The November local government elections are taking place in unprecedented times. The unemployment crisis continues to escalate, impoverished people are being pushed further out on the margins of society and Covid-19 continues to destroy lives and livelihoods. And then there’s the relentless looting and ANC factional battles.
The 2019-2020 consolidated report on local government audit outcomes by the office of the auditor general, Tsakani Maluleke, paints a painful and worrying picture of a failed system of local government. Only 27 municipalities obtained clean audits, while there were 89 unqualified audits, 66 qualified audits, six adverse opinions and 12 disclaimers. Riddled with cadre deployment, our municipalities are incompetent and corrupt.
Section 16 (1) of the Municipal Systems Act requires municipalities to “encourage, and create conditions for, the local community to participate in the affairs of the municipality”. They should “contribute to the building of capacity of the local community to enable it to participate in the affairs of the municipality”.
The section clearly states that each municipality must develop a culture of governance that complements formal representative government with a system of participatory governance. This culture should involve citizens in governance and decisions relating to how the local needs could be met. Local government is supposed to be democratic and accountable to local communities, and it should encourage the involvement of communities and their organisations in the matters of local government.
A key policy instrument to achieve this is the integrated development plans (IDPs) legislated by the act. Through these plans, local governments are supposed to coordinate with provincial and national government and involve local communities. They are supposed to facilitate community participation by finding sustainable ways of meeting people’s social, economic and material needs and improving their quality of life.
Through the IDP process, communities are meant to be able to express their priorities and needs. This is a vision for participatory governance, but it is not borne out by the experiences of impoverished and working-class communities. IDP meetings do not provide a space for meaningful participation. At best, they are a forum where anger can be vented and politicians can pretend that the local government cares. But there is no scope to shape policy.
Talking at, not to communities
The lack of genuine engagement is apparent in three main ways. First, access to information and scope for meaningful engagement with the process is severely limited. The documents are written in English and many residents struggle to give meaning to them.
Second, the choreography of these meetings is highly problematic. The politicians are seated at the front, their table nicely covered and laid with bottled water, whereas the community members occupy chairs that are not properly arranged. The politicians at the big table decide the agenda and chair the meeting, dictating the process in a language and a tone that are intimidating at times. There is no space for community input and questions from community members are often shut down with contempt.
Third, these IDP meetings are not prioritised by politicians. They can be postponed or cancelled at short notice, with little or no communication. If the IDP meetings are crucial, what must one think to see them viewed with so little importance that politicians and officials often just fail to attend them?
Attempts by grassroots activists to organise and build popular power in communities outside the compromised official spaces such as the IDP process have often been met with severe repression. The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, the first major grassroots movement to emerge in post-apartheid South Africa, was formed in Cape Town in November 2000 with the aim of “fighting evictions, water cut-offs and poor health services, obtaining free electricity, securing decent housing and opposing police violence”.
It organised more than 10 communities to fight for essential services that fall under the competence of the municipality. Their members were harassed and jailed while the organisation was the target of the state, police and politicians. Max Ntanyana was released from jail only after activists raised enough money to hire a senior counsel to bring a high court case to declare his arrest unlawful.
Khanyisa Shange, singled out as a leader of the campaign, was jailed for five years after more than 300 members demanded that the local ward councillor be held accountable for their plight. Since then, other examples of grassroots organisation, such as the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement which has members in five provinces, have been met with similar violence and hostility, rather than democratic forms of engagement.
Unfit for service
In the Makana municipality in the Eastern Cape, most people have lost all confidence in both IDP meetings and the municipality generally. Instead of drawing in the larger community, officials from the municipality have focused on encouraging ward committees and ruling party cadres to attend the meetings, not to engage but just to comply with the law.
These IDP meetings do not meet their stated aim: people’s meaningful participation in governance. The process has become a farce and simply a performance of democracy as opposed to the actual thing.
There are many other ways in which the Makana municipality expresses its disregard for the mandate to engage in participatory governance. For example, the high court in Makhanda made a landmark ruling in 2020 that the council be dissolved because of its abject failure to meet its constitutional obligations. It was found to operate so badly that it violated human rights.
The ANC councillors appealed against the ruling, but instead of instructing the municipal leadership to fix the mess, the provincial executive joined them in the appeal. Meanwhile, the Unemployed People’s Movement, which had brought the case, collected 22 000 signatures in support of the dissolution of the council. Compare this number with the mere 23 000 residents who voted in the last local government elections in 2016.
The council and the provincial executive were denied leave to appeal the ruling in the high court, but they took it to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which granted their application in October 2020.
Despite the legal threat, the state of governance in the municipality has not improved. In the auditor general’s report, the Makana council received a disclaimer, which is the worst possible audit outcome.
Taking to the square
In June this year, Makhanda experienced large-scale protests. Protesters met at the square in Raglan Road to hold important discussions. This was a genuinely democratic space and decisions were taken democratically. Participants demanded that the premier, Oscar Mabuyane, come to the square to account for the shocking state of governance and rot in the municipality.
There is no reason for an elected premier, who is bound by the law and the Constitution, refusing to meet the public. But the politicians viewed the square and the public as rogue, disruptive elements who were a threat to democracy. They showed that they believe that politicians and ANC government officials must only be accountable to the ruling party – in fact, to specific factional politics and corruption schemes in the party.
Every effort was made to assert control from above. Mabuyane refused to attend but sent a lower-level official, member of the executive council for cooperative governance and traditional Affairs Xolile Edmund Nqata, who then insisted on meeting the leaders rather than the public.
This was refused and the people insisted that Mabuyane and Nqata must both come to the square. It was a significant demand, decided upon freely, and the protesters insisted that they “will not be moved” in person. Nqata refused and asked the police to disperse the crowd.
Later, a meeting was called between the provincial government and the public, but only in the form of a few hand-picked community leaders – from ANC-aligned bodies – with no clear powers.
Shutting down democracy
Then the Makana council obtained a court order against the shutdown, with every event – even disruptions that were not controlled by the participants in the democratic process in the square – blamed on “instigators”. This set prominent participants in the process at the square up for jail time. The local police station was listed as a respondent, which laid the groundwork for the police to brutalise people for convening their own imbizo and demanding accountability from the state.
These steps were taken to stop people from building their own processes and setting up a democratic space for conversation and decisions outside of the state.
In acting in these undemocratic, corrupt and unaccountable ways, the local political elite continues to invoke the flag of “democracy”. The councillors, they say, have a mandate through elections while protesters and petitioners do not. The high court ruling is an attack on “democracy”, which again is taken as being based purely on elections. And the actions against protesters are presented as protecting “democracy”.
For these politicians, they are elected with every right to rule. Therefore, any forms of leadership or rule that are external to them are viewed as a threat to democracy and must be vanquished. This is a form of top-down rule, which renders people as nothing but subordinates of the unaccountable “leaders”.
In a true democracy, people must be able to participate fully in the governance of their daily affairs. They must not, as Frantz Fanon warned, be sent “back to their caves” by politicians and only called to come out once every five years to vote which faction of the political class will decide their fate for the next five years.
This is not democracy. It is a farce. The current model has failed. We need to build an independent democracy outside the state.