I have a confession to make. It is an uncomfortable admission as I am a South African journalist, a political analyst, someone who considers himself a reasonably engaged citizen: I do not know the name of my municipal councillor or other local representatives.
I do not know which ward I reside in or which party holds it. I may be able to speak for hours about the upper echelons of our political society – presidents and parliament, ministers and national opposition leaders – but I am completely clueless about the government that is nearest to my everyday life.
Ignorance is not an excuse, but national politics seems much more enticing. Local government’s gritty day-to-day decisions, however, have the greatest influence on citizens’ lives.
“Local government provides basic services: water, sanitation, refuse; the most basic and in many cases the only quantifiable and unambiguous deliverables of government,” said Paul Berkowitz, analyst at South African local government consultants Citydex and local politics writer for the Daily Maverick. “You could argue that they’re called basic services because they’re the most basic building blocks of government.”
Unfortunately for South Africa’s 19-year-old democracy, I am not alone in my ignorance. If media attention can be taken as a proxy for public interest – it cannot always – South Africans are not concerned with local politics.
Hardly a month goes by without a by-election being held somewhere in South Africa. On 24 April this year, by-elections were held in 19 municipal wards across all provinces in the country. Though it was the biggest democratic exercise held in South Africa since the local elections in 2011, it passed with barely a whisper from the national media.
The sum total of online coverage the following day was a paltry couple of round-ups from the South African Press Association, reproduced without prominence on the country’s main English-language news sites, Independent Online, News24 and TimesLive; a reproduction of an African National Congress press release on Politicsweb; and a summary of each ward’s results on the Daily Maverick.
This is not surprising. National politics tend to dominate public interest and media attention and this makes good sense: it is more glamorous, easier to understand (a cast of dozens rather than thousands of local councillors) and by definition it appeals to a broader, countrywide audience.
But this does not mean that the South African media has stopped reporting local politics. While acknowledging the generally poor local elections coverage, Yale University’s Gwyneth McClendon (whose doctorate focused on local councillors in South Africa) argues that the media pay attention to other local issues.
“I have actually been struck by the degree to which other local-level phenomena (so-called service delivery protests, audits of municipalities, the take-over of failing municipalities) garner press attention in South Africa,” McClendon told Africa in Fact.
“Even if by-elections are not always widely covered and even if turnout in local elections is lower than in national ones, the media demonstrates some sense that local failures in service delivery matter a great deal to ordinary citizens.”
The relatively low turnout at April’s polls also reveals South Africans’ lack of interest (or is it lack of faith?) in local politics.
The 35.3% overall turnout, typical for by-elections, is a steep drop from the 57.8% turnout reported by the Independent Electoral Commission in the 2011 municipal elections. Neither figure compares favourably with the 76.3% turnout of registered voters in the 2009 national elections.
In comparison, political actors – be they parties or protest movements – are well attuned to the importance of local politics. A central plank of the Democratic Alliance’s strategy to challenge the ruling ANC is to focus on smaller, winnable electoral battles in city wards and provinces rather than to aim for a national victory, which is currently still out of reach. This approach paid dividends on 24 April, with the party substantially increasing its share of the vote (although not winning any new seats) in most of the city wards it contested.
Service delivery protests have proliferated in the last few years. In Zamdela, a township outside Sasolburg in the Free State, hundreds of people gathered in early April to protest against Mayor Brutus Mahlaku, alleging corruption in his department. Even when service-delivery protests target national bodies – such as the presidency, ministries or the ruling party – these are often after trying and failing to get a response from local councillors.
“Service delivery protests are often quite focused and quite rational,” Berkowitz said. “When service delivery protests occur, it’s more likely to be the end of the process than the beginning. A common issue is that complaints are repeatedly ignored by councillors – only then do protests call for the involvement of higher government.”
Clearly, politics at the local level can be captivating. Those of us who remain disengaged are missing out – and perhaps letting this distort our perceptions of the bigger picture.
If South Africa wants an example of what happens when local government fails, it need look no further than its northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, where long-entrenched corruption and patronage have essentially wiped out the ability of most local authorities to deliver any kind of services.
Tawanda Zinyama is a University of Zimbabwe lecturer and Precious Shumba heads a Harare residents’ association. In an op-ed for ZimEye, an online news site, they blamed the national government for promoting councillors based on their party loyalty and not on their qualifications and experience: “The current crop of elected councillors has been found wanting in all facets of local government, be it corporate governance issues or quality service delivery.”
Zimbabwean journalist Ray Ndlovu argues that local government positions remain an area of contestation between President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and opposition parties, although not quite in the democratic fashion that either of Zimbabwe’s constitutions envisaged.
To illustrate his point, Ndlovu referred Africa in Fact to the cases of Brian James and Lionel Denecker, elected councillors for Mutare and Gwanda respectively, and aligned with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T). Last year Ignatius Chombo, the minister of local government, urban and rural development and a Zanu-PF member, accused the two councillors of incompetence, mismanagement and corruption, and suspended both from their positions.
“Under the pretext of promoting accountability in local governance, Zanu-PF ministers are pushing their own party agenda in local government,” Ndlovu said.
Zimbabwe’s new constitution calls for the national government to devolve some power to local authorities after 10 years. For instance, now the winning party in each province will choose the governor. Kenya, however, while starting from a similar position to Zimbabwe – after violent and contested elections in 2007 – took this a whole lot further in its new constitution.
“Local elected officials have had little influence on Kenyans’ everyday lives,” explained political analyst Abraham Rugo from the Institute for Economic Affairs. “Power has been centred at the national level with the president and cabinet playing a key role.”
All 175 of Kenya’s local authorities were answerable to the local government minister, effectively nullifying the division between local and national politics. It was a system that failed, marked again by endemic corruption, patronage and mismanagement.
Recognising this, Kenya’s constitution drafters chucked out the whole system. They replaced it with a completely new set of local government institutions and gave significant power to regional governors. How much of this authority will trickle down to the new local government bodies remains to be seen.
The idea was to create more democratic and stronger local institutions that were independent of the central government and to explicitly define the different roles of each local and national institution.
But still – perhaps daunted by having to vote for different positions on six different ballots – Kenyans showed only secondary interest in local politics in this year’s general elections.
“With the just-concluded elections, the focus was again on the president and on governors of the devolved units,” Rugo said. “Very little attention was on members of county assemblies, partly due to perceptions that they are just as weak as councillors (from the previous, discarded local government system).”
These examples provide several lessons. First, local politics in Africa is important. As exemplified by Kenya and Zimbabwe’s new constitutions, the trend to transfer national power to local authorities is increasing. “All politics is local,” US Congressman Tip O’Neill famously said. He is still right.
Second, local politics does not get the attention it deserves – either from citizens or the media. This creates citizens that are chronically disengaged from local government activities. Why? Maybe they do not realise or understand the powers that are vested in local authorities. Or perhaps citizens are disenchanted with local government performance.
The danger is that local officials get away with lower levels of scrutiny and accountability. “Research from elsewhere in the world does suggest that, when turnout is low and when media attention is low in local elections, elected local officials end up not being particularly accountable to most of the municipality, focusing instead on those supporters who did vote,” McClendon explained. “So increasing attention to both main local elections and to by-elections should be a concern in South Africa, as it should be in most multi-level democracies.”
Third, national politics gets too much attention. Of course the head of state and his cabinet are crucial to the running of the country, but there is a tendency in media and public discourse – I have been guilty of this on several occasions – to conflate the state with an individual.
But think about it: even if Jacob Zuma or Robert Mugabe or Uhuru Kenyatta were to issue a decree demanding that all refuse should be collected immediately, this order is only as effective as the local government body responsible for this task. Local authorities are the business end of national governments.
Understanding how the state works, therefore, requires a working knowledge of its local politics too. This is particularly true in Africa’s weak states, where central government control might not extend much past the capital city (think Central African Republic, or Somalia; Somali politics makes little sense looked at only through the prism of the interim administration in Mogadishu).
Fourth, change is easier to execute at a local level. In South Africa, for example, the sheer inertia generated by the ANC’s long history of popular support should keep it in the Union Buildings for another decade at least. But as April’s by-elections demonstrated, opposition parties can successfully challenge its power on a ward-by-ward basis. Smaller parties such as the Pan-Africanist Congress and independent candidates, who managed to take over wards previously held by the ruling party, performed best in the by-elections. They did not campaign on national development agendas but specifically on local issues, which clearly resonated with the voters.
Taking this into account, I rectified the embarrassing gap in my knowledge of local politics. For the record, I live in Johannesburg’s Ward 117 and my local councillor is Tim Truluck from the DA. From now on, I will be keeping a close eye on Mr Truluck. Find out who your local politicians are and do the same. DM
This article was originally published in Africa in Fact, a monthly magazine published by Good Governance Africa (GGA). GGA is a research and advocacy organisation that works to improve government performance on the continent.
Photo: Township residents stand near barricades during protests over the lack of housing, electricity and sanitary water supplies in Zandspruit, north of Johannesburg April 26, 2011. Police used rubber bullets to disperse the crowd and 16 people were arrested for public violence, according to local media reports. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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