Citizens make municipalities accountable

Councils and councillors have the responsibility of listening to the needs of their constituencies - party candidates in next year's municipal elections should take note of this. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Councils and councillors have the responsibility of listening to the needs of their constituencies - party candidates in next year's municipal elections should take note of this. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The 2016 municipal elections are coming – poo and all. Political parties and independent political entrepreneurs wanting to be elected to municipal councils depend on citizens and not the other way around.

Municipal government is weak without the strength and political currency of citizens. The discontent and social protests targeted at municipalities by citizens confirm that no government can afford such an upsurge.
So, stakes are high for control in the metros for the majority of political party councillors to restore the trust of citizens in city government and in other municipalities.

Though many councillors embarrass party bosses and devalue the votes of citizens, problem-solving is definitely not the preserve of national or provincial government alone by imposing solutions. Citizens must have a direct say in the deployment of resources. The cognitive structure of the electorate always looks at national government and the governing party for relief from incompetent councillors and councils. The coming elections are about local needs, issues, problems and recognising citizens have different ways of knowing and understanding the meaning of their circumstances.

The national government’s intervention has taken the form of a “back to basics” approach. But municipalities will also have to develop new competencies to deal with the problems they face.

These include exponential growth in population numbers because of changing urbanisation patterns in society; increasing pressures for services in the wake of deepening and desperate poverty; and capacity limits in taxes and other forms of revenues to maintain and construct new infrastructure to address demand and supply of basic clean water, electricity, refuse removal, roads and environmental health and safety.

Many parties, including the ANC, have held party conferences in regions and provinces to elect new leadership. Regions of the ANC countrywide have common boundaries with metros. Undoubtedly, all party conferences are focused on the 2016 municipal elections.

Listing processes of councillor candidature are not mechanical and half-measure political circles. Therefore, final constituency and proportional representation lists of party candidates for municipal councils, especially in metros, will be fraught with contestations at personal, professional and political levels. Proportional representation versus constituency representation candidates within a party has the free-rider problem, where the proportional representation is less at risk of not being elected. Much more campaign time is demanded from the direct election of the constituency representative candidate.

Measured against previous municipal elections, different power circuits and networks of influence will strive for dominancy. Some of these contestations will obfuscate the real tensions in the nominations and electoral processes.

Sitting councillors who are ostracised by their own parties will jump ship to join other parties to secure continued political office, including proximity to the fiscal purse or simply an income.

The previous election vote and trust placed in a councillor by certain sections of a community becomes a dispensable resource when in office or at the end of a term. This is to be expected from independent political entrepreneurs also within parties, including being grandiose and resulting in basic political prostitution. It destroys the stability and political fabric of parties when there are already candidates serving in positions of community leadership.

Municipalities are about coal-face interactions between citizens, ward councillors, the mayors and their executive councils. Municipal councils in all provinces have marked inadequate accountability to citizens. Councillors in certain municipal wards are in direct conflict with its own citizens.

A councillor in Cape Town’s southern suburbs recently assaulted a concerned citizen protesting against the rezoning of land for private properties. Metro police are unleashed on citizens when they protest. In certain communities, private company interests with the full support of the ward councillors and their councils override community interests, whether it is rational, just or fair, irrespective of the significant number of appeals or protests from their citizens. Are these councillors conflicted through a close relationship between business and their municipality or are some of them both councillor and private entrepreneur?

In the 2016 elections, citizens must ask their political parties harder questions about their candidates’ accountability record and any obscured deals that lock the municipal resources into future debt and liabilities. Reports from outgoing councillors before elections on evidence of good governance must be demanded so that all future risks and allegations of corruption by municipal officials and politicians are nipped in the bud and not allowed to fester for years.

The historical path of politicians going into councils is critical in profiling a potential candidate for elections, whether proportional, constituency or an independent. At a personal level candidates must openly and comprehensively declare their financial interests and that of their family and associates. Websites of municipalities must also display the qualifications, and where they were obtained, of the executive and senior management of municipal administrations.

At the political level, candidates should declare their norms and support for our constitutional law, confirming that citizen participation is a virtue in its own right, and a sine qua non of our democracy.

Daniel Plaatjies is the editor of Protecting the Inheritance: Governance and Public Accountability in Democratic South Africa

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