The idea of postponing next year’s local government elections and synchronising them with the 2024 national and provincial polls is looking more likely after two of Parliament’s three biggest parties floated it.
The EFF this week said its highest decision-making body, the central command team, resolved to table a private members bill in Parliament in the party’s efforts to have the local government elections synchronised with the national and provincial elections.
The ANC’s Andries Nel, a member of the ANC national working committee (NWC) and the national executive committee (NEC) coordinator, said the governing party felt there were “significant advantages” to having the elections synchronised.
The only stumbling block appears to be the DA, which, through its Gauteng leader Mike Moriarty, said there was “no need to fix something that’s not broken”.
Among the arguments put forward by Shivambu for the rethinking of the current structure of the local government elections was the “unsustainable nature of their current state”.
“The demarcation of local government in its current state needs to be revisited. You will find a small section with numerous – about four or more wards – councillors plus a mayor, and they still need to get funding from national revenue collection,” said Shivambu.
He also bemoaned the fact that local municipalities received less than 10% of national revenue collection, yet most of the direct service delivery to communities happened in the local government sphere.
As a result, Shivambu said, the EFF had taken a resolution that the local government elections should be harmonised with national and provincial polls. He said the way the current local government was constituted and funded should be revisited.
Nel, although making it clear that no formal position had been taken by the ANC, said the governing party’s NWC and NEC were of the view that a national dialogue around the possibility of synchronising the elections ought to be started.
“The NWC has had extensive discussions on the local government elections and has really taken stock of the fact that the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is having a major impact on all aspects of our lives – that it’s impacting the elections, with by-elections having been postponed by the Independent Electoral Commission of SA,” Nel said.
“The NWC said we need nationwide dialogues about how we respond to the challenge, particularly around how we conduct free and fair elections under these conditions.”
He said it was a pity that the issue of synchronising elections always degenerated “into a technical debate about how much money can be saved through synchronising the elections versus keeping them apart, and what challenges are faced by the electoral commission in administering separate or combined elections”.
“What should be at the core of this discussion is how elections are central to the electoral project, hence this debate is not just about compliance with legislation that says elections should be held, but also about structuring them in such a way that will make citizens again take part in numbers in the process,” Nel said.
He explained that there had been a consistent decline in the levels of voter registration and turnout as a result of citizens’ scepticism of public representations and political parties. The solution, therefore, lay in how the electoral system was restructured.
He made a strong case for the synchronisation of the local government and national and provincial elections, saying there were no constitutional limitations that hindered this move.
Nel said another factor to be considered in the debate around local government elections was the current structure’s effect regarding “democracy, good governance and service delivery”.
“By having elections every two and a half years, we find ourselves constantly switching into election mode and, as we know, that has a major disruptive impact on both governance and service delivery. A few months before elections, major decisions are put on hold as public representatives are off campaigning and, after elections, newly elected representatives have to settle in and are often disruptive in the administration.”
He added that the current separate elections cost an arm and a leg. Nel, the former deputy minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, said the costs were currently being absorbed by the taxpayers, the fiscus and the political parties that contest the elections. Smaller parties have said this disadvantaged them.
While the ANC was open to harmonising the elections, the DA’s Moriarty said his party was against the proposed move.
“The big advantage of our current election cycles is that the local government elections take place roughly halfway between the national and provincial elections. It is mid-term, and that gives the electorate an opportunity to take stock and change their minds,” he said.
“Mid-term elections give voters an opportunity to send a signal to a government about what the voters, even those supportive of the prevailing majority, think of their performance.
“In other democracies, the concept of mid-terms is common and accepted. In the US, for example, these are fixed and predictable.”
Moriarty said that, in South Africa, there had been no greater example of voters seizing an opportunity to express their feelings than in the 2016 elections.
“The disapproval of then ANC president Jacob Zuma was voiced in no uncertain terms. Unbiased commentators concluded that the loss of various municipalities was in no small way due to the expression of discontent at the way the governing party was handling the matter of leadership and succession.
“Moreover, the Zuma presidency had become inextricably associated with state capture and corruption. The voters did not hesitate to express themselves, even those supportive of the ANC, in the safety of the knowledge that their party would still govern nationally.
“The message was clear: ‘Heed our voice now, or else pay the price at the next national election,’” said Moriarty.
“Happily for the ANC, they received a Ramaphoria dividend and stayed in government, specifically in Gauteng, where they only sneaked in with a one-seat majority,” said Moriarty.