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This is a new progressive era for municipalities

Professor Sethulego Matebesi has argued that coalitions has provided a new era for municipalities in South Africa. Picture: Supplied.

Professor Sethulego Matebesi has argued that coalitions has provided a new era for municipalities in South Africa. Picture: Supplied.

Published Nov 6, 2021

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OPINION: Parties such as ActionSA and independent candidates should be mindful that South Africans have given them the mandate to provide solutions to the problems of municipalities. This is an opportunity they need to embrace wholeheartedly, writes Sethulego Matebesi.

South Africa is caught in the middle of a post-election glow. After the panic-fuelled months of Covid-19, the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma, and the unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the reality is now sinking in that South Africans have given a resounding vote of confidence for good governance, yet punished those with empty promises.

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While voter turnout has been a challenge in the country’s local government elections, it was driven even lower by the general weariness and cynicism with the political systems and politicians. And can we blame citizens for these sentiments?

Municipalities, if managed effectively, have the potential to create vibrant communities of excellence. Unfortunately, however, the annual reports of the auditor-general provide compelling evidence of the arrogance and impunity of municipal councillors and officials.

It has been interesting to note how often the question: will politicians learn from the voter turnout and results of the local elections has been asked. My response is a big no. this response rests on the fact that we expect citizens to hope for the future of municipalities when irregular expenditure to the tune of R26 billion is embraced.

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Since the inefficient municipal system – where consequence management seems to be an after-thought – is highly beneficial to specific individuals, do we expect them to abandon these bad practices willingly? And perhaps this also explains why political killings have become part of the DNA of election campaigning in the country.

Key elections outcomes and possible impacts

A significant outcome of the elections illustrates the ANC’s dwindling electoral support. The party managed to retain many municipalities, but its low support base in urban areas should be worrying.

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Since the ANC received a vote of confidence from their loyal supporters, only time will tell how long they will hold onto the thin thread of power. And the party still must resolve several disputes about its councillor candidates – a recurring matter during each local election.

Nevertheless, a great reprieve for the party is that voters will be able to negotiate from a position of power in most hung municipalities despite the rebuke.

Perhaps even more worrying for the ruling party is a sea of independent candidates and civic organisations. The performance of these candidates did also not happen in a vacuum.

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For instance, while poor service delivery is at the centre of residents’ disgruntlement, we should not underestimate the role of former DA leader and One SA movement leader, Mmusi Maimane. He has been an ardent champion of the proportional system and encouraged the campaigns of independent candidates throughout South Africa.

The performance of the independent candidates may be a precursor to what South Africans can expect in the 2024 elections. However, it is hoped that they do not fall prey to politics of the stomach when bargaining in hung municipalities.

The surprise package of this election is undoubtfully ActionSA’s performance in Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal. This is followed by the resurgence of the IFP, the dominance of the MAP16– a group of former ANC councillors – in the ailing Maluti-a-Phofung municipality in Free State.

Overall, the EFF remains in third place and the FF Plus in the fourth position. The following two weeks are crucial and will determine the kind of municipalities we can expect. A statutory requirement is that the first meeting of councils must take place within 14 days after the announcement of the results.

With more than 40 municipalities without an outright majority, coalition talks are in full swing. The bargaining will be over the election of a council speaker and mayor.

There has been massive contestation over the proceedings to elect candidates for these two positions in the past. It is now expected that the new breed of councillors must repair the damage that has been caused to municipal governance.

Ushering in a new era of progressive municipal governance

Municipalities are hierarchically structured and authority driven. As a result, our local governance system is marked by a tension between accountability and efficiency on one end, and rampant corruption and inefficiency, on the other end.

However, the new era of coalitions at the local level – despite several cracks after the 2016 local elections – may usher in an era of progressive municipal governance that tilts the pendulum towards arresting the gradual eroding of the capacity of municipalities to oversee the provision of basic services competently.

Thus, parties such as ActionSA and independent candidates should be mindful that South Africans have given them the mandate to provide solutions to the problems of municipalities.

This is an opportunity they need to embrace wholeheartedly. After all, the reality is South Africans are yearning for the renewal of progressive governance in municipalities.

* Sethulago Matebesi is an associate professor and head of sociology at the University of the Free State.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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