The euphoria in the aftermath of the 2016 local government elections almost immediately gave way to despondency and disbelief. No sooner had the ink dried on the outcome, than old dysfunctional political patterns re-emerged to wreak havoc on local communities.
The elections were meant to be a salve for the long-standing political wounds inflicted on communities because of a lack of service delivery – among many other ills. Finally, disaffected communities – and others – were able to exercise their rights through the ballot.
The results announcement was a moment to behold. It told the story of local communities making a break from past political preferences and taking a bet on the new. This represented a high stakes political gamble, in which local communities stood to lose the most if the experiment failed.
The tried-and-tested formula had bred resentment. So communities threw in their lot with a new crop of local leaders, or at least placed a dent on the electoral dominance of the governing party. But the high hopes and the expectations that came with the 2016 local polls were quickly dashed.
The basis of the expectations was that in most councils the political scales were evenly poised, and the 2016 election results ensured a balanced distribution of power and influence. This new equilibrium had long been cited as the missing link required to run efficient and effective municipal operations.
However, ingrained political instincts and impulses trumped this equation and upended expectations.
At the time, local government was awash with myriad examples of badly run municipalities. Fingers pointed to the dominance of one party, and the associated lack of accountability to explain the proliferation of administrative and functional malaises. The prescribed remedy was the ballot.
And so it was that in 2016 the local government landscape shifted, especially in metros. In Nelson Mandela Bay, my home region, the joy was palpable.
City Hall, once the pride of the metro and a place that symbolised the will of residents, had devolved into a site of derision and dysfunction.
The political arrangement that emerged after the poll bore the promise of running an effective and accountable administration. For a brief moment in time, Bay residents were relieved of frustration. Hope and expectation took hold.
Suddenly, residents and business owners felt compelled to put their municipal affairs in order and get their accounts up to date. Informal rubbish tips in Motherwell, Zwide and other residential areas disappeared into thin air. Speed cameras dotted across the metro started working again. In previously neglected areas, timely refuse collection became the norm.
“This new lot doesn’t play,” became a common refrain among neighbours and relatives alike, who promptly regularised their municipal accounts. They were happy to oblige in exchange for political stability and administrative efficiency.
The metro’s coffers started filling up – an occurrence that was unheard of in a metro which had become synonymous with revenue-collection challenges. The region had become riddled with the consequences of factionalism and a lack of administrative accountability. It was a long way from the award-winning and innovative municipality it once was.
But the political “miracle” of 2016 evaporated into a protracted nightmare, whose resolution is a long way off. The region’s political elite are squaring off in court, again, for the spoils of power. However, this seems a futile exercise considering that the next local government elections take place this year.
In 2016, there was a clear culprit – the governing party. But in 2021 the blame can be laid at the feet of a mix of parties. Bay residents and other stakeholders are innocent bystanders waiting for their moment.
This time around there are new twists in the build-up to the local government elections, including the Covid-19 crisis.
The Electoral Commission has applied to the Electoral Court to have several by-elections postponed, citing the Level 3 lockdown restrictions, which will curtail candidates’ abilities to campaign. This will impede the “freeness and fairness” of the by-elections, according to the Electoral Commission.
One political party has already called for the postponement of the local government elections to 2024, when the next general election is due to take place.
But a wholesale postponement of the 2021 local government elections seems unlikely. A lot could happen between now and year-end.
That said, there are slim pickings for Bay residents in terms of political parties.
If 2016 represented the battle of the metros and the rise of the opposition, 2021 could be the year independent candidates make their mark. The established parties have made a mockery of the responsibility entrusted to them by the electorate in the 2016 local government elections.
This has created a gap worth exploiting for independent candidates who are neither tainted by party loyalties nor constrained by party considerations and norms. DM/BM