As horse trading intensifies around local government, residents and ratepayers must make their voices heard
The ANC and several opposition parties appear to be planning to work together to introduce measures to reduce the chaos in local government. However, these are changes that may work for the insiders — those who have political power. And this would be at the expense of voters. But there is now one example, in eThekwini, where residents may have some power over their council during a possible window of local government reform.
On Sunday, 9 July, the ANC’s national executive committee reported back on its discussions about trying to improve governance in local councils. This is after the chaos in several metros, with Joburg having nine mayors in eight years, a mayoral merry-go-round in Tshwane, and huge issues in Nelson Mandela Bay.
The party is also preparing to meet opposition parties at an event in the Western Cape next month.
The ANC’s measures have all been proposed in one form or another in the recent past.
They include imposing a threshold that would allow parties to be represented in a council (or even a legislature or Parliament in the future) only if they win more than 1% of the vote; allowing only a certain number of confidence motions a year, and changing the law to prevent a new mayor from unilaterally changing policies without public consultation.
As has been pointed out previously, every measure has consequences.
Cogta minister Thembi Nkadimeng told SAfm on 10 July that if a 1% threshold was imposed, it would reduce the number of parties represented in eThekwini from around 25 to just seven. In Joburg, it would go from nearly 30 parties to fewer than 10.
This, she suggests, would make it much easier to govern.
This is true. But it would only make it easier to govern for those who stand to win from this. And all the parties involved in making such a law would stand to benefit as they are the more established parties.
Also, as Prof Steven Friedman pointed out on Monday morning, it is “an attempt to fix political problems by tweaking the law… by taking democratic choices away from people”.
More bluntly, he suggests that this is also parties “electing mayors and then wanting to remove them”.
This is, of course, a reminder that while the ANC may be proposing a threshold now, it is only because the ANC voted for Kabelo Gwamanda that he is currently the mayor of Joburg. His party, Al Jama-ah, won 0.95% of the vote in that council in 2021.
While it may be tempting to reduce the number of parties in a council, Friedman’s point must be correct. It must be less than democratic to do this. And in the end, the established political parties should not be able to implement this without some form of consultation.
Another proposal, to limit the number of confidence motions in mayors every year, also has consequences. As previously noted, it would mean a person could be elected mayor, evidence of their wrongdoing could emerge, and it could be impossible to remove them. Or the coalition they lead could collapse, and it could be impossible for her to govern. And this situation could then not be resolved for nearly a full calendar year.
Another proposal which could get broad support from the established parties is to extend the amount of time parties have to form an administration.
Currently, it is only 14 days. But once the election results have been properly counted and everyone has assessed their situation, that usually means there are only a few days for people to properly negotiate.
In the past, this has led to a frenzy of activity behind closed doors.
But, as Friedman and others have pointed out, while it is probably correct to give more time to parties to form a coalition, there would also need to be agreement on what would happen in the council during this period.
Who would govern? It is unlikely that most parties would agree to the previous incumbent remaining in the administration, particularly as it would lead to situations where those in office could be negotiating with a party that has won more votes than them, and could then be accused of abusing their power of incumbency in those talks.
It is also unlikely that parties would tolerate a situation where a city manager or other official could be in charge.
First, it would be undemocratic to have someone who is not elected in charge of a city. For the parties, with their much narrower agenda, they would be unwilling to give up power to an official, even if it was only for a short period.
And, considering how inherently political the appointment of a city manager could be, parties may not trust a person in that position appointed by another party.
While it is not certain how these negotiations will proceed, an important window for local government reform may be now open. And that could lead to calls for other changes, such as a discussion about whether mayors should be directly elected.
It is likely that the established parties will resist that, and that the real scope for reform is quite limited. And that limit is imposed, really, by the parties with political power at this moment.
However, some residents may still be able to reach through this window and force some change.
In eThekwini, the Westville Residents Association (WRA) has said its members will refuse to pay their rates because they were not consulted about recently imposed increases. Technically, this is probably illegal. Residents are not allowed to withhold rates, particularly for the services they consume, such as water and electricity.
However, the chair of the WRA, Asad Gaff, suggests that, in the real world, his members may have some power in this situation.
Normally, the first response of a council to a ratepayers’ boycott would be to cut off their electricity. But, many customers have become used to living without electricity, and many now have other sources of power.
To cut off water is much harder than cutting off electricity, as it is considered a constitutional right.
Also, Gaff believes that eThekwini is now so short of cash that it cannot survive a month without the rates paid by his members. This provides a fascinating moment where some residents could use this power to extract concessions from a council.
Of course, it can be highly problematic: it could mean that the Padel-ing classes can extract more from a council than the poor. Which could force a council to treat its richer residents better than its poorer ones.
But the people who do this could also, perhaps, use their financial muscle to force a council to govern better. In other words, they could make a council manage its money more effectively.
All of this suggests that this is a moment in which the way our councils are managed could be about to change significantly.
But this will probably benefit the political parties who have power now, unless there is enough activism from residents, ratepayers and activists to ensure voters are properly heard in these changes. DM