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Local government elections will take place on 3 August this year. This is the chance for citizens to vote for the people who they believe will best look after their service delivery interests such as water and electricity; the maintenance of parks, roads and other public spaces; and the implementation of housing projects drawn up by national and provincial governments.

South Africa has many well-run municipalities, but equally, there are those that are struggling because of poor management, corruption or a lack of adequate resources. A recent survey by non-profit advocacy and research organisation Good Governance Africa (GGA) involved all 234 of South Africa’s local and metropolitan municipalities, showing that all are not equal in terms of efficient functioning and reliable service delivery. The 2016 Government Performance Index found that, of the 20 top-performing municipalities, 15 were in the Western Cape, three were in the Northern Cape and two were in the Free State.

The overall top municipality was Swellendam in the Western Cape. The 20 worst-performing municipalities were almost exclusively in the Eastern Cape (12) and KwaZulu-Natal (six), with one in the North West and one in Limpopo.

However, in comparing municipalities like this, it is important to factor in their economic backgrounds. Municipalities in the Eastern and Northern Cape are largely rural while those in Gauteng and the Western Cape are more developed, with more advanced infrastructure. The basic levels of functioning of these municipalities will therefore differ, although incompetence and maladministration will cripple even the most efficient systems.

Municipalities were assessed on 15 indicators covering three broad categories – service delivery, economic development, and administration. GGA sourced data from, among others, Statistics South Africa, auditor-general reports, National Treasury, and the 2013-2015 Gaffney Local Government in South Africa Yearbook. The indicators were equally weighted although not equally distributed, with the service delivery category comprising eight indicators, while economic development had four and administration three.

For more information about the survey, download the results and analysis, or read GGA’s special editorial section in the March/April 2016 edition of Africa in Fact, which takes a broader look at local government in South Africa.

Make your vote count

How local government seats are allocated

How local government seats are allocated. Image from the IEC.

The results of this, and other reports such as that of the auditor-general’s municipal audit, show how important it is for communities to be involved in the choosing of their municipal representatives. Municipal elections differ from national elections in that people vote for individuals as well as for a party – these directly elected individuals become the ward councillors. In metros and local councils, half of the council seats are allocated to ward councillors (ward ballot paper) and the other half are allocated to political parties (proportional representation or PR ballot paper).

The ward councillors are elected first and then the remaining seats are allocated to political parties based on the PR system. The PR allocation takes into account how many ward seats a party has already won, ensuring that the final number of seats a party has does not exceed the percentage of the vote which they won. If, for example, a party has won 50% of the wards and 50% of the PR votes then that party will not receive any proportional seats.

District councils are elected partly through proportional representation and partly by the councils of the constituent local municipalities.

People participate in local government firstly by voting in municipal elections and secondly, by exercising their right to be involved in the running of the municipality, being aware of the municipality’s plans for development, knowing who their ward councillor is and how to contact him or her.

These actions will all contribute to the ability of residents to hold municipalities to account in the provision of essential services and development of the local economy, and ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and efficiently.

“For all to enjoy a brighter future, the lives of all citizens need to be improved; administration, economic and social development, and service delivery need to be prioritised, especially in those areas most in need,” said GGA executive director Alain Tschudin at the report’s launch on 29 February.

The good and the bad of local municipalities

As explained above, performance is partly influenced by the municipality’s economic background.

In terms of service delivery, GGA found, the top 20 municipalities performed significantly well with access to piped water and electricity, as well as the percentage of formal housing, weekly removal of refuse, and sanitation.

With economic development, the entire list of municipalities was evenly matched on monthly income – possibly owing to social grants – but unemployment and poverty were more prevalent in the poorly performing municipalities, which are predominantly rural or semi-rural.

In terms of administration, the top 20 municipalities did particularly well in municipal capacity and financial soundness, while the third indicator – reporting compliance – showed no obvious prevalence among either higher or lower ranked municipalities.

In real terms – the impact that these successes or failures have on the lives of people – consider the delivery of electricity to households. The national average of households with access is 80.3%, while the average for the top 20 is 91.8% but only 55% for the bottom 20. Among the top 20, 98.8% of households have access to piped water, but only 56.9% of the bottom 20 while refuse removal is provided for 79.8% and 5.5% respectively. In Mbizana, Eastern Cape, the worst-performing municipality on the list, only 15.1% of people have access to piped water, while in Swellendam, 98.5% are provided with this essential service.

Unemployment in the top 20 municipalities averages 18.2%, while in the bottom 20 it is 47.6%. Poverty in the top-ranking municipalities is lower – on average, 48.5% of households earn less than R2 300 per month, compared to 76.1% of households in the bottom 20.

Taken as a whole, said GGA, the rankings communicate the urgency with which resources need to be invested in service delivery in the lower ranked municipalities, and social and economic development need to be fast-tracked, particularly in impoverished and under-developed areas.

Know your councillor

Elected by voters, the ward councillor is the direct link between them and the local government. It’s up to him or her to fight for the interests of the community. Before an election, voters are encouraged to get to know the candidates and understand the qualities each will bring, so they are confident in their choice on voting day.

While releasing its survey report, GGA also publicised a 2015 Markdata survey on ward councillors, conducted among 2 300 respondents. This revealed that most people (66%) have no access to their ward councillor – an unacceptable situation, since the councillor is the people’s elected representative and makes decisions on behalf of that constituency.

People also generally rated their ward councillors poorly, with an average of less than four out of 10 – the general feeling, said the survey, was summarised by a comment that “we will see them when it is election time”.

The Freedom Charter states that the people shall govern – but this is not possible when they cannot engage with their local councillors at the grassroots level.

“It is the poorest people … who show the least satisfaction with the local gover­nors, while simultaneously demonstrating a profound dependency on so­cial grants and pensions to stay alive. Surely this is not, and could never be, the desired state of affairs for any government concerned with the well-being of its people?” said GGA.

• Main image from Wikimedia.