On 28 June, Democracy Works Foundation held their second Political Cafe event at the Bannister Hotel, Braamfontein in Johannesburg. The topic for discussion was: The 2016 municipal elections – how does socio-economic transformation impact service delivery at a municipal level?
The discussion was facilitated by author and independent analyst, Nompumelelo Runji, with a panel consisting of Stuart Wilson, Director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, Desné Masie, a visiting researcher in international political economy at the Wits School of Governance, and independent political commentator, Shaka Sisulu.Runji set the framework for the discussion by saying that local government is the coalface of government. “Our day to day lives actually take place in the control of the municipality. Our experience does not happen at the national level”, she said. She did a quick survey asking how many in the room actually knew their ward councillor and how many people had ever attended an Integrated Development Plan (IDP) consultation meeting. Less than 10 percent raised their hands on both counts. One of the few people who said he took the time to attend a planning consultation meeting, said the representatives from the municipality who had called the meeting, did not pitch up. Another attendee said most issues with the municipality could only resolved in the court room.
Wilson said people do not participate, but on the other hand, municipalities appear not to take participation seriously. So there could be a relation between people’s enthusiasm (or lack of) to get involved in local government issues and municipalities being unresponsive to what people want. And not only are they unresponsive but they are not willing to listen.
In response to the issue of transformation Sisulu said he did not think there were significant objectives, when one spoke about socio-economic objectives except when one looked at Johannesburg Metro which appears to have brought in a different aspect to their plan in respect of spatial segregation.
“There is this idea in the Joburg Metro that it has to work at socio-economic transformation but that it also has to look at spatial transformation because the city was constructed and has grown in a segregated manner which impacts on social services and the ability of certain people to access economic opportunities.”, he said.
Wilson concurred: “We you look at the terms of participation that are set, not only by this municipality, but by all municipalities, they are fairly restricted. If you look at this municipality, participation is for rate payers and property owners. People who live in informal settlements and backyard shacks are precisely the same people who were not recognised under apartheid and still are not being recognised.
“You struggle to find in the Integrated Development Plan (IDP) a meanful statement as to why, when or how a particular formal settlement would be upgraded. You also struggle to find, if you are someone living in a backyard shack in Soweto, how you can access more secure tenure. It is time that municipalities, like Johannesburg, start seeing people as democratic citizens, rather than as property owners and rate payers and that Johannesburg stops running itself like an engine of social transformation”,Wilson said.
The topic of social transformation further developed. Masie remarked that in terms of Johannesburg running itself as a state-owned business, “We live in a global economy where everything has been financialised. So an important part of service delivery and infrastructure are financial and global forces and methods of creating capital in order build infrastructure.
“What is interesting is that the municipal elections feed very much into the state of investor sentiment right now. A lot of international investors are watching what is happening with these municipal elections because it is so fraught and we are currently in extremely fraught political spaces as to how the elections are going to play out. I think that this is where the exciting space is right now”.
Runji then asked Wilson whether people expected too much from municipalities that are often rife with political patronage and whether they were economically focused in transformation.
Wilson said that Sisulu was right when he alluded to a parallel system. “There is a party system of political patronage and then there is the bureaucracy and both of them are exclusionary in different ways. The underlying problem is that there are not enough resources to go around. We are the most unequal country in the world. About 90% of the population lives on an income substantially below a middle income country standard. All most people want is a house, a decent job, adequate water and access to electricity”, he commented.
“We also need to invest in a new kind of politics. We should look for an innovative economic policy that uplifts the poor. Instead we are squandering it to meet the patronage priorities of the leader of the ruling party. The only way out at the moment is more visibility (for the masses) and more protest” Wilson added.
Runji then asked, “Why cannot voting be the disrupter? Perhaps the use of the direct representation model, advocated by Van Zyl Slabbert would be an option”?
Sisulu answered that if you changed the system in this country to direct representation, every MP or councillor would be for sale. “I don’t think that you need to change the voting system, we just need to find a way to make politicians and their political apparatus honest”.
“In terms of protest and why people protest, I would say that protest is a language, but with any language, you start out with a few words and over the years you find a much more refined and sophisticated lexicon. I think that we are at the very best level of speaking “protest”. So the protest has to be physical and seen.”, Sisulu said.
An attendee of the Political Cafe, a young black woman said that she was probably speaking for most young people when she said that democracy scared her and she found it too complicated and confusing. She did not believe that leaders cared which made her ambivalent, and possibly against the idea of voting.
Sisulu replied to her that for democracy to work, people have got to be deeply engaged in politics, know what the issues are and how to make municipalities accountable. “Until people are engaged, they cannot wave a finger and wait every five years to express their dissatisfaction. In the end it is not up to the politicians. People need to be more engaged and galvanised and be more mobilised for the changes they want”.