Democratic? Alliance?

By Glenn Ashton · 12 May 2011

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Picture: Democratic Alliance
Picture: Democratic Alliance

The Democratic Alliance (DA) claims the title of official opposition and governs the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape. Yet questions are emerging about how the DA governs.

Just how democratic is local governance by the DA? Does the party communicate with its electorate? More importantly, does it listen to them? Does it accurately represent community interests?

Despite claims of non-partisan leadership, the DA should shoulder a significant proportion of the responsibility for the controversies generated by its implementation of questionable actions such as the controversial Macaza toilets and the manner in which itinerants were relocated to ready-made slums like Blikkiesdorp. The fact that these decisions primarily impact previously - and existing - disadvantaged areas plays directly into the hands of those claiming racist policy implementation.

The DA’s critics claim it is simply a stooge for neo-liberal and neo-conservative agendas. Picking out the reality and truths amongst the political mud slinging between the ruling tripartite alliance, peoples justice movements, activist groups and the DA is tricky. The abuse of the racism card has replaced nuanced debate and can often be dismissed as little more than political sloganeering. This is fine when taking a message to your electorate but does not provide any real analysis. 

The central question is whether the DA embraces the democratic ideals that it claims are at the core of its ethos. Or is the DA simply another monolithic, pragmatic political entity that is prepared to sell its principles to the highest bidders – a pale reflection of the ANC if you will?

The Achilles heel of our constitution is its lack of public oversight of party political funding. The present political funding system is more akin to formalised corruption than to a transparent political funding process. Anyone can pay any party significant amounts of money without the public knowing what conditionalities have been set or favours requested, in return. 

While Helen Zille may claim ignorance of whose private aircraft she is using on the election trail, this amounts to no more than mendacious opportunism. If someone lent me their bicycle, let alone aircraft, I would want to know their name!

The reality of non-transparent funding plays out in every political party, from the ruling party with its Chancellor House tentacles, to the DA with its equally shadowy links to free market ideologues, corporate funders, land developers and no-one knows who else. 

While both the DA and ANC have promised to initiate legislation managing this important aspect of democratic interface, exactly nothing has happened legislatively. We can only assume that all of our political parties are happy to be complicit in legalised bribery and corruption; the difference with the DA is that it claims the moral high ground in clean governance.

One example of this phenomenon in the Western Cape is the creation of a Property Developers forum, which has been given direct access to both political and official decision making bodies in the City of Cape Town.

This has had profoundly negative impacts on planning ideology and practice across both City and Province. The City has recently given the green light to at least three developments that lie outside the urban edge, the democratically negotiated and fixed metropolitan boundary. In doing so it has bent to the logic of developers while the voices of civil society remain marginalised. 

To compound the problem, decision making on development has been politically centralised within Mayco, the mayoral committee that effectively manages executive oversight in Cape Town. These decisions were previously made at subordinate level in the Spatial Planning, Environment and Land Use Management (SPELUM) and Planning and Environment Portfolio Committee (PEPCO) levels. Subordinating these bodies to Mayco has effectively gutted these more objective decision making bodies.

While there certainly were pre-existing problems within the city planning department, the removal of decision making from experienced planners to the political realm is unacceptable. The result has been questionable and undesirable planning decisions.

One such controversy is the green light given by Mayco of the Uitkamp development, to the north of Durbanville. This not only lies outside the urban edge but includes productive agricultural land that planners advised should remain undeveloped. 

Politicians subsequently responded to a vociferous round of criticism from Cape Town civics by firstly prevaricating and then handing this hot potato to the Provincial planners for review. 

This is not the first time the city has avoided making hard calls, passing them on to Province; instead it appears to be a pattern that is developing. There are several applications for development outside the urban edge, such as Dassenberg in the South and Bella Riva in the north that have gone the same route. So much for responsible and responsive governance.

Worse yet, in defending the original decision at Uitkamp, the deputy mayor Cllr. Ian Nielsen, insisted that the urban edge was flexible and that the city needed to attract investment. He was backed up by another Mayco member Cllr Marianne Niewoudt who asserted civil society failed to grasp fundamental planning principles.

So what has emerged in Cape Town is a centralised decision making body, comprised of elected politicians. These same politicians have ‘streamlined’ the planning process and been instrumental by establishing the Property Developers Forum. The question that then begs itself is not whether members of the Property Developers Forum fund political parties, but to what extent?

It is also interesting to hear that mandated and representative civic organisations like the metropolitan wide Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance have allegedly been referred to by elected councillors as “the enemy!” Given this sort of attitude, what hope do less well resourced civic bodies have of having their concerns heard?

This attitude has also manifested in provincial government where the DA has effectively curtailed equal representation by opposition ANC party representatives by unilaterally reducing their representation within provincial standing committees. The ANC now has only 14 members to the DA’s 22. This is the sort of high handedness that the DA regularly objects to in the National Parliament where they are in the minority. Surely a more politically mature quid pro quo would assist in shifting the political fault-lines?

Despite the DA’s claims of its good governance in the Western Cape, we still see regular “service delivery protests,” – that lazy journalistic shorthand for social frustrations not being visibly dealt with by local authorities. 

Certainly there are political tensions which are easily taken advantage of in our economically polarised and highly politicised society. The reality is that protest amongst the most marginalised neighbourhoods in the Western Cape remains as real as elsewhere in the country. This is clearly a long way from the ideal image of the province that the DA attempts to project.

It would be churlish to deny that the DA has efficiently managed certain aspects of municipal management, such as macro-economic oversight and the spending of allocated funds from National or provincial government. 

Yet serious discontent remains about the degree to which mandated community structures remain unable to gain the ear and more importantly, to get action from their political representatives. It is also notable is that this shortcoming is true amongst both rich and poor communities. 

The reality is that voters apparently still do not really have any real option of a party that will truly represent their wishes and aspirations. Until political parties become both more attuned to the requirements of the electorate by listening to the electorate, rather than to party political funders, truly representative democracy will remain more of a theoretical than a pragmatic reality. 

The uncomfortable reality is that the DA and ANC are really just two sides of the same coin, politically and economically speaking. Our choice this election remains between centrist and neo-liberal right-wingers. As yet there is no major political party that actually represents the true voice of the people, particularly at local level, which is where our votes really count.

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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HowardK Verified user
11 May

Poor Representation

Our local DA ward councillor, Pieter Terblance representing ward 51 in Uitenhage appeared to accept it on face value when the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality granted a special consent for the operation of my neighbour

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11 May

This Article Absolutely Hits the Nail on the Head

Every time the DA leader states that Cape Town is so well managed, it reminds one of Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Emperor's New Clothes'.

The Cape Town populace is unaware of the incompetence and scheming that has pervaded the City, because it is all neatly camouflaged in spin and obfuscation. If the City spent half as much on service delivery as they do on lawyers and spin doctors, we would really see some improvement.

All the things that made Cape Town unique, the natural environment, the farmlands, the scenic routes, are all, as this article says, going to the highest bidders (read developers / funders). The interests of the actual communities and ratepayers to the city coffers are extremely low on the DA's list of priorities.


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13 May

Objectivity vs Subjectivity

I wish we had more people like this columinist. It is looking at the crux of the problem not who is causing it. The DA know who are its main supporters, as go all the way to satisfy them. Others are only as good as potential voters.

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Debbie Wall-Smith
13 May

DA Is Efficient

Having no particular political affiliation, my experience of the DA is that they respond to complaints and our ward councillor is accountable.

[email protected] is a great innovation. This together with the ward councillor is great.

We recently returned from the Eastern Cape, my 9 year old commented on our return that he cannot understand why anyone would not vote for Helen Zille because she keeps the streets clean i.e. Eastern Cape is a mess.

When I hear about rates clearance problems in JHB, CT is not bad by comparison. Service delivery in previously disadvantaged areas is a massive problem throughout SA and we need to keep reminding the various government forums thereof. The city could definitely improve on many things, but I would hate to run such a massive organisation.

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14 May

Governance? Democracy? Developers Forum?

A well balanced and very thought provoking article by the columnist.

The Property Developers Forum engages with the authorities at the highest level of decision-making, both at the City and Provincial levels. There is no Civil Society representation promoting community or environmental interests during these engagements. This was confirmed through parliamentary questioning when the MEC was asked how Civil Society engages with the Provincial Development Forum. The exclusive nature of the forum was communicated in the MEC's response, which is a matter of public record.

Based on the unacceptable lack of independent oversight, the Provincial MEC was approached by a number of Civic and Environmental bodies in order to have this glaring omission redressed. In this regard, the response received was tantamount to

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15 Jun

MSDF and Now This

Thanks for an insighful read. First the Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework was subjugated to capital and now the entire re-wiring of the already fragile planning system. There is no hope for sustainability unless accountability shifts to organised (autonomous) civil society

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