Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 20 March 2013

The mystery of the wards that do not bark

On Monday a research was released that I co-authored. It analyses the patterns and trends in the municipal by-elections that have taken place over the last year and a half.

The report tries to be as technical and impartial as possible without completely boring the audience, and I try very hard to be completely emotionally detached from the results, treating each party and candidate with the same levels of suspicion.

Voting and politics are very human activities though (Aristotle once said something on the subject) and elections are about winners and losers, backstabbing and back-room deals. Readers would not stand for a report that just lists voting tallies and council seat numbers.

In addition, by-elections, as an echo of municipal elections, are the only time that South Africans get to directly elect their representatives. At least, that’s the straight reading of the situation by South Africans who see party lists and party bosses dominating national and provincial elections (and the half of municipal elections that involves proportional representation).

Our report therefore covers the fall of the IFP in 2011 and its Rocky-like ability to stagger to its feet and win two municipalities back in by-elections. It covers the shaky, shifting coalition politics of the Western Cape and the accusations by the DA of an ANC ‘dirty tricks’ campaign. It comments on whether there was any fallout from Marikana and Nkandla that could be measured at the polls.

We try very hard to make local government politics interesting. It may never be sexy, and that’s okay (I’ve accepted it, finally). We try and read the numbers like modern-day sangomas or soothsayers and tell people what will happen to this party or that come the next elections. Most of the time, if people do read the reports, they use them to confirm their pre-existing biases.

The problem with crunching numbers is that you can fall in love with your own cleverness at spotting patterns and making predictions. In the process you can often forget to ask important questions and to challenge assumptions that are so generally held that they are often mistaken for the truth.

In our research, we ask a few of those important questions, such as “Does the voting in the by-elections reflect the will of the people?” and “Is there a link between councillor performance and the likelihood of a by-election?”

In keeping with the tone of the research, we suggested that the evidence points to a system that can be manipulated by party insiders and career politicians. There is also little evidence that by-elections are any kind of yardstick for ward councillor performance or success.

Since this is an opinion piece the centre of gravity is allowed to shift away from fact and description and towards opinion and prescription. My opinion is that, apart from a councillor’s untimely death or exit from politics, many by-elections are triggered by party heavyweights for a variety of reasons. These reasons include attempts to win marginal wards (and sometimes municipalities) and the purging of “unsuitable” councillors by the party.

There are rumours, whispers and accusations of vote-rigging, intimidation and attempts to bribe opposition councillors. There are also career politicians, particularly in the Western Cape, who have resigned from one party and subsequently campaigned for another in the following by-election. Some of these councillors are onto their third – or fourth – party.

In any given week there are stories of service delivery protests and corruption at the municipal level. The job of a ward councillor is to be a vital link in service delivery between the municipal council and the community. That is the only job of a ward councillor.

One obvious question is whether the wards up for by-elections included a number of wards where there are known service delivery problems. There don’t appear to be many such wards. The next obvious question is why haven’t there been more by-elections involving troubled wards? Where are the wards in Zamdela and Goedgevonden? When wards in Rustenburg and Nkandla did come up for by-election, in late-2012, the ANC lost both – in Rustenburg it was beaten resoundingly.

The cynical conspiracy theorist in me would answer that service delivery protests are a political situation to be solved politically, and, since this year’s state of the nation address from President Jacob Zuma, by the full might of specialised security and judicial forces.

To be fair, there are many good ward councillors, and some of them labour tirelessly in municipalities where the money will never reach the communities until the people in power are removed. However, many of them have no business being in public service and there’s little that the public can do about that.

There have been many calls recently, including from this column, for the introduction of constituency-based seats in the National Assembly. These calls have been made under the assumption that directly elected candidates at the national level will be accountable to the people and there will be a deepening of democracy as a result.

Looking around at the evidence in the municipalities, I am starting to suspect that this very necessary condition of democracy is nowhere near sufficient, at least not on the municipal level. The link between the ward councillor and the community is badly broken in many wards, and the current system is not doing much to fix it.

Some suggestions on how to fix the problem have already been made, and they bear repeating. One suggestion has been for automatic mid-term elections in every one of the 4,300-odd wards. This could help to replace bad councillors but it could make the administration of the wards even more chaotic if there is councillor turnover every two and a half years. It would also be very expensive to administer.

Another suggestion is for an automatic referendum if a minimum percentage of ward residents pass a vote of no confidence in a councillor. This could be cheaper than the first option but there is no infrastructure in place to administer this cheaply either. There are also risks of the process being used politically to purge rivals.

We may not have the solution yet, but at least we can keep asking the right questions. I will continue to crunch the numbers in the wards where there are by-elections, and we’ll continue to ask questions about the wards where there are no by-elections. DM


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