Grassroots democracy begins with open ward committees

Citizen participation is an essential element of our constitutional democracy. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world with a liberal Constitution that enables citizens to participate actively at all levels of governance.

The government established the ward committee system in accordance with sections 72 to 78 of the Municipal Structures Act, 1998, to improve people’s involvement in local government and municipal development planning.

The government had envisioned citizen-led local governance that would influence municipal decision making; involving citizens from planning to implementation, as well as evaluating municipal involvement, to deepen democracy in pragmatic ways.

Although setting up the ward committees system was a novel idea, the structure does not seem to be producing the envisioned results and improving community participation in municipal governance.

There are several reasons for this.

First, the structures have increasingly become platforms for political party activism. Most political parties have turned ward committees into recruitment grounds for potential party followers. In the end, ward committees cease to serve the interests of citizens and, eventually, their concerns are not responded to appropriately by the municipality.

Second, the composition of ward committees is problematic. In most cases, they are composed of dominant political parties in the area. The proximity of ward committees to branches of political parties often pulls ward committees into the struggles of these parties, eventually weakening their capacity to serve the local community.

Notably, key marginal populations — such as women, the youth and people living with disabilities — are rarely represented in the structures.

Third, decision-making is not transparent. Most ward committees are used to endorse decisions already made elsewhere. In most cases, these decisions do not favour residents. As a result, it is almost impossible for people to hold local leaders accountable, given the lack of details about how decisions were arrived at.

Eventually, interventions unrelated to the needs of residents gain prominence and the citizenry is left on their own, suffering under the weight of poor service delivery.

Fourth, the low levels of literacy among some ward committee members is concerning. This makes it difficult for them to read and comprehend municipal documents, which are often written in technical language. The net effect is that they are unable to communicate confidently with the local communities on any of the issues contained in the documents.

Fifth, too many incompetent ward councillors serve as chairpersons of ward committees. Meetings are not properly scheduled and happen in an ad hoc manner, procedures are not followed correctly and some councillors are unprepared for meetings. All these issues undermine effective local governance and weaken the capacity of ward committees to deliver as expected.

The effectiveness of ward committees must be enhanced if citizens are to appreciate the gains of our hard-won democracy.

Ward mechanisms to communicate with residents must be improved, especially where decision making is concerned. Municipalities need to understand that, if their aim is to use ward committees to endorse decisions already taken elsewhere, people’s participation will be ineffective.

Residents must have an effective say in decisions that affect them and be given the space to play a role in implementing them, even if the council is ultimately responsible for governing the municipality.

Municipalities must avoid a bureaucratic, technocratic, one-size-fits-all approach to ward committee management and be flexible, innovative and creative in their engagement with people, using a variety of processes and structures. This is critical to advance active citizenship.

For instance, ward committees should be empowered to take responsibility for ward development plans that feed into and respond to the integrated development plans. When citizens are involved, they move from deficit thinking to that of abundance, for they know their needs better than municipal officials.

Ward committees should be depoliticised so that citizens can engage and serve without feeling obligated to trade off their values for political favours. Ward committee meetings should be aligned with important council meetings to ensure that the voices of citizens are heard and not only those elected to local leadership. Once a month would be ideal for strengthening effective participation.

Ward committees should be tasked with the responsibility of drawing up annual profiles of their wards. In line with this insight, ward committees should also oversee the delivery of services and development in their locality. Practically, wards ought to be contributing towards the municipality’s assessment of the quality of the services of an applicant before the contractor is fully paid out.

Where possible, within clear guidelines, municipalities should incrementally allocate resources to “enable ward committees to undertake development in their wards”, an aspect that is already provided for in the law. With this empowerment, ward committees could, at least, take some responsibility for mobilising citizens to undertake some practical developmental actions, such as fixing potholes in their streets, fixing pavements and restoring street lights, using local labour.

The allocation of funding resources and delegating power to employ labour could produce tensions in ward committees and among residents. This kind of arrangement will need to be managed skilfully.

Municipalities should be obliged to consider ward committee decisions. Consideration needs to be given to amending the legislation to oblige municipal councils to consider proposals from ward committees and provide them with feedback. Within reasonable limits, ward committees should be given reasons for why their proposals were unsuccessful. Ward committees should be bold enough to request them.

Ward committees should operate by a code of conduct. They must be operated professionally, because they are dealing with people’s lives. This move is highly likely to lead to heightened accountability of committee members to both the residents they serve and the municipality.

Municipalities should also provide administrative and other support, including for the training of ward committee members. More specifically, the public participation unit in the speaker’s office could monitor support and report on the functioning of ward committees.

Part of the key performance indicators of the public participation unit officials could be the performance of the ward committees. For the officials to be effective, they will have to consider the complexities and contradictions of their wards.

Where funding and other resources are provided, the municipality must actively monitor that ward committees use them productively and effectively in terms of the law and policies. If ward committees do not function effectively, municipalities could consider dissolving them as they are empowered to do in terms of the law. Learning the lessons, municipalities must then assist in creating effective ward committees to enable meaningful public participation at the local level.

Developmental local government requires functional ward committees. Without this, citizens will continue to doubt whether democracy works. For them, democracy must be lived, not legislated.

Paul Kariuki is the programmes director of the Democracy Development Programme in Durban. These are his own views

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Paul Kariuki
Paul Kariuki

Dr Paul Kariuki is the director of the Democracy Development Programme in Durban. These are his own views.

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