ANALYSIS | Why local government needs to be more responsive to its communities

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Local government elections are set for October and could well see smaller parties getting the votes, writes the author.
Local government elections are set for October and could well see smaller parties getting the votes, writes the author.

The 2021 local government elections could see the rise of smaller community-based parties outside of the metros, writes Harlan Cloete.

We recently celebrated 27 years of democracy. In many ways, so much has changed, and in so many ways, nothing has changed in South Africa. We continue to be haunted by the demons of poverty, unemployment, inequality, and corruption. And can you believe it - there is still no consensus on who is African and who is not.

Freedom Day (27 April) was also an opportunity to examine further just how far we have travelled on our bumpy fragile democracy. Ours is a constitutional democracy, with the Constitution being the supreme law of the land, regulating the relationship between those in government and those being governed (governance). The Constitution calls for regular free and fair elections. On 27 October this year, we again have an opportunity to elect new local government leadership.

Sharing a stage

The Constitution defines a municipality as three actors sharing the stage, i.e. elected (politicians), the appointed (administrators), and the community (civil society). These actors are enjoined in a complex relationship that has not been without problems around control and power. It's a governance mess, with the actors often at loggerheads, pointing accusing fingers or simply fast asleep on the job. More than often, leadership equates to a license to loot, the case in many a municipality.

Democratic governance is expressed in two ways. Firstly, representative democracy has political parties nominate candidates that are voted into office for a five-year term. Once in office, whichever party wins, has the right to govern, not rule. Kings and Queens rule. Political parties govern. We need to remember this.

The flipside of representative democracy is participatory democracy, creating the space for active citizen participation in between elections. Genuine participation by communities in local government affairs, not like an IDP manager when I probed him as to what exactly happens with all the inputs from the communities, he smirked, "ons neem kennis" (we take note).

This grassroots governance model calls into being elected ward committees, the constitutional structure, considered the arms and legs of participatory democracy. They are a non-partisan structure allowing different interest groups and individuals within a geographic ward an opportunity to dream and dare. But previous research has shown their failures. In many instances, they are but sweetheart committees functioning at the behest of the ward councillor who acts as both referee and player. Ineffective. 

READ | Analysis: Local government vs communities: Reclaiming the people's power through the courts

Less than a year ago, the Oudtshoorn Gemeenskap Inisiatief (Oudtshoorn Community Initiative), constituted by a group of local leaders, announced their dissatisfaction with the status quo and registered a political party ready to contest local government elections. They find themselves in the company of yet another new kid on the block in the Drakenstein Municipality, namely the Concerned Drakenstein Residents (CDR), which also started off as a community organisation fighting for the rights of local communities.

But what is interesting is that CDR has gone a step further, establishing their own ward committees to tackle service delivery challenges, irrespective of not being recognised by the formal system. Political parties enter elections to win and what is interesting is that both community groups have expressed their intent to govern their respective municipalities. 

It is anyone's guess whether these smaller community-based parties will be able to take votes away from political behemoths, the DA and the ANC. They face their own internal leadership challenges, from failed national experiments to constitutional defiance. Both parties will have to work hard to restore their national image. However, the dynamics at local government elections is entirely different. Here it is about how responsive local government is to the needs of local communities. 

It's fair to say that both the DA and ANC must be nervous at the prospects of governing with the very vocal community-based political parties which may very well end up being kingmakers in their respective councils.

Could these two aforementioned initiatives be the sign of an electorate becoming tired of being governed from Wale Street and Luthuli House? Or should we brace ourselves for more coalition governments who some argue deliver far better service for communities as was evident in the early days of the Joburg coalition led by Herman Mashaba?

And this is local democracy in action. Let's face it; democracy is not always clean; it's messy, highly contested, the terrain of gladiators with vested competing interests. Like the late Cecyl Esau remarked:

I did not join the struggle for people to vote for one political party, I joined the struggle for the right of people to decide whoever best they think should represent them.

And this is where local community media, such as community radio stations, can and should play the role of sense-maker. By facilitating debates and informing and educating listeners about how government works and holding local leaders to account. For the municipality to explain the link between consecutive clean audits and deteriorating dirty streets.

READ | Opinion: Why the district development model is needed

They must use their hyper-local influence to put forward proposals to resource civic education programmes and mobilise youth to be democratic players and not mere spectators. And to encourage the electorate to ask questions. Ours is not a tick-box democracy; rather, it's a call on local government and the citizens to reimagine a preferred future by identifying appropriate strategies and interventions that will enable change and impact as envisaged in the District Development Model. This calls on evidenced-based research, solutions and innovative dialogues that focus on the unique local challenges and opportunities.  

So brace yourself for the democracy games. Local government elections 2021 may very well see the rise of more community-based political parties outside the metros. As Aristotle so succinctly puts it, politics is the art of the possible. 

- Dr Harlan Cloete is an extraordinary lecturer at the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University. His main research interest is exploring effective and ineffective HRD governance systems in the public sector with a keen interest in local government. He serves as chairperson of community radio KC 107.7 

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