Ward coun­cil­lors are key play­ers

The politi­ci­sa­tion of such an im­por­tant ele­ment of democ­racy leaves res­i­dents frus­trated and an­gry

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Lauren Oc­to­ber

The im­por­tance of ward coun­cil­lors is con­stantly over­looked. They are blamed for the poor de­liv­ery of ser­vices and praised for in­no­va­tive ini­tia­tives. Their role in pro­mot­ing so­cial co­he­sion, how­ever, is rarely men­tioned. But the per­son­al­ity and lead­er­ship of the ward coun­cil­lor is of­ten in­te­gral to the peace or vi­o­lence present in the area he or she rep­re­sents.

The role of the coun­cil­lor is fraught with a du­al­ity that of­ten goes un­ac­knowl­edged. They are re­spon­si­ble to their elec­torate and also to the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil, a sit­u­a­tion that of­ten seems im­pos­si­ble to nav­i­gate. You will find coun­cil­lors who are re­spon­sive to peo­ple in their ward but who lack the ca­pac­ity to make good de­ci­sions in the coun­cil. On the other hand, you also find coun­cil­lors who are true lead­ers at the mu­nic­i­pal level but are in­ac­ces­si­ble to the res­i­dents in their ward.

It is rare to find a coun­cil­lor who can be good at both func­tions. To nav­i­gate this balance, coun­cil­lors need to pro­mote good gover­nance and so­cial co­he­sion with co-op­er­a­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ac­count­abil­ity, ac­ces­si­bil­ity, im­par­tial­ity and per­sonal in­tegrity.


Ward coun­cil­lors are sup­posed to work to­gether with var­i­ous groups but this form of co-op­er­a­tion and par­tic­i­pa­tion rarely oc­curs. Many stud­ies have found that the func­tion­ing of ward com­mit­tees is overly de­pen­dent on the per­for­mance of ward coun­cil­lors, who de­ter­mine how of­ten ward com­mit­tees meet, set their agen­das and pro­vide the flow of in­for­ma­tion be­tween ward com­mit­tees and the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil.

But many ward coun­cil­lors do not al­low for co-op­er­a­tion and do not do their jobs prop­erly. Ei­ther they do not set reg­u­lar meet­ings or the tim­ing of those meet­ings is in­fre­quent and un­pre­dictable. Coun­cil­lors are of­ten not up to these tasks be­cause of in­com­pe­tence, ig­no­rance about their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to­wards ward com­mit­tees, or be­cause they are con­strained by party pol­i­tics or lo­cal power con­tests.

Sec­ond, ward com­mit­tee elec­tions are of­ten fraught with con­tro­versy. Of­ten coun­cil­lors choose their favourites and al­low ward com­mit­tees to be­come a mere ex­ten­sion of their own po­lit­i­cal party struc­tures, spark­ing a fierce con­test for these po­si­tions. This hap­pens even though the lo­cal gov­ern­ment hand­book specif­i­cally cau­tions against the hand­pick­ing of com­mit­tee mem­bers.

Third, coun­cil­lors of­ten part­ner with those al­ready in­volved in com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions and so they can fail to en­gage with the wider com­mu­nity to any sig­nif­i­cant de­gree. Coun­cil­lors also rarely co-op­er­ate with excluded groups, such as young peo­ple. There­fore, al­though it is within the in­ter­ests of the res­i­dents for the coun­cil­lors to co-op­er­ate with all stake­hold­ers, of­ten it be­comes a “gen­tle­man’s club”, with coun­cil­lors choos­ing their favourite in­di­vid­u­als and groups to work with and not find­ing a use for any­one else.


Coun­cil­lors need to open the chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween them­selves and their con­stituency so that they can gain in­sight into what the pub­lic needs and in­form it about mu­nic­i­pal de­ci­sions.

But it can be dif­fi­cult for coun­cil­lors to pro­vide both top-down com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil and bot­tom-up com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the coun­cil. So, this com­mu­ni­ca­tion is of­ten in­ef­fec­tive even when it does take place.

There is also a lot of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween coun­cil­lors and ward com­mit­tees, when coun­cil­lors do not use the in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the ward com­mit­tees to cham­pion is­sues in the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil. When this hap­pens, the value of ward com­mit­tees is ques­tioned. Coun­cil­lors have also been ac­cused of not com­mu­ni­cat­ing ef­fec­tively with their con­stituents. The usual place for coun­cil­lors to com­mu­ni­cate with res­i­dents are mass meet­ings and road shows.

But these are rarely a mean­ing­ful way for the pub­lic to par­tic­i­pate. The prob­lem is the plan­ning and bud­getary pro­cesses of lo­cal gov­ern­ment are not of­ten af­fected by the out­comes of these mass meet­ings, and that is be­cause of a prob­lem in com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Al­though dis­tricts do re­flect good pub­lic­ity and clear agen­das for iz­im­bizo, of­fi­cial notes and min­utes are not al­ways taken and the ev­i­dence of fol­low-ups by of­fi­cials on is­sues raised is min­i­mal. Even those coun­cil­lors who are com­mit­ted to pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion tend to as­sume that they know what the needs of their con­stituents are.

These as­sump­tions are a direct chal­lenge to rep­re­sen­ta­tion, be­cause it is only by direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion with res­i­dents that coun­cil­lors can dis­cover what their con­stituents need and want.


Av­enues of en­sur­ing ac­count­abil­ity are es­pe­cially im­por­tant for coun­cil­lors, given a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that is strongly dom­i­nated by a sin­gle party. At res­i­dents’ meet­ings, politi­cians tend to make vo­cif­er­ous prom­ises for re­dress and change, but the pub­lic com­plains that this change does not ac­tu­ally fol­low.

The iz­im­bizo thus need to be bet­ter struc­tured and should serve as a way to es­tab­lish ef­fec­tive ac­count­abil­ity to align plan­ning, bud­get­ing and im­ple­men­ta­tion, and to name those who are ac­count­able. When there is a lack of ac­count­abil­ity and de­liv­ery, res­i­dents lose con­fi­dence in the po­lit­i­cal process and start criticising their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Ac­count­abil­ity, there­fore, is the key prin­ci­ple of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy. But the cur­rent elec­toral sys­tem lim­its the ac­count­abil­ity of ward coun­cil­lors be­cause it em­pha­sises the im­por­tance of the party in the choice of ward can­di­dates. South Africans tend to as­so­ciate their coun­cil­lors with po­lit­i­cal par­ties and vote along party lines more than for a spe­cific can­di­date. As a re­sult, coun­cil­lors have lit­tle in­cen­tive to feel ac­count­able to their con­stituency be­cause the party is seen to be ac­count­able.


Coun­cil­lors are meant to live in the ar­eas that they serve so that they can be truly rep­re­sen­ta­tive and un­der­stand its prob­lems, pri­or­i­ties and re­quire­ments. It is also nec­es­sary for de­vel­op­ing lo­cal so­lu­tions to lo­cal prob­lems and tak­ing ac­tion on a lo­cal scale. The coun­cil­lor must be avail­able to their con­stituency. This is be­cause peo­ple re­port feel­ing pow­er­less when they at­tempt to in­ter­act with their coun­cil­lors and can­not do so.

Many coun­cil­lors spend so much time in coun­cil meet­ings that they be­come in­vis­i­ble in their con­stituency. Coun­cil­lors are then seen to be guided by of­fi­cials, not by their con­stituents, and there­fore the coun­cil’s de­ci­sions do not ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent the views of the res­i­dents.

This in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity of coun­cil­lors is es­pe­cially telling, given the num­ber of protests about poor ser­vice de­liv­ery. Prob­lems usu­ally arise when there is a dis­con­nect be­tween the ward coun­cil­lors and the res­i­dents.


Po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences and con­flict usu­ally con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to ten­sions in wards. There­fore, the abil­ity of coun­cil­lors to re­main im­par­tial is cru­cial to pro­mot­ing so­cial co­he­sion. Dur­ing elec­tions po­lit­i­cal par­ties en­cour­age a na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of lo­cal elec­tions by fo­cus­ing their cam­paigns on na­tional po­lit­i­cal is­sues and the per­for­mance of the gov­ern­ment or party as a whole rather than ex­plain­ing what the in­di­vid­ual coun­cil­lor will do in lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

Con­tin­ued po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence in lo­cal gov­ern­ment com­pro­mises ad­min­is­tra­tion, de­vel­op­ment, par­tic­i­pa­tion and ser­vice de­liv­ery. When coun­cil­lors are more loyal to a po­lit­i­cal party than to their of­fice, the con­cerns of other par­ties are ig­nored or de­lib­er­ately excluded, and any­thing as­so­ci­ated with lo­cal gov­ern­ment be­comes a party process rather than a co-op­er­a­tive process.

This is es­pe­cially preva­lent in ward com­mit­tees that are largely cap­tured by lo­cal par­ties or be­come de­fined as sites of lo­cal po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion. Most of the civic lead­ers and coun­cil­lors are mem­bers of the same party and view one an­other as former “com­rades in strug­gle”.

This politi­ci­sa­tion of coun­cil­lors and ward com­mit­tees re­sults in both in­ter-party and in­tra-party con­flict. In­deed, the fierce com­pe­ti­tion for these po­si­tions has led to many con­flicts within po­lit­i­cal par­ties, in­clud­ing as­sas­si­na­tions.

Per­sonal in­tegrity

The type of per­son the coun­cil­lor is can in­flu­ence the so­cial co­he­sion of a ward. The per­son­al­ity, in­tegrity and moral­ity of the coun­cil­lor, and whether their lead­er­ship style is au­to­cratic or demo­cratic, can af­fect the ex­tent to which cit­i­zens par­tic­i­pate. In cer­tain wards, coun­cil­lors can act as gate­keep­ers, en­sur­ing that all com­mu­ni­ca­tion and work in the area must be ap­proved by them.

Coun­cil­lors come from dif­fer­ent back­grounds, have dif­fer­ent knowl­edge, skills and po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies. But their lead­er­ship and ac­count­abil­ity are largely de­pen­dent on their com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and emo­tional in­tel­li­gence. If coun­cil­lors are not in­clined to work well with other stake­hold­ers in the ward, they will not be able to con­trib­ute ef­fec­tively to lo­cal gover­nance.

A ward coun­cil­lor who is not em­pa­thetic is likely to be re­garded as a bad leader, whereas a coun­cil­lor with pos­i­tive and strong lead­er­ship at­tributes could re­duce the prospects of ser­vice de­liv­ery protests. There­fore, coun­cil­lors need to pro­vide pos­i­tive lead­er­ship and pro­mote re­la­tion­ships with both stake­hold­ers and op­po­si­tion par­ties to im­prove their wards.

When coun­cil­lors pro­mote these con­cepts, they will be bet­ter able to main­tain the balance of res­i­dents and coun­cil and be good coun­cil­lors. When these con­cepts are ig­nored, coun­cil­lors are more likely to con­trib­ute to ten­sions and prob­lems with so­cial co­he­sion.

It should be clear by now that coun­cil­lors play a very im­por­tant role in South African pol­i­tics and yet, be­cause they are of­ten over­looked, lit­tle fo­cus is put on how to im­prove their skills, in­clud­ing lead­er­ship. There is a need to in­ves­ti­gate the be­havioural com­pe­ten­cies and char­ac­ter­is­tics of coun­cil­lors.

Fur­ther­more, coun­cil­lors should be con­tin­u­ously mon­i­tored, eval­u­ated and aided to help them to achieve their man­dates, main­tain the balance of res­i­dents and coun­cil and pro­mote so­cial co­he­sion.

This politi­ci­sa­tion of coun­cil­lors and ward com­mit­tees re­sults in both in­ter-party and in­tra-party con­flict

Ac­count­abil­ity: Ward coun­cil­lors need to hear what res­i­dents in their wards re­quire, and re­lay the in­for­ma­tion to the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil to pre­vent ser­vice de­liv­ery protests such as this one, in the Sweet Home Farm sec­tion of Phillipi, Cape Town. Photo: David Har­ri­son

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