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Local government needs residents to get involved

Local government needs to embrace citizen participation and move beyond being just a vehicle for the delivery of services. This is if the crisis of democratic representation in municipalities, evident in widespread community protests, is to be addressed.

This was the opinion of Dr Zweli Jolobe from the University of Cape Town’s department of politics, who presented a short paper on the crisis of democratic representation in local government at Wits University on Monday.

The presentation was the third session in a series of seminars hosted by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser), entitled Public Positions on History and Politics.

Daryl Glaser from the Wits politics department chaired the session with Achille Mbembe (Wiser) and Mcebisi Ndletyana (Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection) as co-panellists.

Chapter seven of the Constitution states that the objective of local government is to provide for democratic and accountable government, said Jolobe. But despite its best intentions, and the duty placed on this layer of government to encourage community involvement, the system has failed to live up to these expectations. He said so-called service delivery protests were emblematic of this, as popular discontent with unresponsive municipalities had increased substantially, especially since 2004.

‘Local government meant misery’
Jolobe said this needed to be located historically, as the local arm of government had been used historically to repress black people.

“For most black Africans, between 1910 and 1994, local government meant misery,” he said. Local government was the “central instrument” for influx control, freezing family housing construction, and the delivery of minimal services to black communities, he added.

Local government had to change to allow for more citizen participation to address the crisis.

“Local government thus has to be governed in a way that encourages citizen participation, so that communities can have a sense of belonging and affinity for their direct interface with the state, beyond merely seeing it as an engine of service delivery,” Jolobe said.

Mbembe said many reports written about local government “rendered technical what is inherently political”.

Is government interested in local democracy?
And, while national democratic institutions exist, Mbembe said democracy often does not permeate down to local government.

“One has to wonder if government is really interested in local democracy, or if it is using it as a means to pursue further centralisation [of power],” he said.

Adding to this was the rent-seeking on behalf of local councillors, who use their positions to further entrench their power – excluding those who could pose as political threats.

Ndletyana pointed to this as one of the key drivers behind local government’s perceived unresponsiveness.

“For instance, you have jostling for power within the ANC, which spills over into municipality.”

Allowing for the ‘expression of that competence’
Ndletyana said that in some municipalities there had never been a mayor who had completed their term, while hundreds of director posts were filled with acting managers.

“Directors are hesitating to sign off programmes that are likely to credit another councillor because they are all rivals. And bureaucrats, who are supposed to be neutral, have to follow political instructions. They are being kept in acting positions permanently so that they become indebted [to the party].

“Some are completely competent but the political environment does not allow for the expression of that competence,” Ndletyana said.

Mbembe said the debate was evidence that a new cycle of research into local governance was “long overdue”.

“The first cycle has reached a dead end: it can no longer explain to us what kind of political order is in the making in South Africa. The crisis is a manifestation of something bigger, but of what?” he asked.

Monday’s debate was the third in a series of seminars entitled Public Positions on History and Politics, a project of Wits University’s department of political studies, the History Workshop and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser), with the Raith Foundation. The Mail & Guardian is the project’s exclusive media partner in this series.

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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