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Local government elections produced a new normal

The election results have produced a new normal, both positive and negative, including the worrying intergenerational citizen abstinence from voting that could take decades of hard work to reverse, says the writer.

The election results have produced a new normal, both positive and negative, including the worrying intergenerational citizen abstinence from voting that could take decades of hard work to reverse, says the writer.

Published Nov 9, 2021


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

CAPE TOWN - If the distribution of power as a result of the outcome of the November 1 local government elections, which produced 66 hung municipalities, set out a strong outline, the task for next month is to fill in as many details as possible.

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My involvement in advising potential coalition partners on the application of constitutional and local government framework in the process has proved much more encouraging this time, given the willingness of politicians to genuinely engage.

The long-term ambition of a multiparty democracy in which layers of coalition governments across the country geared towards providing a conducive environment for the realisation of the constitutionally defined objects of local government now being negotiated would have been hard to imagine in the early years of our democracy, where single-party dominance was the norm.

The election results have produced a new normal, both positive and negative, including the worrying intergenerational citizen abstinence from voting that could take decades of hard work to reverse.

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While it is not yet clear where the various pledges by coalition partners in various municipalities will get us to — in terms of ensuring the sustainable provision of services to communities and in terms of promoting social and economic development in a chronically depressed national economy — the emerging new agreements on providing democratic and accountable government for local communities as well as on working together to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government are highly significant.

If properly accommodated in decision-making processes, communities are unlikely to frequently embark on destructive service delivery protests to counteract the rampant corruption of politicians.

Also encouraging is the more integrated approach to the many socio-economic challenges the citizenry faces.

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Previously, democratic elections and accountability were to some extent viewed as separate issues from the changing political chemistry that drives good governance.

The tone of coalition government negotiations encouragingly infuses willingness to reverse corruption and cronyism and provide government support through the implementation of policies, legislation, and prudent use of budget allocations in priority sectors of the economy.

There is greater recognition of the vital part that local government plays in stimulating private business investment in local economies.

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Sustainable jobs created must pay a living wage. They must not be like EPWP work opportunities that pay a stipend for up to 100 days in a year.

The pledges made so far pulled out of election manifestos are far from sufficient and must be viewed as part of a continuing process.

The decisions by some political parties to stay away from coalition governments in municipalities where they have a significant number of seats inevitably undermine confidence in the overall project that many see as a precursor to provincial coalition governments that are likely to be formed after the next national and provincial elections in 2024.

Their reluctance to commit to the proposed coalition agreements is worrying, along with the tone of their opportunistic comments, seeking to insert divisive agendas with nothing to do with competencies of local government or the betterment of local communities.

The possibility of a return to office after each by-election by corrupt and incompetent politicians, or election of dodgy newcomers in a similar mould, or the sticky issue of fresh appointments of preferred municipal management officials must be regarded as a serious threat.

But there is a sense of momentum in all municipalities, and many citizens can be relieved that the goal (a healthy cooperative environment to better the lives of all citizens) is increasingly accepted, even as arguments about how to get there continue to rage.

Investment in new sustainable economic development across municipalities should be encouraged, again and again, instead of overemphasis on special economic zones that promote undesirable internal migration and result in high-pressure demands for housing and infrastructure.

For example, the pace of development in the agriculture and fishery industries, affordability of renewable energy and new technologies has been astonishing.

Latching on to these could make immediate and significant improvements in the lives of local communities increasingly reliant on the informal economy disdainful for unpredictability and irregularity of living wages.

There are grounds for optimism about the role that the private sector can play in the just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and economic revival ahead.

But the non-existent harmonised local political programmes of action and clear deadlock breaking mechanisms, and the hopes invested in these, continue to play an oversized role in the configuration of municipal councils.

Hopefully, the expert advice offered will result in a consensus, and later, in best practice models that can be replicated across municipalities to promote cooperative government.

One of the challenges in the coming weeks is to ensure that the initial plans put forward by coalition partners, known as party determined contributions, are not built on wishful thinking.

Months of procrastination to crystallise these could mean that the timetable is incredibly tight to build consensus on what to prioritise to enable each municipality to hit the ground running. Leaders cannot afford to be passive.

Once commitments have been made, mechanisms must be developed to measure and report on progress. This is an enormous task that will not be completed at the first attempt.

Regarding the proper functioning of ward committees and other forums designed to contribute to the integrated development plans, for example, there is a need for more transparency and accountability.

The public cannot be expected to influence decisions of the municipal councils in the same way that party members that nominated party candidates do unless they are institutionally and financially supported. They have been disproportionately negatively affected by the high cost of living, as well as economic and political marginalisation.

Calls from independent candidates and their supporters for inclusiveness in decision-making processes make the observance of a trusted accounting system all the more urgent.

After a dip during the pandemic and during hibernation that resulted in delays to fill vacancies in several councils, municipal infrastructure spending will jump alarmingly.

Unless public representatives immediately address inefficiencies identified in the Auditor-General reports in the current financial year, the election results that ushered in coalition governments will have been a failure.

Overshadowing all the technical details is the overwhelming injustice of a situation in which poor households that have contributed least to pollution of the environment, water and electricity consumption are already suffering most from the effects of inclement weather and regular electricity blackouts.

They are left hanging after the introduction of new water meter systems, multiple increases in electricity prices and food. They can no longer afford to pay for these in an environment where household income is irregular and unpredictable.

This is a moral point, but also a practical and political one. Ensuring a conducive environment for the realisation of the constitutionally defined objects of local government is a collective endeavour in which our constitutional democracy must succeed if it is to continue to thrive. Challenges about separation of party and state must be confronted head-on in the weeks and months ahead.

We trust our elected representatives to show themselves true to their constitutional duties.

  • Nyembezi is a policy analyst and human rights activist

Cape Times

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Local Government