Let communities choose

I have recently expressed my pessimism about the state of local government and questioned the seriousness of the ruling party in tackling that important layer of governance.

The evidence of dysfunctionality is the service delivery protests emerging everywhere—almost in a coordinated fashion. Certainly, there are numerous signs that, with local government elections due in about 18 months, the ruling party is experimenting with all sorts of possible solutions.

But some of the interventions could deepen the problem and create what Joel Netshitenzhe has called perverse incentives. These interventions include firing councillors and mayors, Zuma personally involving himself and straight talking with the alliance partners on their involvement in the protests.

In Sakhile the first public comment from the leader of the protests was: “We want President Jacob Zuma to come here and resolve this issue.” Zuma had set a precedent by making an unannounced visit to Balfour in Mpumalanga a few months earlier where he found that residents had broadly valid concerns.

It therefore made sense to the people of Sakhile that, having damaged public property, hogged the headlines and disrupted work and school, they too “deserved” a presidential visit. Not only had Zuma been to Balfour, he also sent a heavyweight team of Cabinet ministers led by Collins Chabane, minister in the presidency, to make a follow-up visit and to set up programmes to tackle the problems raised by residents. So what was good for Balfour, surely, had to be good for Sakhile?

But last week that young man who evokes admiration, hatred, ridicule and praise—depending on which political breast we suckled at—was given the honour by the ANC of presiding over the dismissal of the mayor, chief whip and the mayoral committee in Sakhile in response to the protests.

Residents popped the champagne while other South Africans were irked that Julius Malema did the honours, but analysts correctly wondered whether ANC activists elsewhere would not stir up trouble to dislodge their opponents in charge of municipalities.

It’s a fair concern: we can expect this to happen as the party starts a process of evaluating councillors and deciding whether to retain them for another term.

The battle will intensify because many councillors and mayors who had been included in the ANC’s lists for Parliament and provincial legislature earlier this year were excluded after the party decided it did not want to lose its expertise in local government. This means the door for new entrants is only very, very narrowly open.

So if you can’t beat your opponents in the branch meetings, why not take the battle to the streets?

But my spirits were lifted briefly when I interacted with some councillors who told me the party was currently evaluating them.

The fact that the process has started so early and that the party wants the nomination of councillors completed by June next year shows that they are taking the next elections very seriously.

The questionnaire their peers have to complete includes their attendance record at council and committee meetings, their contributions in those meetings and competency tests of their writing, debating, research and public speaking skills. The party also checks their training and academic qualifications and contributions to party meetings.

It is not bad at all. In fact it is impressive. This is until you find that it is open to manipulation because those councillors who enjoy the support of the branch and their council chief whips are marked up while those who are facing competition from their branch leaders are marked down. I believe there is merit in the argument to open up the process to the community.

In Sakhile one of the key demands was that councillors be nominated by the community rather than by party gatekeepers. Of course the greatest irony is that it is the selfsame community that votes for the councillors as long as they are ANC candidates and then later cries foul.

In a proper democracy, if the ANC nominated unpopular candidates, that would strengthen the hand of the opposition to snatch the ward. But not here. It happens only in rare instances such as in Dobsonville, Soweto, where Ntate Japhta “Charma” Lekgetho has whacked ANC candidates in several elections, getting votes from ANC supporters who believe in his qualities as a councillor.

It happened again recently in Tembisa where a Congress of the People candidate won a by-election after residents complained that the ANC candidate was too close to the previous incompetent councillor and was regarded as part of the community’s problems.

We need to save local government and it will not be done through Sicelo Shiceka’s expensive jaunts for mayors and municipal managers in Cape Town and Boksburg.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane


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