For the past few months, I have been given the opportunity to serve as a PR councilor in the city of Johannesburg. This has exposed me to one of the major flaws associated with governance in South Africa; sometimes the spheres of government are too abstracted from the local context to deliver solutions that are effective for solving a community’s problems. One of the unfortunate consequences that this problem creates is that communities are rendered powerless to take action by themselves, as most of the decision-making authority has been institutionalised among the detached organs of state, its bureaucrats and politicians.
I would be surprised if any South African has never observed or been affected by service delivery protests. During the recent xenophobic protests in Johannesburg, a group of locals residing in the Jeppestown area were frustrated to the point where they decided to burn down the home of their Ward Councillor. This unjustifiable act shows the level of frustration that exists amongst many South Africans. Often these frustrations lead to some people in communities vandalising important infrastructure like public transport facilities, schools and even clinics. I believe that these actions are motivated by the desire to couple attention from politicians that they usually have no access to, even though these actions may be counter-productive. Sadly, many community members feel forgotten about or ignored by the leaders whom they had trusted on the eve of the most recent election.
An example of government’s detached nature in South Africa’s context can be found in the experience of some individuals and their families in Johannesburg, who are subjected to some of the vilest living conditions in the city’s hostels. These hostels are completely owned and [not] serviced by the Gauteng provincial government. On countless occasions, residents have reached out to me hoping that the City of Johannesburg could help them repair issues related to infrastructure. As a new councilor, I often turn to my more senior colleagues hoping to find a solution. In the same vein, they often respond by telling me that local government’s powers to assist the hostel occupants has been severely limited and that the provincial government should be turned to for assistance.
South Africa’s current political system operates in a way that Ward Councillors are the only politicians who are elected directly by the voters. As a result, in some cases, a community’s frustrations are directed solely to their Ward Councillor, whom they regard as being the only point of contact in relation to any sphere of government. Ward Councillors, however, have little to no control over most issues that residents happen to be concerned about. The ward councilor in the area in which these hostels are built, for example, has their power limited to only writing to the Gauteng Provincial government.
At the moment residents find themselves in a situation in which they are affected by issues relating to the public sector and there are barely any platforms for them to comment on how they experience services from the institutions within it. For example, the Passenger Rails Agency of South Africa (PRASA) is completely managed by the national government. The appointment of local police officials is completely out of the hands of local communities. Furthermore, there are too many roads that are still serviced and neglected by the provincial government. These circumstances create obstacles in our fight to bring development to South Africa.
I suppose that the best solution to this problem would be to re-evaluate the country’s voting system, and perhaps structure parliament and provincial legislatures in a similar way to that of municipal councils. In this system half of the council is directly voted for by (and therefore accountable to) the constituents that voted for him/her while the other half is voted for on a proportional representation basis. This battle, however, will continue for many years to come. One way of improving the current situation would be to grant municipalities more power where broadening access to service delivery is concerned. National and provincial governments should consider delegating more power to local government, in the interest of advancing efficient service delivery for all South Africa.
McKinnley Mitchell is a Proportional Representative (PR) councilor for the DA in the city of Johannesburg, and a student at the university of the Witwatersrand, majoring in both mathematics and economics.