Public participation in local government in South Africa

Service delivery protests show the need to strengthen participation and representation.

The Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa © Linda Poppe

The sphere of local government in South Africa is primarily responsible for the delivery of basic services such as water, electricity, housing and sanitation amongst others. Municipalities are thus directly accountable to the communities which they serve for providing services which are considered to be basic human rights according to the country’s Constitution. Public participation in local government decision making is thus of great importance and there is an extensive suite of policies and legislation which provide for channels of participation and communication, including the ward participatory system (see box).This system provides the public with an opportunity to influence decision-making through a locally-elected Ward Councillor who represents the interests of the community in the municipal council. Furthermore, citizens can contact their municipality directly to provide comment and input on the municipal budget and development plans or to identify needs within their community.

While a number of mechanisms are in place to promote public participation, they are not always adequately implemented and communities may use other channels to make their voices heard. Dissatisfied with the slow rate and poor quality of service delivery, some communities have resorted to protest action to highlight their concerns and voice their frustrations. While not widespread, the number of service delivery protests has increased over the last few years with 52 protests reported in the first half of 2009 alone, compared to 27 occurrences in 2008 (Municipal IQ Hotspots Monitor). These protests highlight the weakness of governance structures within certain municipalities, raising questions about the representation of the interests of the poor within local government. The protests also suggest that there is a lack of transparency and accountability as well as a mismatch between what these communities expect and what they actually receive from their local municipalities. In municipalities where they have occurred, protest action suggests a break-down in the relationship between the state and the citizenry. This does not bode well for local democratic systems in these municipalities.

The electorate have been responsive rather than apathetic

The service delivery protests are a major concern for government. In the run-up to the local government elections, which took place in May 2011, there were concerns that the lack of confidence in local government would result in low voter turn-out. The results of the 2011 local government elections however suggest that the electorate have been responsive rather than apathetic and have used the opportunity to exercise their democratic right and display their political views. In some municipalities, the elections have brought about a change in the local political leadership. Very significantly the 2011 local government elections saw a noteworthy increase of 9.2% in voter turnout at the election polls compared to the two previous local government elections which took place in 2006 and 2000. Voter turnout increased across all nine of the country’s provinces, suggesting a widespread growth in participation in local elections. These results are indeed encouraging for local democracy. The increased participation in the elections can be attributed to a number of factors including effective political campaigning. The results do suggest that dissatisfaction with local government has not fostered voter apathy but may have instead provided some impetus to greater public involvement in formal local governance systems.

With new municipal councillors having only recently been sworn in, the next five-year term will need to be one of significant improvement in the performance of municipalities not only as providers of basic services, but also as institutions of democratic governance. Thus, in addition to providing better access to water and sanitation etc, municipalities also need to improve accountability, transparency and representation. Indeed the service delivery protests have highlighted concerns which require an urgent response. It is important however that protest action does not become a commonly used vehicle for communities to voice their concerns. While the recent elections have given new energy to local government, for some municipalities there remains a long road ahead in restoring confidence and strengthening the relationship between the municipality and the communities which they serve.

The ward participatory system

In this system, municipalities are divided in wards – an area comprising an estimated 250 households – which are represented by a Ward Councillor, who is elected through the local elections held every five years in the country. Each ward has to establish a Ward Committee of up to 10 community members, with the committee being chaired by the Ward Councillor. The responsibility of the Ward Councillor is to represent the interests of the ward in the municipal council and along with the Ward Committee members ensure that the needs of the ward are identified and addressed. Ward Committees meet quarterly and are open to the public. The public should be able to contact either the Ward Councillor or other Ward Committee members at any point, in order to voice their concerns or raise issues. For more information on functioning of the ward participatory system, see http://www.dplg.gov.za/subwebsites/publications/type_muni/muni_ward.htm