The people rate local government

In the run-up to the local government elections on May 18, the Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa) conducted an extensive citizen-satisfaction survey of 2 375 adult South African citizens in 21 municipalities in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and North West, which was financed by the Canadian International Development Agency.

The participating municipalities were small or medium-sized in terms of population and have a predominantly rural character, which means that they are not necessarily a cross-section of all municipalities. They were selected by the provincial governments and included a mix of well and poorly performing municipalities. The purpose of the survey was to solicit the opinions of ordinary citizens of the performance of their local government during the past four years.

The Mail & Guardian will publish the survey results, focusing on all aspects of local service delivery and governance, in the coming weeks.
The survey, and the articles, show that citizens have strong opinions about the performance of their district and local councils, both in terms of both the quality of service delivery and the quality of governance. Idasa defines the latter as the way services and public goods are allocated and delivered, and the interaction between public, economic and social actors in society.

It is important to note that this survey was a perception survey, reflecting citizens’ opinions. These may (as a result of lack of information, for example) not necessarily reflect the reality in their municipalities but they are likely to inform their voting behaviour next month.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the survey is that only one in 10 citizens (11%) is satisfied with the quality of service delivery provided by local councils. This is a dramatic decrease when compared with 2006, when four in 10 (39,5%) were still satisfied with service delivery.

Objectively seen, during the past four years the government has continued and even stepped up its efforts to increase access to basic services (water provision, connection to the electricity network, access to housing and so on). The important question is: why are citizen satisfaction levels are going down sharply, when service provision has remained more or less the same, or might even have improved a little?

The reasons
According to Idasa, there are three main reasons for this. The first is that the service delivery gap (the gap between what people expect and what government is realistically able to deliver) is increasing, not only because of demographic factors such as population growth and international and national migration, but also because citizens expect the government to do more than before—an expectation partly raised, or at least reinforced, by politicians making unrealistic promises about free services.

The second is council’s lack of responsiveness in addressing important issues identified by citizens. This is supported by the findings. Major problems identified by citizens in their wards four years ago (such as inadequate water provision or lack of decent roads) still top their priority lists—and apparently did not receive sufficient attention by local government in this period.

This could be related to the fact that too many priorities are defined at national level and councils have only limited power and discretionary resources to address their own priorities, as identified by their citizens.

This result is also linked to the fact that consultation and participation structures don’t function optimally. Social accountability mechanisms aren’t in place: for instance, a council could (until now) get away with disregarding the priorities or the needs of its citizens until a certain undefined critical threshold is reached—and violent protest is triggered.

The final reason, supported by the findings of the survey, is that increasingly citizens’ view of the quality of governance overall is coloured by their sense of local government performance. This is reflected in a statement made by a participant in a recent riot: “We are burning stuff because those who are our mayors took money for themselves.”

The survey shows that citizens are aware of poor communication, lack of transparency and increased corruption and nepotism in local governments; they know that these factors have a negative impact on the delivery of high-quality services.

Voting behaviour
It will be very interesting to see how these perceptions inform their voting behaviour. Will they reprove the sitting councillors, who in their view didn’t deliver enough? Will there be a shift in political preference, as the most recently held by-elections indicated, or will a lower voter turnout mean that people might have lost confidence in local government as an institution that addresses their needs adequately?

The survey confirms the main conclusions of the “State of Local Government in South Africa” report by the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, which says that “much of local government is indeed in distress and that this state of affairs has become deeply rooted within our system of governance”. The root cause of this “distress”, as seen by the citizens surveyed by Idasa, is politicians’ disdain for basic democratic governance principles and values, which are increasingly sacrificed for individual benefit and political power.

The main message to be taken from the survey is that the distance between those who govern and those who are governed is increasing in South Africa and that local government is more and more governing the municipalities on behalf of its citizens and not with its citizens, which affects its legitimacy negatively and steers South Africa away from its collective vision of establishing a developmental democracy.

To resolve this crisis is not simply a matter of improving the skills of government staff and councillors. Neither is it a matter of pumping extra money into the system. It has to do with changing the local government staff and leaders’ attitudes to the way they relate to their constituents.

The message from the electorate to their prospective councillors is clear:

  • Listen to us and be responsive to our needs;

  • Communicate actively and be transparent about how you use our money; and

  • Be accountable to your electorate and not only to your party.

Paul van Hoof is the senior adviser on methodology for the Local Governance Unit of Idasa. For the full report, go to www.idasa.org.za

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