There’s a revolution happening at local government level as elections loom

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Dozens of community-led groups threaten to unseat incumbents who sat on their hands – or worse – as local government was pushed off a cliff. From Moneyweb.

Running water remains a dream for many, including residents in Marakong Village in QwaQwa in the Free State. Image: Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters
Running water remains a dream for many, including residents in Marakong Village in QwaQwa in the Free State. Image: Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters

The upcoming local government elections will be the most vigorously contested in decades, as local community-led groups have sprung up around the country to challenge incumbent councillors seen as enablers of the breakdown of governance across the country.

One of these is the Setsoto Service Delivery Forum (SSDF) which is fielding 17 candidates in the Eastern Free State, in an area that encompasses the rural towns of Ficksburg, Clocolan, Senekal and Marquard.

These towns are ANC strongholds that may be in danger of falling to new political forces now gusting through the province, led by highly energised opposition candidates with plenty of ammunition with which to club the incumbents.

Other groups have sprouted in Qwaqwa, in Maluti a Phofung Municipality in the Free State, and in Parys, also in the Free State.

‘Enough’

Selloane Lephoi, SSDF spokesperson, says the reason for the emergence of these localised rebellions is citizen fatigue at watching their municipalities being drained of funds and skills as politically-connected individuals made fortunes from corrupt deals at ratepayer expense.

“We are going to win this election,” she says without hesitation.

“We know this because we’ve been to 90% of the households in our areas, and we have been listening to what people are saying. They are fed up with corruption, at having no water, broken sewage pipes and potholes. They want basic services, and they want economic opportunities.”

The SSDF cuts across race, class and profession.

Whites and blacks have found common cause in the campaign to bring back good governance to the local municipality. The SSDF public meetings have drawn an enthusiastic crowd eager for real change. Lephoi says there’s no question the ANC is about to be routed. “What we have to watch is that the election is not stolen, and we have put plans in place to make sure this does not happen.”

She adds: “Many people in this area are fed up with politics and are not interested in voting. These are the people we are busy campaigning to get to the voting booths on the day of election.

“Voter apathy is what got us into this mess, and this has got to be stopped now.”

From disillusioned to confident

The Azanian Independent Community Movement (AICM) is contesting 12 municipalities in North West Province, and is confident of winning at least half of these, according to local government co-ordinator, Mandla Mpempe, a former ANC activist who left the party to crusade against corruption and graft at the local level.

Read:‘Thugs’ infiltrate ANC before vote – report

ANC unlikely to win Johannesburg majority

Mpempe formed the non-profit Centre for Good Governance and Social Justice to highlight instances of corruption at local government level and has been a thorn in the side of municipal administrators in North West.

Mpempe’s activism appears to have earned him the enmity of local administrators, who denied the AICM the use of a local multi-purpose hall in Mamusa in North West, while allowing other parties free access to the same facility. The AICM was formed to fill a void left by all of the existing political parties.

“We are not prepared to stand by and let the same councillors lie and make false promises so they can get re-elected and draw a nice salary,” says Mpempe.

“People here are tired of the corruption, the arrogance of the ANC councillors who they never hear from once they are elected, and the general disregard for the rule of law and requirements of public office. So we will be fielding 120 candidates across 12 municipal areas, and we are already a force to be reckoned with in this area.”

Like the SSDF, the AICM is less interested in waging ideological battles forged in Moscow or Washington than in delivering practical improvements to the lives of local residents.

To this end it too cuts across race and class divides. Yet its manifesto is progressive, pro-poor, anti-corruption and promises sweeping improvements in service delivery.

‘A manifesto like no other’

Last week the Makana Citizens Front (MCF) in the Eastern Cape launched its manifesto at Soccer City in Nelson Mandela Bay to an enthusiastic crowd.

“This is a manifesto like no other: it is the people’s voice, not a document written by a committee or an advertising agency. The opening line of the Freedom Charter is ‘The people shall govern!’ MCF’s manifesto brings that to life,” says Lungile Mxube, MCF’s coordinator.

History was made last year when the Eastern Cape’s Provincial Executive was ordered to dissolve Makana Municipality and appoint an administrator until a new council is elected.

The ANC decided to appeal the damning judgment, which ruled that it had failed to provide services to the community in a sustainable manner, nor did it offer a safe and healthy environment, among other findings.

Read: Municipal election candidates must honour their promises: Ramaphosa

The MCF was formed to restore ethical leadership to Makana, and like the other groups fighting the ANC across the country, is committed to genuine non-racialism, while deploring xenophobia and racial polarisation. Mxube tells Moneyweb that while his group has been packing out halls and venues where it is holding rallies, the ANC has struggled to raise a crowd of 20.

“We’re a non-political organisation that does not have its headquarters in Johannesburg, nor does it have a provincial headquarters.

“Our mission is simple: we want a return of basic services, we want to work with law enforcement to lock up corrupt officials and to combat violence of all kinds, we want to get rid of ghost workers who draw salaries every month, and we will investigate corrupt tenders that have been awarded over the years,” says Mxube.

“We will be contesting 13 of the 14 wards in this area, and we are absolutely confident of winning and getting rid of the incumbents who allowed this terrible situation to develop.”

The need for change

The state of local governance in SA is appalling, as the Auditor-General constantly reminds us.

Earlier this year we learned that just 27 municipalities out of 257 countrywide received clean audits. The same AG report indicates that 163 of the 257 municipalities – nearly two out of every three – are currently in financial distress.

Read: The extent of SA’s municipal problem? R51bn, says Ratings Afrika

A new report by PwC – ‘South Africa Economic Outlook, Elections 2021: Improving municipal finances to support the socio-economic recovery’ – suggests that municipalities are in real financial trouble as transfers from national to local government are falling rather than rising.

Total transfers actually reduced from R138.5 billion to R138.4 billion in 2021/2. While ‘conditional grants’ from national to local government are being increased from R40 billion to R45.5 billion, the ‘equitable share’ is being reduced from R84.5 billion to R78 billion.

Says PwC: “With municipal elections happening on November 1, political parties are campaigning with promises of improving municipal service delivery outcomes.

“However, the financial health of municipalities is a particular concern for service delivery and the country’s socioeconomic recovery over the short to medium term. Municipalities require adequate funds to provide the essential services needed to create an environment conducive for doing business and growing the economy following last year’s recession. To fund those services, they rely on a mix of transfers from the national government and their own revenue sources.”

Municipal revenue from national government (Rbn)

Source: National Treasury

This small town rebellion sometimes ends up in court, as when residents of Kgetlengrivier in North West Province were ordered by the North West High Court to take control of the area’s sewage and water works after the local municipality had run the plants into the ground and abandoned post.

In the farming town of Bethal in Mpumalanga, a local residents association recently dragged the local Govan Mbeki Municipality and Eskom to court, claiming that power cuts of up to 20 hours a day are threatening the livelihoods and health of residents.

Read:North West residents take matters into their own hands, and get court’s blessing

Mpumalanga residents head to court to halt 20-hours-a-day power cuts

Neil Gopal, CEO of the SA Property Owners Association (Sapoa) says we should not rejoice in instances where citizens are effectively running municipalities.

“These are signs of dismal failure on the part of government which will come with its own consequences. We are of course concerned about these court judgements [such as the one involving Kgetlengrivier].

“We are in uncharted territory here,” says Gopal. “What can we expect next? For the Constitutional Court to hand over the running of the country to its citizens?”

The civic forums sprouting across the country are no longer waiting for their local governments to reform themselves, nor do they believe promises of “give us another chance and we’ll do better next time”.

They’re taking the revolution right to the door of broken municipalities, and are planning, not just to win a few seats, but to take over.

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.