Anticipation and excitement were in all probability the furthest thoughts from voters’ minds when 9,000-plus ANC municipal candidates converged this week to pledge to serve local citizens better and end corruption, fraud, patronage, inducements and nepotism in the event of them being elected on 1 November.
This was no definitive ANC campaign moment. The pledges drowned in a sea of counterevidence, along with histories and track records that belied the pledges that were supposed to exceed campaign promises. The pledges failed to give substance to the ANC’s refrain that the next set of councillors will “be better and do better”. The pledge itself may have been a gallant attempt at ANC image correction, but in the absence of a tangible watershed, Damascene occurrence, the undertakings went adrift.
A mass of adverse recollections blocked out the party’s reassurances of reconnection with citizens. Prompted by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the candidates, on the wings, so to speak, of Ramaphosa’s words, committed to 24-7 availability to their communities and to be a new beachhead against corrupt local governments.
It was paraded as the first time that such far-reaching local councillor commitments had been given.
Long-forgotten was the 2016 ANC local election manifesto that had promised that local councillors would sign performance agreements and give regular feedback to their communities.
The difference was that this time around the ANC had experienced the 2016 reality of slipping local government power, and the Ramaphosa ANC that has its back to the wall: perform in local elections 2021, as an ANC with severe credibility deficits, or face challengers in the 2022 ANC internal elections. Ramaphosa’s face on the cover of the ANC election manifesto is recognition that he still brings votes to the party, but electoral embarrassment in November could alter the game.
The councillor-candidates’ pledges take-off was tripped by the present-day government credibility crisis, by the ongoing revelations of corruption under Ramaphosa rule. On stage in the Alberton Civic Centre, Ramaphosa’s facial expression was reminiscent of the occasion when the issuance of mega-tenders to procure Covid-19 personal protective equipment was announced. With a pre-emptively embarrassed expression he then cautioned that he did not want to see corruption in the wake of emergency tenders. The last 18 months told the rest of the tale.
The Alberton air was clouded by reminders of the near-impossibility of the task that councillors pledged to embrace. As a reality check, it is worth considering the counterevidence emanating from local government and party politics. On the governance front the pledges were contradicted by:
- The Auditor-General’s annual audit reports (and their largely ignored advice, even legislation, for improvement) that have run up against a brick wall. Further decay rather than improvements has typified municipal governance.
- From within the Presidency there have been admissions that the local government system is not financially viable. A total of 160 out of South Africa’s 278 municipalities and municipal entities are in financial distress. The list of shortcomings continues, ad infinitum.
- The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, along with the president, the ANC and the government generally have been punting the so-called district development model as an alternative to the stranded local government institutions. This is to substitute for fixing local government. South Africans have few good memories of the so-called local government turnaround strategy circa 2008, or Operation Masakhane of 2005, or of a host of other failed corrective attempts.
- Municipal officials generally are poorly qualified and are unlikely to offer much help to the councillors. In early 2021 the acting minister in the Presidency told Parliament that 47% of senior municipal officials do not meet the minimum competency levels for their jobs, or lack essential skills required to perform their functions, including financial management.
Beyond these weaknesses, political parties’ and in particular the ANC’s political praxis offers stark wake-up calls that the councillor candidates may be way out of their depth:
- Councillors and candidates, plus occasional supporters, are being killed for their possible future municipal council roles, probably related to access to tenders and council-related business opportunities. In the last few weeks South Africans were reminded that “political killing fields” remain a part of daily local politics in the country.
- Two Cabinet members, Police’s Bheki Cele and Transport’s Fikile Mbalula, have been lamenting in the last two weeks that some ANC branches and their candidate nomination processes have been captured by crime syndicates. Mabopane and Soshanguve were noted as examples. Kgalema Motlanthe, head of the ANC’s Electoral Committee, gave assurances that the outstanding disputes about ANC candidate selection processes would be resolved by 15 November. Possible to say how many of these suspected criminal syndicate members have also been taking the pledge?
- The ANC’s reassurances that 45% of its councillor candidates are community-connected newcomers still leave doubt as to how they (should they indeed be bringing in better qualifications and morals) would match up against the incumbents who stand to be re-elected.
Is there any reassurance in Ramaphosa’s argument on the occasion of the pledges? His words: “We have confronted corruption and State Capture… rebuilt public institutions and started to revitalise state-owned enterprises… undertaken mass public employment programmes and driven far-reaching reforms… demonstrated that we will not stand for wrongdoing, no matter who is involved. We will not protect any ANC leader, public representative, or member who faces allegations of corruption or other serious offences. The law must take its course.”
With the delays in prosecutorial and legal consequences for wrongdoers, and the ANC’s step-aside resolution that struggles to emerge as definitive, South Africa is not waiting with bated breath to cast a ballot and witness an improved generation of councillors enter the chambers.
Until the battery of problems is resolved, voting in local elections will be fanciful at best. The problem is, “local governments” (for lack of a more appropriate, more modest designation) will be elected. Will voters decide that in major political parties’ promises they trust, or in often opportunistic small queenmaker parties or independents they see the promise of helping one of the bigger parties to gain power? This is tantamount to a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. DM