Now that we have voted

2011-05-31 00:00

POLITICAL parties now have a good sense of what the electorate thinks of and expects from them in the next five years. Where to from here with the business of deepening local democracy?

I want to suggest in this column that the answers to this question should not be reduced to mere issues of state efficiency, that is service delivery. I want to suggest that citizens will have to work harder to improve their active citizenship, while political parties ought to continue the corporate citizenship they have shown during the few months of electioneering. They should balance a complexity of issues that they should attend to and the provision of services is only one of them.

Unlike most columnists, I do not think that the message coming out of elections is simple and straightforward. Many think that voters affirmed good service delivery and sent warning signals to those who have a poor record in this regard.

We are a too-complex, divided and diverse society for voting patterns to be read in such simple terms. Our divisions are sometimes deep, the national reconciliation process having not been extensive enough to heal our historical cleavages. I believe that more than racial diversity, it is differences along undeclared ideological lines that divide us deeply. These points of divergence are most pronounced when we debate the nature of society and communities we want to create, and the role of the state in that process.

The ideology of big society and small state is fundamentally different from that of a national democratic society in which the state is expected to act as a key catalyst. This does not just divide the DA and ANC, but also many other parties whose ideological orientations are shades of either tendency. Our debates on service delivery, the character of our leaders, the management of the economy and local government tend to mirror these deep-seated fault lines in our society.

The elections did not resolve these fault lines. They are not supposed to. They have clearly demonstrated just how diverse a society we are. The messages that voters tried to convey to political parties and municipal governments are both generic and specific to localities.

Key among generic messages is that voters expect political parties to take them seriously. They need to be as accountable between elections as they seem to be during election periods. People want to be heard before critical decisions are taken and they want more than mere consultation. Gone are the days when parties thought they knew what was good for their constituencies or citizens in general.

In his book on legitimation as a critical point in the consolidation of a democracy, David Beetham suggests three conditions under which the exercise of power could be legitimate; namely: conformity with established rules, justifiability of rules by reference to shared beliefs, and the express consent of the subordinate or citizens to relations of power and how it is exercised in the best interests of all.

Parties often fail to get the last condition right. Even now expect political parties to focus most of their energies on building working coalitions and on improving rules governing delivery and clean government. They may even move quickly to give tenders out to service providers to speed up the provision of essential services. Besides the fact that parties are likely to fail to meet the expectations of citizens on that front because the needs are simply too big to be met in a term of government and using meagre state resources, political parties may also fail to govern together with the people, as suggested by Beetham.

It can already be anticipated that in many cases, consultants, in consultation with a small section of the population, will draft the integrated development plans. These plans will guide an intensive implementation process, which may fail to reduce public discontent because citizens are likely to understand performance of governments in which they are actively involved. Citizens will remain dissatisfied.

The challenge is for political parties to galvanise citizens and reach out to people in their communities and homes about the programme of action for the next five years in the same way they have campaigned for elections. Citizens will have to participate actively in structures of political parties of their choice at local level and make use of ward and municipal meetings, and radio phone-in programmes to speak truth to power. Public protests should be the last resort in the tool box of local leaders.

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

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