that concern the various wards. Our municipal legislation has established a sensible system in which half of the councillors represent wards and half, having been put forward by their parties, are selected on a proportional representation (PR) basis. Clearly, then, the concerns of the wards will be dealt with primarily by ward councillors (and by the ward committees that exist or should exist in each ward), and more general strategic matters will be in the hands of the PR councillors.

But it is not as simple as this. All councillors vote on major issues. Really good ward councillors are people who know their wards well and take the concerns of their constituents very seriously, but who are also able to see the larger picture. This will mean that they will be aware that on some issues the hopes and wishes of many of their ward constituents are unrealistic or even counterproductive, and cannot be supported. A sad aspect of all this is that some of the best and most balanced ward councillors are likely to be given the thumbs down when their party calls a ward meeting to decide who is to be the next candidate to represent them.

There is also of course, very importantly, the question of corruption. In various ways some councillors and officials have managed, in spite of the stringent municipal legislation, to influence tender processes and/or accept bribes. Rooting out corruption is not easy: it is often difficult to trace; even when it has been traced it is often difficult to prove conclusively; and even then one cannot always be sure who is at the heart of the problem. Opposing corruption requires firm integrity, considerable skill and, where the corruption is fairly widespread, great courage too. There has recently been an alarming tendency, in some areas of South African life, to punish not the culprits but the whistleblowers.

Are there enough people at work within the country's municipal system to fight against the corruption that has taken hold in some areas? We must hope so.

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