Reputations at stake

2011-03-08 00:00

WHAT will we base our choice of councillors on now that local government elections are less than three months away? This is the question about which there already has been a lot of debate. The dominant view is that we measure leaders' eligibility for re-election on the basis of their track record, defined strictly in terms of the concrete physical progress that was achieved during their term of office.

Of course, we should be ashamed if we re-elect those who have failed us in the past five years, men and women who have shown a lack of public spirit, but who have done everything to amass personal wealth and position themselves to climb up the political­ hierarchy. Yet they return with new promises for the new term.

This means that those who have made a serious effort and who have helped change lives in communities should be rewarded with a second term of office. Reports released by the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs a few years ago suggested that the majority of existing councillors should not return to their posts, for they have failed.

This also means that some mayors­ and councillors who have performed well, those who have helped struggling munici- palities­ get back on their feet again, those who have turned negative audit judgments into positive ones, who have visibly made the difference, should be returned to their positions.

However, in doing so we must overcome two challenges. The first is the danger that we will read too much into the abundance or a lack of material progress as reported in municipal areas and underestimate the importance of reputation, honour and integrity and other forms of leadership influence.

For this reason, councillors in poorly performing municipalities may be returned to power simply because they are highly regarded in their communities in spite of their failure to achieve material progress for them.

The second challenge is that if material progress is used as an overriding criteria of eligibility for a second chance in local politics­, then we may fail to understand the message that has come out of community upheavals that have been minimised into service delivery protests, which is a demand for better local democracy and inclusiveness and accountability as well as material progress.

I have argued before in this column that the most fundamental issue facing community leadership is the ability to respond to intangible needs of communities.

Therefore, I want to argue that we assess candidates not just on the basis of what they have produced for us, but more so on how they have done it. But the service­-delivery culture, which borrows from the benign dictatorship of the business world, is premised on the assumption that citizens are customers and municipalities are service providers.

Therefore, their relationship is one of exchange between service and customer loyalty.

Studies of local community leadership elsewhere suggest that local leaders acquire influence and longevity of positions in their communities on the basis of the honour or integrity that they exhibit and the reputation which they acquire. Their reputation is an artifact of both their ability to cause positive material progress and their contribution to building relations of trust and confidence.

For this reason local leaders who focus on confidence building, listening to communities and interacting frequently with them would acquire a good reputation within their communities.

Those who simply focus on bricks and mortar issues would be regarded as good managers, but may still be shunned as they would not have acquired the reputation of a leader­.

We then become baffled when leaders who have run failing municipalities, remain popular in their communities. This is because for them it is a relationship of reputation (a comprehensive track record and trust) rather than how much service was provided.

This is not to suggest that service provision is not essential. Far from it. With such high levels of poverty and with essential services collapsing in many areas, efficient services are paramount. This is the duty of professionals and technical experts who are employed by municipalities.

The duty of councillors is leadership rather than management. They should communicate with honour, in an exemplary conduct and in an accountable manner, ensuring that their constituencies are involved and consulted.

Then they will acquire the reputation they need in order to remain local leaders. Failure of service provision is the failure of professional administrators. Of course, councillors are politically accountable for these failures.

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

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