Holding local government to account

Local government is the sphere of government closest to its citizens. In South Africa, its structure is designed to accommodate, respond to, and be changed by citizens’ suggestions through a bottom-up approach, from public meetings to petitions and protests.

But many civil society organisations working in the field of local government know this potential often fails to be achieved in reality. Recognising the need for organisations to work together to hold government to account regarding participatory governance and pro-poor development, the Good Governance Learning Network (GGLN) was formed in 2003, and has since released a publication each year focused on a particular theme.

This year’s publication is titled “In Pursuit of Responsible and Responsive Local Government.” In the report’s introduction, GGLN secretariat Mirjam Van Donk and Annuschka Williams differentiate between shallow and deep responsiveness in local government. Both are essential. The first pertains to internal reporting and external communication systems that follow procedures in response to citizens’ concerns, but the second possesses a core quality – “deliberative democracy” – in which deliberation and negotiation characterise the relationship between local government and its citizens.

One of Van Donk and Williams’ concerns is that this deep responsive approach is not fully captured by the “Back-to-Basics” programme implemented by Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA), the department responsible for developing national policies and legislation for local government. Although important, the programme’s emphasis on citizen feedback characterises the relationship between local government and local communities as a “client-or customer-centred one, which is by and large one-directional.” Van Donk and Williams argue that responsive and responsible governance must embrace a more deliberative role between itself and its citizens, and acknowledge that such a relationship must extend beyond the traditional communication forms of ward committee consultation or satisfaction surveys.

These were some of the issues explored at the launch of the publication on 18 June in Cape Town. Contributors from GGLN’s member organisations fleshed out their interpretations of responsiveness and responsibility in their research, from local government’s ineffectiveness during the xenophobic violence in Durban (presented by Rama Naidu from the Democratic Development Partnership), to moving beyond internal auditing of government to social auditing by communities (as related by Adoné Kitching from Isandla Institute).

Dennis Webster from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute focused on protests in informal settlements as an indicator of the failure of local government to respond to communities through the “invited” avenues of ward committees or community contribution to municipalities’ Integrated Development Plans. His definition of responsive governance recognises peaceful protests as “legitimate avenues of democratic engagement”; in many cases government responds by criminalising dissent.

Walter Fieuw from the Community Organisation Resource Centre questioned the lack of community participation in informal settlement upgrading programmes, despite policy clearly acknowledging communities’ vital knowledge of what they need, and allocating budget that caters for facilitating their contributions and consultation with service providers accordingly.

Deputy Minister Andries Nel from CoGTA gave the keynote address, providing perspective on supervising local government procedures from the inside. He expressed concern about the unprecedented amount of community protests, reflecting a disconnect in communication between communities and local government. The police force is increasingly being seen by communities as the public face of consultation between them and the state: often the police are requested to receive petitions rather than councillors or municipal managers.

Although the basics of what characterises good local governance are largely in agreement, differing emphases were reflected between the Deputy Minister and speakers from civil society. Nel attributed the successes of Steve Tshwete municipality in Mpumalanga (such as its consistent unqualified audits and efficient use of its budget to upgrade its water system) to having a hands-on mayor and the municipality’s diligent adherence to the procedures of the ward committee system. Throughout the day, as reflected above, civil society explored procedures and policy in practice, as well as forms of responsibility and responsiveness beyond them.

This deliberation is at the heart of what the GGLN strives to achieve at local government level. The gaps and friction between shallow and deep responsiveness, inherent in debate and discussion at the launch, can be constructive. The health of local governments depends on the success of structures such as ward committees and Integrated Development Plans, but more importantly their abilities to listen, deliberate and negotiate in ways that communities have deemed necessary for their voices to be heard.

Image via Jan Truter.

Megan Tennant is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and has a background in English, film studies and urban geography. She is currently practising as an urban researcher, with recent involvement in projects focusing on township revitalisation and mother and child urban health. 

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