Local Elections: beyond the ballot

May 17, 11 Local Elections: beyond the ballot

Local government elections. Politics at the lowest level, at its least sexiest, sometimes dirtiest, and yet politics at its most critical. There are over 23 million registered voters, and unlike previous local government elections, it is anticipated that over 50% will vote. Polls open at 7:00AM at 23 000 polling stations across 19 000 voting districts on the 18 May 2011. A day which coincides with the 99th anniversary of struggle icon Walter Sisulu’s birth, an election day with useful facts, but more importantly, an election day which will have an impact on the ANC in the run-up to its 2012 national congress in Mangaung.

Five years ago, the previous local government elections were characterised by service delivery protests and a lack of capacity. This hasn’t changed. What has changed in the past five years is that opposition parties have undergone many developments. COPE emerged, and is faltering. The Independent Democrats, once strong in the Cape, have merged with the DA. The DA continues to project itself as the official opposition, and this claim has gravitas with every successive election. The DA is expected to keep Cape Town, and possibly win Port Elizabeth. Time will tell. While it is unlikely that the ANC will lose the local government elections, what is likely is a decrease in their results from the 2006 elections. Much of this also depends on the public response to the tactics that the parties have employed in their electioneering campaigns.

Electioneering by most of the parties has been about track records (good and bad), or about moral principles, even about voting to improve the health of struggle icons. In some cases electioneering has been fused with a sense of religious duty, and in some cases it has been an exercise in breaking down stereotypes. We have been witness to an intense electoral campaign where various parties have asked us for our votes come May 18. We have heard promises, accusations, derogatory jibes and racial slurs. We have been entertained, insulted, pandered to, informed, and persuaded. Come tomorrow, those of us who will cast our ballots will be satisfied that we have exercised our right to civic participation. After all, as the maxim goes, “you can’t criticise government if you didn’t vote”, or does it?

I don’t believe that civic participation ends there. No matter who wins and administrates whatever areas in this election, we must hold our leaders accountable continually. Civic participation does not begin and end at the ballot box. Our rights and responsibilities extend further than choosing someone through a hybrid electoral system – it extends to holding him or her accountable for their job performance and electoral promises that are made. For instance, we have a civic responsibility to pay our municipal rates on time. In the same vein, we have a right to billing system that is calculated correctly and is delivered on time. As ratepayers and voters we have the right to service delivery – but how many of us are aware of the services that local government is responsible for? How many of us are informed about our rights and responsibilities regarding local government?

Municipalities are responsible for the following services: water supply; sewage collection and disposal; refuse removal; electricity and gas supply; municipal health services; municipal roads and storm water drainage; street lighting; and municipal parks and recreation. Depending the type of municipality you live under, and the type of agreement that it may have with service provider and provincial government, there may be more services that your own municipality may be responsible for. We have three types of municipalities in South Africa, namely metropolitan municipalities, local municipalities, and district municipalities, and each type has its own electoral system. Metropolitan municipalities are those with more than 500 000 voters in their area. There are metropolitan municipalities in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Ethekweni (Durban), Tshwane (Pretoria), Nelson Mandela (Port Elizabeth) and Ekhuruleni (East Rand). After these elections, East London and Mangaung will also become metropolitan municipalities, bringing the total to eight. The second category is local municipalities, and these are areas that fall outside of the six metropolitan municipal areas. There are a total of 231 local municipalities and each is broken into wards, with residents in each ward being represented by a ward councillor. Voters in these municipalities also vote for district councils, which are also broken into wards. In both categories, half the councillors are elected through a proportional representation ballot, where voters vote for a party. The other half are elected as ward councillors by the residents in each ward. What this means is that if a party receives 85% support, it will be allowed to appoint 85% percent of the proportional representation councillors in a municipality. This explains the heavy politicking being conducted by national politicians.

People who live in low population areas do not fall under local municipalities, but under district management areas (DMA). DMAs fall directly under the district municipality (the third type), and consist of four to six local municipalities in one district. There are 47 district municipalities in SA.

How many of us know the name of our current ward councillor? Or whom to complain to when the streetlights aren’t working, when local parks are unkempt, and when basic services are not delivered to us? There are appropriate channels and processes, but how many of us are aware of these?

There is a combination of direct voting and proportional representation in the local government electoral system. I know that a lot of you who are reading this are tired, and would rather stay home instead of braving a long queue during winter. But I’m going to ask you to wake up tomorrow and vote. I’m going to ask you to vote, not for a political party, but for a ward councillor whom you believe in, based on their campaign or track record. Vote for the person you know you can complain to when you’re not receiving service delivery in your local ward. Vote for the person you believe will communicate with you. Then, whoever is elected and subsequently appointed, hold him or her accountable for their actions. Attend your ward meetings, expect feedback from municipal meetings, and use civil society as a channel for complaining if your councillor is unresponsive. Leadership is a service, an act of stewardship to the electorate, and we should remind all our leaders of that, all the time.

Image by Cape Town Craig