Gary Koekemoer: All I want for Christmas is a working local democracy

Think about our local council. What two events stand out in your mind?
Just more than a year ago we elected a new local government. In just more than 100 days it’ll be Christmas.

If the collective all-I-want-for-Christmas wish-listing was responsible last year for the miraculous Amabokkebokke turn- about and Bell Pottinger finally being held accountable for its unethical practices this year, perhaps it’s time we all placed one item at the top of our dear Father Christmas I’ve-been-good list all I want for Christmas is a (local) working democracy.

Our bright, shiny, new 1994 democracy is now battered and bruised; the majority of its parts are either broken or haven’t worked in years and the rainbow it came wrapped in has now been bleached black and white.

Our democracy needs a makeover.

Or could it be that it’s the way we practice democracy that needs the revamp?

Any democracy must be built-for-pur- pose, rather than copied and pasted – as in an original model, unique to the specific country or city it services.

While our city layouts have followed the American model, that country’s two- choice-personality-democracy model has them locked into reality-TV mode which is likely only to end when it either spontaneously combusts or Twitter goes offline.

Is that what we want?

The British “I’m-an-island” model has its people doing the Brexit dance, where the majority believed that the music was so awful they had to leave the dance floor rather than change the DJ.

Unfortunately for them, it looks increasingly like the devil hidden in the detail is far worse than the devil they knew.

There are other possibilities out there: imagine a version like the Swiss model, whereby their president-elect works on a roster basis.

Each year a new president is not chosen by ballot, but by a rotation of the canton (similar to our provinces) leaders.

Imagine what could be done without the sideshow distraction of the wheel-spin debate around whether the leader is hero or villain?

What about the Swedish open society variant, in which every official government document is open to public scrutiny?

Would Eskom, SAA and SABC have failed if the public had had access to their inner workings?

But will changing the model make democracy happen?

If we focus on local (metro) government, our design isn’t a bad one.

Section 152 of the constitu- tion is clear: the job of local government is to be accountable, to provide sustainable services, to drive socio-economic development, to create safe and healthy environ- ments, and to get everyone involved in local matters.

The Municipal Structures Act goes further to describe how all this works: how the mayor is elected (or given his marching orders), what a quorum is and the (compulsory) annual plans (for instance, the IDP – integrated development plan) that should take into consideration local community needs (then prioritise the delivery thereof).

Careful work went into the design phase, yet here we are, wheel-spinning on the edge of local government collapse.

Why? Recall the opening question? What two Nelson Mandela Bay metro council events spring to mind?

Would the first be the council meeting in which one councillor allegedly attacked another with a glass jug and the security guard allegedly shot into the roof to calm everyone down?

Could the other be the ousting of the deputy mayor, whereby a too-slow toyi-toyi allowed a vote to take place on the basis that a quorum constitutes those (physically) present in the room rather than those willing to vote?

Perhaps the problem is not with the de- sign itself, but how the design is being used to serve political parties’ interests rather than the people they serve?

And this makes all the difference.

More than a year ago, on August 3 last year, more than 380 500 Nelson Mandela Bay citizens voted in our 60 wards for a 120-councillor local government set-up.

Of the 60 wards, the ANC achieved the majority in 36 (two better than before), the DA took 23 wards and the EFF one (it wasn’t contested by the ANC).

But crucially, the DA convinced close-on 178 000 people to vote for the party – 24 424 more than for the ANC.

This difference alone is substantially more than the EFF garnered in total (19 819) and is more than three times as many as voted for the UDM (7 600).

The final tally: DA 57 seats, ANC 50, EFF six, UDM two, and one each to the United Front, the Patriotic Alliance, the ACDP, the AIC and COPE.

The DA showed a remarkable improve- ment, from 28.7% of the votes in 2000 to 46.7% last year.

The ANC in turn showed a massive de- cline, from 66.7% of the votes in 2000 to 40.9% last year.

No single party took the outright major- ity.

Was that the intent of the electorate or simply how ‘ the cookie crumbled?

It means that when it comes to passing resolu- tions in council, such as appointing the speaker and the mayor, and voting on the budget, the DA is best placed to convince others to vote with it to have the motion passed.

So far so good, until the slow shuffle saw the depu- ty mayor jettisoned (with- out a parachute).

Now the ANC has washed its hands (despite representing the majority of wards), declared itself the opposition – the party of the poor – and accuses the DA of being all promis- es and no delivery.

The EFF has conveniently opted out of governing, accusing the DA of being white supremacist and arrogant, thereby risking no dilution to its brand by actually having to make things work.

The UDM (from its distant fourth place) became the kingmakers who yearned to be king and settled on being the dis- pensers of favours.

The DA, with its meteoric rise at its back and its eye on 2019, strives to become the party that makes things happen.

But its approach to the delivery we so desperately need is perceived more and more as my-way-or-the- highway – somewhat removed from the style of leadership of the man our city is named after?

Our local politics currently resemble a kinder- garten playground.

It’s not the way it was in- tended to work, nor the way that best serves its people.

Is consensus decision- making impossible?

Last year, we voted in 120 councillors to help make Nelson Mandela Bay thrive.

Are they up to the challenge?

It depends – is their int- erest their party or making our local democracy work?

Gary Koekemoer is a facilitator and has a doctorate on race currently under construction.

Leave a Reply