Local Government Elections: The Will of the People?

By Jane Duncan · 8 Feb 2011

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Picture: bbcworldservice
Picture: bbcworldservice

South Africa is gearing up for its third local government election. In an attempt to break with the authoritarianism of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, President Jacob Zuma has promised a new approach to these elections, where more responsive candidates are selected that genuinely represent the will of the people.

To this end, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has committed itself to greater community involvement in the selection of candidates. Branch members select candidates who are then screened by a screening committee, and nominees are then taken to a public meeting. The party’s process is more democratic than the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) electoral college, where a panel selects candidates.

These changes are much needed. Many communities are tired of having candidates foisted on them through unpopular deployment processes. They want a genuine say in the selection of people who they think will root out the corruption, nepotism and poor service delivery that has set into many municipalities.

But will the promise of these elections be realized? And will the ANC respect the will of the people if it clashes with the will of the party? There are important lessons to be learnt from the most recent by-elections, as they suggest that the ANC may not, especially when communities break with the party’s preferred candidates and choose independent candidates. While the ANC remains overwhelmingly dominant, followed by the DA, the number of independent candidates is gradually increasing.

The experiences of two independent candidates in the recent by-elections speak volumes about the democratic content of Zuma’s rule. They are Mothiba Ramphisa, councillor for Ward 7 in Greater Groblersdal in the Moutse area, Limpopo, and Zache Ngxingo, councillor for Ward 4 in Kenton on Sea in the Ndlambe Municipality, Eastern Cape.

Since 2005, the Moutse community has waged a struggle to have their area reincorporated from Limpopo back into Mpumalanga. In the 2006 local government elections, eleven South African Communist Party (SACP) members decided to run as independent candidates in protest against their incorporation into Limpopo by the Mbeki administration. Rampisa, who is the Chairperson of the Moutse Dermarcation Forum and the regional Chairperson of the SACP, was one of these candidates.

But when an ANC ward councillor died, Ramphisa ran again in the by-election in May 2010 and won, indicating that the ANC was rapidly losing electoral support in the area owing to their failure to resolve the Moutse situation. In response, the ANC expelled him as a member, sending him a letter of expulsion in June without even calling him to a disciplinary hearing.

However, in spite of its earlier threats to expel independent candidates, the SACP has, in Ramphisa’s words “managed to close one eye and look with the other eye.” This suggests that the SACP has recognised that mass support for the anti-incorporation struggles had contributed significantly to its growth in support in the affected areas, and that it would be shooting itself in the foot to act against them.

Ramphisa’s experiences suggest that the ANC will deliberately frustrate independent councillors to discourage others from emerging. According to Ramphisa:

“I am not given any opportunity to do anything. I want them to listen to the voice of the people. What do they do? All the plans were developed by the late councillor, and I am not in a position to bring a new plan, as plans are in place. We can go three to four weeks with not a drop of water, and they may be doing this to suppress an independent candidate. Before that, with the ANC councillor, there was a lot of water; it flowed. The conditions of the roads under the old councillor was good, he was given a grader, but with an independent candidate, roads are dilapidated, and we don’t have access to a grader. Even housing, the previous candidate was given housing, but since then we haven’t been given houses. They are holding me to ransom at every turn, with every project. 2011 is on the door, and if they can show that independent candidates don’t perform, they will say that they are not viable.”

Ngxingo has also experienced a backlash after his election. A long-standing member of the ANC and the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco), and a keen observer of Council affairs, Ngxingo has been active in his ward for years. After an ANC councillor died, the community elected him in as ‘an independent representing the people not the party’ in October 2010.

According to Ngxingo, his election campaign began when ‘people felt that individuals in the ANC had become despotic; as a result, they had lost trust in the ANC region’s ability to select appropriate candidates. The branch and regional executive favoured a teacher with links to Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti, who comes from the area, while the majority of the community favoured Ngxingo.

In a subversion of the ANC’s democratic selection process, Ngxingo was told by the party’s regional executive committee that the deployment committee had decided in favour of the teacher, irrespective of the feelings of the public meeting which was meant to finally decide on the preferred candidate. The community rebelled and elected Ngxingo. He inherited a ward where, in his words, “nothing was happening, nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Ngxingo was luckier than Ramphisa; at least the ANC followed its own procedures and called him to a disciplinary hearing, but he refused to attend as he felt that he had done nothing wrong. From the outset, the ANC component of the Council have frustrated him, initially refusing to call the Council meeting to inaugurate him as councillor, and conceding only after a protest by his supporters.

As elections loom, the obstacles grow. According to Nxgingo, one of his supporters was stoned by ANC members after having attended a march. He also claims that the ANC are holding closed meetings about the selection of candidates, without community involvement.

Based on these experiences, Ngxingo argued that Zuma’s promise of a more bottom up process in selecting councillors is “hypocritical politics.”  He observed:

“Why do you have to make people vote if you are going to ignore what they are going to say? How can you call people to a hall and be told we have selected someone? You have taken away their democratic right to choose. Communities can think, and communities can innovate. This is cheap village politics. The ANC has attracted a pack of wolves and has become a vehicle for hypocrites. What you find at the municipalities, you find that they are looting them. It is not the ANC of Mandela, it is dominated by a bunch of crooks. The crooks have taken over the reins. They have learned well from their apartheid masters. [The ANC leaders] are not grounded. Their politics float above the people. They forget that power is ephemeral, and because of this arrogance, people are beginning to look the other way. There are genuine leaders, wonderful leaders, and policies are in place, but we need to set the ANC free from the shackles of selfish people who are in positions of power.”

South African's elections are hailed around the world for being free and fair, and therefore a true expression of the will of the people. Elections are assumed to be an open contest on a level playing field. It is also assumed that the ANC, which forms the identity and culture of millions of South Africans, remains dominant at the polls because of its enormous popularity.

While there are signs of a fragmentation of the ANC's support, this will not automatically translate into greater electoral diversity. There are many ways in which the ANC tilts the political landscape in its favour, thereby making the emergence of electoral alternatives extremely difficult, especially amongst the working class and unemployed.

For instance, in Middelburg in Mpumalanga, the ANC component of the Council drove through an amendment to the speaking rules to apportion speaking time according to the size of the party, rather than continuing to allow councillors a maximum of five minutes per agenda item. This rule was instituted after a number of independent councillors from the Greater Middelburg Resident’s Association were elected to the council.

These rules have made it practically impossible for the Association to function effectively. More fundamentally, rules of this nature prevent important issues that may not be articulated by the major parties from bubbling into the public domain.

The monetization of electoral politics has also skewed the political landscape towards larger, more-well resourced parties, which are, unsurprisingly, clustered towards the centre of the political spectrum. So it is hardly surprising that South African politics has turned into a one-and-a-half horse race between the ANC and the DA, in spite of the fact that nearly 150 parties are registered with the IEC.

The experiences of independent councillors so far strongly suggest that if independent organizations manage to clear the multiple barriers to entry to the electoral domain, and the ANC encounters a real electoral threat from sources other than the liberal-right, then the velvet glove may well drop to reveal an iron fist.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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