Is It Not Time to Cast Aside Party Politics when It Comes to Local Government?

By Glenn Ashton · 17 Apr 2009

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Picture: Kerry Chance
Picture: Kerry Chance

A strong case can be made that the most important tier of government is that of local government. Local communities are the most acutely aware of their own unique needs and how these can best be met. If participatory democracy is to be truly participatory it can be argued that we need to shift away, at least at local level, from political delineations and instead shift toward co-operative local governance based on common local interests. Party politics is a demonstrably poor mechanism to manage local government.

The party political system established in modern South Africa has in many cases conspired against the best interests of local communities to oversee their own affairs. In areas where one party has absolute dominance over local party political structures, there has too often been insufficient oversight by communities of the governance structures set in place by political representatives. There is a well-documented tendency towards nepotism and cronyism in young democracies. This is primarily due to lack of community experience that leads to poor societal oversight of government structures. 

The numerous pitfalls associated with this lack of experience lead to increased isolation amongst those already marginalised from mainstream political sources of power. This has fuelled the frustration that has led to threats of vote boycotts by marginalised communities. On the other hand those with established relationships with formal political structures are able to exert inordinate influence on outcomes.

When local councils are run by actively competing political parties, far too much effort is diverted from the core work of redistributing wealth and looking after community interests. Instead energies are directed toward point scoring and the short-term shoring up of systems that benefit those who hold the whip hand at the time. True coalition governance is a rarity in South Africa and only in the Western Cape and a few other urban centres does anything resembling a functional coalition government exist. Even here, competing political positions work against optimum results being achieved at community level. 

These realities lie behind the increasing cynicism of local communities toward the inherited, polarised and socially exclusive model of local party based politics. Whilst we may have a constitutionally robust political dispensation on a national basis, true, meaningful, representative democratic structures remain elusive at the local level. It seems that all too often the problem is inherent within party based management structures.

It is surprising that when examining the shortcomings of local governance, profound similarities of experience exist between the most marginalised sectors of our population - epitomised by landless peoples groups like Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Landless Peoples Movement (LPM) and the Anti Eviction Campaign (AEC) – and those of traditional civic and ratepayers organisations that operate in middle and upper class suburbs. 

Certainly the issues, demands, needs and relationships to power are vastly different between the rich and the dispossessed. However the common thread is that local government has failed to engage in all but the most superficial manner with those whom it is theoretically mandated to govern. It would appear to be constructive to foster dialogue between the haves and have-nots so that their experiences can be shared.

While Abalali, the LPM and AEC could generally be taken to represent the left, and historically middle class suburbs the right, this simplistic analysis is of little assistance when analysing how local government is acting – or failing to act - on behalf of electorate. Equally the political representatives of those polar extremes, both the ruling ANC coalition on the left and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) on the right, in most instances appear unable to meaningfully grasp the nettle of participatory local government. 

Certainly advances have been made over the past years of our democratic experiment. But the systemic failure to accurately measure and reflect social needs and demands is becoming ever more evident where it most counts.

The differences arise in how these socially polarised opposites engage with political structures. The form of engagement is obviously dependent upon how existing power structures are accessed. Where the LPM, AEC and other pro-poor groups are often forced to take a more confrontational stance due to their historical and ongoing alienation, middle class ratepayers groups have instead attempted to engage with the existing power structures through established channels. 

The poor protest over their continued marginalisation, the wealthy over what they perceive as burdensome rates and taxation regimes that inadequately spread the benefits to where they are most needed. What is interesting is that when the polemic is stripped away, there are strong commonalities amongst each of these groups.

The post-democratic political dispensation has been both centrist in nature and centralised in how power is devolved. Whilst this may support institutional political stability, social stability has been undermined. RDP housing and housing roll-out has on the whole been divisive. Contracts and profits for shoddily built, expensive to heat and ecologically unsustainable housing have accrued to either large contractors or to political cronies, resulting in the same thing – the poor have moved from squatter camps into jerry built slums, or have remained in squatter camps with little discernible change to their circumstances. 

On the other hand, middle class families have seen extremely sharp increases in local rates and taxes with little concomitant benefit. The excuse that money needs to be diverted to previously disadvantaged areas is exposed by failure to properly manage this urgently needed redistribution of resources. Instead burdensome and clumsy bureaucratic structures consume far too many resources that should instead be concentrated on alleviating the needs of the poorest sectors of society.

Generally speaking the middle class is conscious that social stability can only occur if the growing gap between rich and poor is narrowed. The links between poverty as a driver of crime and social instability are clear. Fifteen years of opportunity have been wasted in party political feuding, while citizens remain forgotten behind the posturing and preening. 

Instead of having political power vested in political parties, a more devolved local political dispensation would facilitate a far more beneficial dialogue between the haves and the have-nots. It would enable and encourage local communities to take ownership of their respective problems and to motivate for solutions. This would naturally spread from the local level to a wider basis as problems are identified and addressed. 

Polarisation, distrust and skewed power relationships remain an impediment to finding common ground in building a cohesive society. If we are to achieve a more egalitarian outcome we must clear this roadblock. Surely it would be better for truly representative members of various communities to be able to collectively discuss and plan for the common good without allowing the political waters to be muddied by rigid party political posturing and polarisation?

The primary hindrance to building such representative local structures is the Electoral Act. This works against local representation because of the financial demands associated with participation in the electoral process. This is more easily overcome by wealthier communities than the marginalised. However, middle class suburbs are notoriously socially dysfunctional, while poorer communities can be more cohesive due to the precariousness of their situation. Street committees driven by local needs serve to devolve and evolve participation in local governance, yet all too often these mechanisms are not adequately tapped. 

While more representative local political structures are not easily attainable, this does not mean that they are impossible to attain. The reality is that this is not an option that has been properly explored or pursued. Once we begin to collectively apply our minds to the practical possibilities of truly representative democracy then changes can happen. 

It is ironic that the most marginalised sectors of society, the homeless, shack dwellers and grass roots empowerment groups are calling to boycott elections when they are most in need. It is tragic that fifteen years of supposed democracy has resulted in such political cynicism. Why can their own representatives not take their issues forward?

However it is doubly ironic that wealthier suburbs are starting to echo the same frustration with political structures. There is an increasingly strong movement amongst civic bodies to gain their own representation in local government to replace representatives who are perceived as self-serving obstacles to progress. 

By tapping into this common thread, and by utilising the existing goodwill between South Africans, opportunities can emerge which will assist us to bridge the great fault line of inequality that threatens us all if it remains unaddressed. Post 1994 democratic structures came with no instructions. They were simply a blueprint upon which to build a new nation. Fifteen years of experience has revealed the problems and challenges. Local participation, free of party interference, would appear to hold one of the keys to solving the problems closest to home.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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19 Aug


Coming from a leader of the Cape Town Greenies, that forever wasted money and deposits on provincial elections yet never once entered local elections - even though indications are that they could have gained 10 seats - it seems you may now be attempting to justify that mistake. How do you justify disapointing your more than twenty thousand supporters?

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