Citizens shouldn’t wait for things to become dire in municipalities

UNHYGIENIC: Police were called to Roodepan on Friday after residents took matters into their own hands in an attempt to divert the river of raw sewage that is streaming down the streets.

Recent media reports document how communities have been denied their service delivery entitlements through the actions of a presumably corrupt and inept council. In Koster, it was reported that the mayor and ten councillors fled a wrathful and disgruntled community. The community, living in conditions where freely flowing sewage, disconnected power and water due to alleged municipal malfeasance, determined that they were being denied their basic human rights and acted outside of the law, burning property and destroying what they perceived to be partisan infrastructure that did not benefit them. 

The magistrate in Koster ordered the technical staff to work directly with the ratepayers and citizens to restore water, power and sanitation services. In Makana, citizens experiencing a decline in service delivery levels, mobilised, raised money, and repaired pipes, potholes, street lights and carried out activities that are assumed to be the mandate of the municipality.

What do these two events tell us about municipal governance? Constitutionally, local government is defined as developmental. In the assumptions governing this characterisation of local government, citizens are supposed to actively participate in their own community affairs and the governance of the municipal area through their ward committees, elected representatives and created public engagement platforms. These two instances in Koster and Makana tell us that communities have failed to perform their duties to hold their leaders accountable. The electing of a representative does not in any way mean that citizens can abrogate their responsibilities to hold their leaders accountable while they passively wait for a system populated by seeming self-interest to deliver a basket of goods or services. While things were getting bad, citizens were not involved.

While there are undoubtedly technical services which require the municipality to be involved, the council in both instances has been bypassed. This illustrates that citizens need to get involved sooner, as the exertion of accountability always originates from below. The provision of technical services does not mean that council is unassailable or above the law or that its executive oversight is the last word in accountability. The payment elected leadership receives for their time, expertise and representation function is often far more than the average income of the communities they represent. 

When the councillor or mayor builds a room onto their house or purchases a vehicle, all the while becoming inaccessible to the community they represent, the naturally emerging material inequality between the elected and the electors creates all sorts of community talk, whether or not there is corruption present. The party list system has some role to play in this, as some councillors are often unknown to their constituencies. Furthermore, as remunerated council positions are highly sought after community resources, councillors are at war with rivals and informal leaders, as well as community members who mistake oversight roles for a power to allocate resources. 

The downside to existing political dynamics is a developing separation between communities and elected leaders and a confusion between of party and state functions. The Auditor General has found that the political infighting in councils and political interference in administration of municipal business contributes to poor audit outcomes. This implies to some extent that political conflict, both intra and inter party, has its origin in political authority derived from party structures trumping the authority derived from institutional mandates. It is suggested that this is the cause of some of the problems in Koster and in Makana.

The underlying problem is the relationship between elected and elector, the accountability and transparency required to ensure good governance is not simply about exchanging a vote for a basket of services, but an active relationship. Getting the balance right between active citizens and municipal responsibilities, instead of it being an either or choice, would assist building the type of municipal institutions we would like to see, as a legislative, moral and systemic set of imperatives. SALGA has been supporting the establishment of Municipal Public Accounts Committees and building the capacity of councillors to address some of these issues. The effect of these interventions is however contingent on the willingness of the public to engage with the existing structures, before they are no longer capable of doing what they were intended when established.


Justin Steyn is a Policy Analyst for the Municipal Barometer at SALGA, South Africa