The importance of ward councillors is constantly overlooked. They are blamed for the poor delivery of services and praised for innovative initiatives. Their role in promoting social cohesion, however, is rarely mentioned. But the personality and leadership of the ward councillor is often integral to the peace or violence present in the area he or she represents.
The role of the councillor is fraught with a duality that often goes unacknowledged. They are responsible to their electorate and also to the municipal council, a situation that often seems impossible to navigate. You will find councillors who are responsive to people in their ward but who lack the capacity to make good decisions in the council. On the other hand, you also find councillors who are true leaders at the municipal level but are inaccessible to the residents in their ward.
It is rare to find a councillor who can be good at both functions. To navigate this balance, councillors need to promote good governance and social cohesion with co-operation, communication, accountability, accessibility, impartiality and personal integrity.
Ward councillors are supposed to work together with various groups but this form of co-operation and participation rarely occurs. Many studies have found that the functioning of ward committees is overly dependent on the performance of ward councillors, who determine how often ward committees meet, set their agendas and provide the flow of information between ward committees and the municipal council.
But many ward councillors do not allow for co-operation and do not do their jobs properly. Either they do not set regular meetings or the timing of those meetings is infrequent and unpredictable. Councillors are often not up to these tasks because of incompetence, ignorance about their responsibilities towards ward committees, or because they are constrained by party politics or local power contests.
Second, ward committee elections are often fraught with controversy. Often councillors choose their favourites and allow ward committees to become a mere extension of their own political party structures, sparking a fierce contest for these positions. This happens even though the local government handbook specifically cautions against the handpicking of committee members.
Third, councillors often partner with those already involved in community organisations and so they can fail to engage with the wider community to any significant degree. Councillors also rarely co-operate with excluded groups, such as young people. Therefore, although it is within the interests of the residents for the councillors to co-operate with all stakeholders, often it becomes a “gentleman’s club”, with councillors choosing their favourite individuals and groups to work with and not finding a use for anyone else.
Councillors need to open the channels of communication between themselves and their constituency so that they can gain insight into what the public needs and inform it about municipal decisions.
But it can be difficult for councillors to provide both top-down communication from the municipal council and bottom-up communication to the council. So, this communication is often ineffective even when it does take place.
There is also a lot of miscommunication between councillors and ward committees, when councillors do not use the information provided by the ward committees to champion issues in the municipal council. When this happens, the value of ward committees is questioned. Councillors have also been accused of not communicating effectively with their constituents. The usual place for councillors to communicate with residents are mass meetings and road shows.
But these are rarely a meaningful way for the public to participate. The problem is the planning and budgetary processes of local government are not often affected by the outcomes of these mass meetings, and that is because of a problem in communication.
Although districts do reflect good publicity and clear agendas for izimbizo, official notes and minutes are not always taken and the evidence of follow-ups by officials on issues raised is minimal. Even those councillors who are committed to public participation tend to assume that they know what the needs of their constituents are.
These assumptions are a direct challenge to representation, because it is only by direct communication with residents that councillors can discover what their constituents need and want.
Avenues of ensuring accountability are especially important for councillors, given a political system that is strongly dominated by a single party. At residents’ meetings, politicians tend to make vociferous promises for redress and change, but the public complains that this change does not actually follow.
The izimbizo thus need to be better structured and should serve as a way to establish effective accountability to align planning, budgeting and implementation, and to name those who are accountable. When there is a lack of accountability and delivery, residents lose confidence in the political process and start criticising their elected representatives.
Accountability, therefore, is the key principle of representative democracy. But the current electoral system limits the accountability of ward councillors because it emphasises the importance of the party in the choice of ward candidates. South Africans tend to associate their councillors with political parties and vote along party lines more than for a specific candidate. As a result, councillors have little incentive to feel accountable to their constituency because the party is seen to be accountable.
Councillors are meant to live in the areas that they serve so that they can be truly representative and understand its problems, priorities and requirements. It is also necessary for developing local solutions to local problems and taking action on a local scale. The councillor must be available to their constituency. This is because people report feeling powerless when they attempt to interact with their councillors and cannot do so.
Many councillors spend so much time in council meetings that they become invisible in their constituency. Councillors are then seen to be guided by officials, not by their constituents, and therefore the council’s decisions do not accurately represent the views of the residents.
This inaccessibility of councillors is especially telling, given the number of protests about poor service delivery. Problems usually arise when there is a disconnect between the ward councillors and the residents.
Political differences and conflict usually contribute significantly to tensions in wards. Therefore, the ability of councillors to remain impartial is crucial to promoting social cohesion. During elections political parties encourage a nationalisation of local elections by focusing their campaigns on national political issues and the performance of the government or party as a whole rather than explaining what the individual councillor will do in local government.
Continued political interference in local government compromises administration, development, participation and service delivery. When councillors are more loyal to a political party than to their office, the concerns of other parties are ignored or deliberately excluded, and anything associated with local government becomes a party process rather than a co-operative process.
This is especially prevalent in ward committees that are largely captured by local parties or become defined as sites of local political competition. Most of the civic leaders and councillors are members of the same party and view one another as former “comrades in struggle”.
This politicisation of councillors and ward committees results in both inter-party and intra-party conflict. Indeed, the fierce competition for these positions has led to many conflicts within political parties, including assassinations.
The type of person the councillor is can influence the social cohesion of a ward. The personality, integrity and morality of the councillor, and whether their leadership style is autocratic or democratic, can affect the extent to which citizens participate. In certain wards, councillors can act as gatekeepers, ensuring that all communication and work in the area must be approved by them.
Councillors come from different backgrounds, have different knowledge, skills and political ideologies. But their leadership and accountability are largely dependent on their communication skills and emotional intelligence. If councillors are not inclined to work well with other stakeholders in the ward, they will not be able to contribute effectively to local governance.
A ward councillor who is not empathetic is likely to be regarded as a bad leader, whereas a councillor with positive and strong leadership attributes could reduce the prospects of service delivery protests. Therefore, councillors need to provide positive leadership and promote relationships with both stakeholders and opposition parties to improve their wards.
When councillors promote these concepts, they will be better able to maintain the balance of residents and council and be good councillors. When these concepts are ignored, councillors are more likely to contribute to tensions and problems with social cohesion.
It should be clear by now that councillors play a very important role in South African politics and yet, because they are often overlooked, little focus is put on how to improve their skills, including leadership. There is a need to investigate the behavioural competencies and characteristics of councillors.
Furthermore, councillors should be continuously monitored, evaluated and aided to help them to achieve their mandates, maintain the balance of residents and council and promote social cohesion.
Lauren October is a researcher at the Safety and Violence Initiative at the University of Cape Town