/ 5 November 2021

How can politicians and municipalities be held accountable by citizens?

Graham Pote (enlarged) Rosa
Graham Robert Pote - Programme Manager Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung

The issue of efficiency and accountability in all levels of government needs to be addressed urgently, especially given that South Africa is the least efficient and most expensive country to do business in, in the SADC region.

This was according to Graham Robert Pote, Programme Manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung,  during a webinar hosted by the Mail & Guardian on whether local government is accountable to the people and if this factor influences how citizens cast their votes.

“Our tax regime is growing stricter, and is trying to source more from an already overburdened middle class, who already have to self-provide healthcare, education, security, personal transport and insurance on top of tax rates that are comparable to Scandinavian countries,” said Pote. 

“So, what is it that we’re paying for and who is going to continue to pay for it when wealthy and middle-class people are leaving along with big capital? Again, we have protests, unrest, civil disobedience campaigns like that of trade union solidarity, to protest against tax abuse,” he said.

Pote said South Africans should ask why civil servants are not doing their jobs properly, arguing that they lack efficiency and accountability because of the complete lack of separation from party and politics from public bodies that are meant to serve the needs of the people. 

Cathy Mohlahlana – Moderator

“So instead, we have a civil service, which is run by and will feed whichever party has the majority vote. This should be read into the state capture question, because positions in local and provincial governments tend to go to people who are loyal to someone higher,” he said.

Phumlani Majozi, a Senior Fellow at African Liberty, said a lack of accountability in municipalities is a reality faced by South Africans. He cited a recent admission by former president Thabo Mbeki, that the country’s municipalities are a complete mess. 

“And that’s the challenge we face. And that highlights that there is lack of accountability,” said Majozi, pointing out power outages in Soweto, cable theft and non-functional traffic lights “in Africa’s richest city, Johannesburg”. He cited the levels of corruption in municipalities, saying this is a big challenge.

Pote highlighted a recent initiative by a community organisation in Komatipoort, Mpumalanga, where an   attempt was made  to engage with the Nkomazi municipality officials. The community organised a meeting to discuss multiple instances of service failure in the town, but the municipal “officials didn’t show up or even respond to the invitation”. 

Pote reiterated that this is happening throughout the country — government just is not responding to feedback. 

“Elections as a feedback mechanism which happens every four years are too slow. We have to move faster,” he said. 

Several community organisations have taken to the courts in a bid to hold municipalities accountable. But he argued that relying on the justice system as a means of holding the government to account is costly.

Economics and Political Commentator Ayanda Kota of the Makana Citizens Front gave an example of disturbing issues that arose at community meetings they organised in different wards. He said some of the key issues emanating from the meetings included communities saying they did not know who their councillors were. 

Ayanda Kota – Activist, Unemployed People’s Movement

“And you think it’s a joke. And this is the last term [for the councillor], it is a fifth year. So, you have people in the township that have never seen the councillors and don’t know them. They have no memory of who their councillor is,” said Kota. 

He said this then led to questions about whether members of the communities attended IDP (integrated development planning) meetings.

“And the response is IDP meetings are not for the introduction of this councillor. And people were also complaining that it is also not a space to engage with these officials and councillors,” he said.

Kota added that community members revealed they were going to these meetings to be told what the government has covered and what it was going to do.

“But this is quite a very disrespectful arrangement. There’s an absolute lack of respect in how the meeting is conducted,” he said.

Journalist and Radio Talk Show Host Cathy Mohlahlana asked whether these challenges did not warrant an overhauling of the prevailing system of governance.

“And perhaps we can also just build on this question of where to from now? Because if the system is seen as fundamentally the problem, do we bring in legislation? Do we overhaul the system?” she asked, asking whether the issue of performance contracts would help address the issue of accountability between the candidates and the voters.

Majozi said if such a system were to be put in place, it would translate into a massive structural change that would see some pushback — again, from the people who will be held accountable in those systems.

Phumlani Majozi – Economic and Political Commentator

“We have to push if we want change in the country. If we want our communities to run better, then we have to do it ourselves,” said Majozi. “We cannot say, ‘well, these guys don’t want to be held accountable, they are fighting us, we are therefore going to lay back, no.’ We cannot. We need to push for the changes that will benefit us at the end of the day,” he said.

Mohlahlana also posed the question, saying since it has been established that it is very difficult for communities to hold politicians accountable, especially after they have been voted into power, what impact does this have on whether or not people vote and the kind of decisions they make when they do vote?

Pote noted the fact in their campaign messages, political parties want the public to believe they are “going to fix the mess or build better communities”. But he argues this is flawed.

“That’s not policy. Voting should be based on policy, the direction that your government will take in terms of social needs and providing us with  social transformation. We should not be voting for services that should be there to begin with. The services should be in place.”

Pote suggested that South Africa should implement legislation to separate  party politics from service delivery, which the constitution obliges municipal  officials to provide, and justified  this by looking at the countrywide state of service delivery failure in municipalities that are led by political deployees.

Mohlahlana raised a notion made by political parties that local government elections are not about ideology, and this is particularly in the context of coalition governments. She said two parties that are diametrically opposed as far as ideology is concerned, have very much opened the door to working together in local government.

Pote said even though policy is more on a provincial or national government level, this is not to say that service delivery is not politicised. 

“I don’t want to refer to specific examples, because they’re all contestable. And it is complicated. But maybe just one thing that I can point to is the breakdown of coalitions when there is a difference of opinion or some political issue. So, I do not think that our parties have demonstrated that they are actually mature enough to run effective coalitions at a local level,” he argued.

Majozi warned that the next phase in the country’s political spectrum would is coalition politics. He argued that politics at local government remain about service delivery in which communities want to see active delivery of services.

The establishment of an independent body to play arbitrator in coalitions has been mooted as a mechanism to deal with disputes and ensure that where there is are disagreements, this should not result in a breakdown of delivery of services.

Majozi argued that questions would arise around the legitimacy of such a body and whether its decisions could be trusted and stand if challenged, for instance, challenged in the Constitutional Court.

“Those questions would arise, especially in the context of South Africa, where really, people tend to make noise about our institutions. I don’t know if that will form part of the chapter nine institutions,” he said.

Kota emphasised the need to depoliticise municipalities. He pointed to factional battles fought in council chambers and disturbing trends of exchanging of money in black plastic bags taken into council chambers. 

“So, these council chambers must be the chambers of the people. We also need ethical leadership. I think that’s quite important,” Kota said. — Lucas Ledwaba
— In partnership with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung