The ideal councillor

2011-03-14 00:00

Even if I did not read newspapers, watch television or listen to the radio, I’d still know there was an election coming up.

This is simply because every time I step out of my front gate these days I’m tripping over a municipal worker cutting the grass or cleaning the gutters.

The last time I saw this many municipal workers in my neighbourhood was before the 2009 national elections, and before that, during the 2006 local government elections. I’m waiting for them to start painting the lines on the road. From previous experience I know this activity starts about a month before the elections.

I have also noticed that all the street lights seem to be getting new fittings. I almost knocked myself out walking into a pole because I was so busy looking up at an industrious pair changing a lightbulb. It seems street light fittings are being changed all over the city. I just hope our entire electricity budget is not being spent on this endeavour and that there is still money in the kitty for when problems arise. We have an ageing electricity infrastructure that needs maintenance.

The reason I add this note of caution is because as a city we are still reeling from the effects of having our entire capital budget spent on 10 roads a few years ago.

Talking about knocking myself out, a fortnight ago I was walking to work, up Willowton Road, and almost tripped over an electricity pole that had fallen over because the wood at the base had rotted. Perhaps it would be expedient not only to change the street lights but to check the poles as well.

It seems to be positively hazardous living in Pietermaritzburg, what with the dogs being let loose — from pitbulls to Chihuahuas — as the city puts various canine campaigns in place to chase up payment on city services.

This is why I love elections — it is the one time we as ordinary citizens get to go to meetings and raise burning issues. We also get to interrogate the candidates from the different parties standing for elections.

Please take advantage of this local government election because it is the one election where you get to elect an individual — the ward councillor — whom you can hold to account for the next five years. As we do not have a constituency system in South Africa, in all other elections you vote for a party.

The kind of councillor I want is one who speaks up. Having covered the municipal beat on and off over the years, I can tell you that I have observed councillors who never once opened their mouths at council meetings in the entire five years they were in office.

More importantly, I want a councillor who bothers to read the council agendas and questions the officials. One of my favourite civic leaders who did this very well was Baba Leonard Nkosi. He was in his late 80s, almost 90, when he was a councillor, and you would see this slightly built figure arriving at City Hall weighed down by bundles of council documents.

By the end of the meeting you would know that he had read every one of them to judge from the probing questions he put to the officials.

My ward councillor must hold regular ward committee meetings and advertise dates and times of the meetings, be it in newspapers or the local radio station, so that I can attend and hold him or her accountable for what is going on.

We often bemoan the state of our municipalities, but we need to ask to what extent we are culpable for these failures by our indifference and our silence.

There has been a lot of unhappiness over waste collection, street cleaning, municipal billing and the electricity disconnection and reconnection system by which you can be penalised for being a day late in paying your electricity account. In tandem with these is the common gripe of residents over the lack of response from the municipality when calls and correspondence go unanswered. Election campaigns and meetings will be an ideal opportunity to call parties to account and find out what they will be doing differently after election day on May 18.

Election fever can be quite catching and why not? It is a celebration of our democracy. However, it is not just about one day and casting a vote. With local government elections it is about making that democracy work for you and your city and being more robust in holding local councillors to account.

After May 18 what will we as residents within a municipality be doing differently?

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