Who are the graft-busters?

Would you elect: Tony Leon to sort out the bucket system in your ward? Thabo Mbeki to make sure your potholes are plugged? Or Mangosuthu Buthelezi to ensure that the new community youth centre is finally built?

If most political party mandarins are to be believed, then South Africans will elect a president when they head to the polls on March 1. The first phase of the election campaigns in many of the metropoles and other areas focused on the face of the commander in chief, the leader, the president of a party.

In hotly contested areas such as Cape Town, opposition parties have introduced the “mayoral candidate”—either solo or in a familial portrait shot such as the Independent Democrats’s (ID) Patricia de Lille and her hotelier. Many voters will, no doubt, be surprised that they won’t be confronted with the dour photo of Connie Mulder on their ballot paper.
Instead, they will be looking at photos of women and men that many have not set eyes on, other than a brief encounter at the local spaza shop or corner café.

In a remarkably short space of time, South African politics has come to resemble American politics in both national and local elections. Politics matters, but it’s the brand that sells. Have the parties and their slick advertising gurus missed the point about democracy at a local level altogether?

Printing a million identical posters in Pretoria and sending them to the nine corners of our nation cuts costs and creates a good profile of the party. However, it does little to help voters discern why Vusi X or Magdalene Y should be their voice at a local level? Does this inspire citizens, who do not feel that any major party represents their interests, to vote on election day?

Importantly, it also decreases the ability of communities to hold elected leaders to account. This is a vital ingredient in ensuring that local politicians stay clean and don’t dip their hands into the tender cookie jar. When everyone knows who you are, it’s more likely that your four new garages and golf club membership will raise eyebrows in your neighbourhood where you were once known as the politician in the old beat-up bakkie.

Candidates also stand the risk of becoming increasingly accountable to party structures that, in turn, pander to the interests of donors who fund national poster campaigns. This all serves to muffle the voice of the electorate.

In focusing on the party and not on local candidates, the major political groupings risk duplicating an inherent weakness of the national and provincial party list system at a local level. Ironically, they do this in the one level of government that allows citizens to choose their candidate and not rely on the political parties, central committees to pick their favoured politicians.

If this is a trend, it’s a worrying one that we need to correct in future elections and a reminder that political parties need to find an impasse between the narrow interests of party headquarters and a bigger picture approach to ensuring that the democratic project remains a viable one.

More than any other election since 1994, the local government elections have seen almost every large political party, and many independent candidates, aspire to the title of “graft-buster”. Combating corruption and improving service delivery is imprinted in party manifestos and echoed in campaign rallies around the country. (Refer to the box below for each parties’ plans on how to eradicate corruption.)

Corruption is not the only challenge facing effective public service delivery, but the frequency of corruption scandals at the local level (which could run into hundreds of millions of rands annually) indicates that we may be facing a serious problem. How have political parties responded to an issue that bedevils each one of them in turn? None provides a magic silver bullet, nor could they, but they go some way towards prioratising the issue.

But, it will take more than vague policy to tackle graft at the site of service delivery. While parties deserve an A for all putting the issue on the agenda, they get an overall C- on detail of implementation. Now is perhaps the time to grill candidates in your constituency on how they plan to tackle graft.

Andile Sokomani and Hennie van Vuuren are respectively researcher and head of the Institute for Security Studies corruption and governance programme

Solving the problem of corruption
The African National Congress offers an action plan (Project Consolidate) to make local government “speed up the delivery of free basic services” and proclaims determination to fight “corruption and arrogance among some who work in government”. Its manifesto acknowledges that “[a] number of municipalities face serious challenges in the delivery of basic services ...in some areas councillors and officials have done wrong things, serving their own personal interests rather than the interests of communities”.

The manifesto, however, offers no detailed concrete steps on exactly how the ANC will go about fighting corruption, other than presumably implementing existing laws and initiatives. It is worth noting that there have been a number of positive developments in creating laws and authorities to tackle local level graft in the past few years. Importantly ANC candidates are to take an oath before the election that they “... will fight against corruption in any form”.

Seeking to capitalise on the perceived failure of the ANC government to deliver services and address maladministration and corruption in municipalities, the Democratic Alliance identifies delivery as the “core of our campaign and the crux of our message”.

The DA manifesto avers that “poor political leadership, maladministration and corruption, and overpaid and incompetent municipal officials have all contributed to the failure of the ANC-run municipalities”. The ANC’s Project Consolidate is written off as “a half-hearted-attempt”, which merely scratches the surface of the deep-rooted structural “crisis” afflicting local government in South Africa.

The DA goes on to present a “twelve point plan to combat corruption” in the awarding of tenders and contracts. Among other things, the plan, which the ANC might need to consider emulating when drafting future manifestos, makes provision for the establishment of an anti-corruption ombudsman, located within a central tender audit office, “who will have investigative powers to follow up on anonymous tips. The ombudsman will also have powers to introduce measures to curb kickbacks and gifts.”

While the DA approaches the problem of corruption purely from a technical angle, the African Christian Democratic Party’s manifesto considers strength of moral character: “The ACDP believes the problem lies, not only in the lack of efficient monitoring systems, accountability and staff appointment and retention system, but also that both officials and councillors with strong moral character, honesty and integrity need to be appointed and retained.”

In contrast to the ACDP, which advocates a community-driven approach to service delivery, the Inkatha Freedom Party, somewhat similarly to the DA, envisages “a new entrepreneurial state that preaches decentralised management and calls for an expanded role of the private sector in service delivery”.

The ID, however, insists on “a wider range of alternative service delivery options that entail a more involved and interventionist state ...” With regard to weeding out corruption, the IFP offers to create a rather unclear early warning system, which would somehow “detect malfunctioning councils”. The ID manifesto, on the other hand, offers some credible steps including extending conflict of interest regulations to apply to councillors.

For the United Democratic Movement, local governance “boils down to two fundamental issues: basic service delivery and fighting corruption”. The manifesto offers little detail, but rather points the voter to a nearest UDM branch, a local UDM candidate, the UDM national office or the UDM website.

The Freedom Front Plus, on the other hand, is more direct if not downright crude.

If the FF+ manifesto is anything to go by, there is only one way to resolve the perceived service delivery and management crisis at municipalities: discontinue affirmative action and appoint and employ “the most competent experts available on the basis of merit”—as if competent experts are not also prone to corruption? The FF+ manifesto is thin on how to tackle graft, but promises that councillors will report this to constitutional oversight bodies such as the Office of the Public Protector.

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