Local Government Elections: A Civil Society Perspective

Dr. Rama Naidu of the Democracy Development Programme, an NGO that develops capacity in  governance for enhanced participation in democratic political processes, writes an opinion piece about the local government election.

His article speaks to controversial issues such as civil society's poor engagement with the political process, officials with zero accountability and the narrow perspectives of minorities.

The Local Government Context

The first democratic elections in 1994 heralded the start of a new age for all citizens of South Africa.  It was perceived as a time during which people would regain their lost dignity by having access to basic services such as housing, clean water and sanitation.

Ten years on and many people are still waiting to taste the fruits of democracy. Whilst we acknowledge that the Government has made strides in terms of development and delivery, there is still a long way to go. The euphoria of liberation is starting to dull and people are beginning to ask difficult questions.

This upcoming local government election has highlighted a shift in peoples’ mindsets from liberation politics to service delivery and good governance. Over the last twelve months there have been no less than 80 mass demonstrations countrywide that reflect   dissatisfaction with the pace and level of delivery. Although some suggested that there is a sinister force at work, it would be naive to believe that these demonstrations do not have justifiable root causes. 

The questions one needs to ask are:

  • Why is this happening in an election year and not in the years of governance?
  • Why was there not enough engagement with the councillors?
  • Why were there no mass meetings?
  • Why were people not held accountable?

Is it that people were frustrated with trying whilst all the time knowing that politicians pay more attention at election time?

Posing such questions makes me uncomfortable as a Civil Society Organisation (CSO). Are we doing enough to promote political inclusiveness at the local level?

One gets the sense that the notion of effective public participation is still a relatively new paradigm to many people. We were brought up believing that only mass action and strikes would change things. This model, however, no longer applies when we have a legitimate government. And yet, maybe the mass demonstrations were the only solution  communities could resort to in order to be heard and taken seriously.

In view of this, a major paradigm shift needs to occur before people will fully engage with the structures created by government to encourage public participation. The simple provision of a framework for public participation does not mean that people will engage with it in a meaningful way. On the contrary, many of these constitutional provisions have been cornered by politicians who used them for their own ends. As a result we have:

  • Constituency offices that are openly perceived as party offices;
  • Ward committees that have become extensions of political parties;
  • Officials who receive large salaries with zero accountability and no performance appraisals;
  • Councillors are vocal only during elections;
  • Councillors who are not even known in their constituency.

Civil society has to take some responsibility for this. All this is a consequence of us not raising our voices and making political parties accountable. At worse, we fail dismally to exercise our democratic and constitutional right to vote. Why then should we be whining and moaning about shabby service delivery when we have not really internalised and tested this new model of effective public participation? By effective public participation, I refer to informed and critical input and not the mere presence of citizens at a meeting. We, as citizens have allowed this erosion of our power over a period of time. We will continue to face poor delivery and deficient governance if we do not reclaim our power.

Proportional Representation versus Constituency Based Elections

During the run up to these elections the issue of proportional representation versus constituency based representation has come up in the media. Parties have been accused of manipulating party lists whilst ignoring choices made by the communities. Consequently, several disenchanted party members will be standing as independent candidates for these elections. The local government elections provide CSOs with a great opportunity to encourage individual citizens to engage critically with political parties about community related issues that they are concerned with. Promises need to be monitored and followed up, if necessary, by relevant community structures. Active citizenship means being a part of the solution so that – together - we can build a stronger and more sustainable democracy.

I personally feel that a constituency-based system of elections at local government level would lead greater accountability and collaborative decision making. Candidates would be living in the community and will be well-known. Previously, a task team that looked at the entire issue of the Electoral System in South Africa in 2004 recommended changes to the present system. Proportional representation gives members of the ruling party power that is in danger of being abused. Whilst staying with the national policy of decentralization, this system should be re-visited in the interests of better governance.

What About Minorities?

We need to remind ourselves that our constitution guarantees the rights of minorities and that, once a councillor is elected, he or she represents ALL the citizens within a ward. It is always disheartening to hear members of minority communities say openly that they have no interest in the local government elections as their vote would be insignificant. Yet, it is often these same people who are constantly reflecting on how bad things are for them! Part of everyone’s responsibility as a citizen is to actively contribute to the wellbeing of the community.

Unless we exercise our rights in respect of public participation, the space for discourse will be slowly eroded until we can no longer call ourselves a true democracy. Citizens who choose not to participate in elections out of apathy need not be surprised in how little they receive. People should learn to take democratic elections more seriously, particularly local government elections.

The Challenge for Civil Society Institutions

As I said earlier CSOs appear to have been dormant since 1994 and it is time for us to ask some serious questions about governance and accountability and our role in it. The promotion of active citizenship does not only take place during an election but more so in times between elections. It is a continuous rather than an overnight process. We will have to resuscitate those community structures that were so active  in the 80’s and make sure that government created structures such as the Ward Committees are not manipulated by political parties for their own ends.

Our task is to create an authentic voice of the community again - a voice that will command respect in the corridors of power and a voice that will make people believe their contribution is meaningful and beneficial. The creation of public fora, citizen action groups, community policing forums, and other types of community organisations is absolutely essential to ensure that we have a strong democracy. Our responsibility goes further in ensuring that citizens are aware of their rights and are empowered sufficiently to exercise those rights for the benefit of the community in which they live.

The upcoming local government election gives us the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the promotion of active citizenship and to obtain responses from our leaders which we can monitor, thereby holding people accountable.

Dr. Rama Naidu is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Programme.

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