By Valencia Talane

Twelve years ago Simphiwe Zwane participated in her first service delivery protest in Thembelihle south of Johannesburg. The event was a landmark case of a community revolting against government plans to relocate thousands of families from one area to another.

Today the 36-year-old mother of two is a councillor in the City of Johannesburg. She still lives in Thembelihle and is passionate about working for her community, which she serves as a proportional representative (PR) councillor.

Hers is a mission with many challenges: on the one hand she aims to amplify the voice of the working class in the Johannesburg city council, while on the other hand she accounts to the communities she represents as the sole Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM) councillor. It is this dedication to its mandate that OKM’s founders hope will one day set it apart from its more established political competitors across the country.

Zwane is also making her first attempt at a post-matric qualification – a social work degree – through the University of South Africa. She hopes her studies will help to give her a well-rounded grasp of community service.

The proportional representation system allows parties that are relatively popular, but not strong enough to win ward seats, to take part in local government. This inclusive approach contributes to stability in communities, as all parties with a decent support base are drawn into running the local councils.

A PR councillor such as Zwane provides support to the ward councillor in matters such as handling queries and complaints, implementing projects, and attending meetings.

Pledging to lead by example

At the centre of OKM’s existence is a pledge that Zwane signed before taking up her position, as did her two predecessors. It sets out terms on which its councillors must function in their duties as community-elected representatives.

OKM was formed in the run-up to the 2006 local government elections, when community organisations in Thembelihle, Soweto and other areas in Johannesburg teamed up to create an electoral front that could represent them in the city’s leadership. Its objective is clear: to present the council with a different type of councillor who brings the communities’ issues to the table for meaningful debate, and reports progress back to them. The OKM councillor comes from a nomination list drawn up by the movement’s leadership. The list is circulated in the community, which votes for its preferred candidate in a meeting setting.

“We take the names to the masses so that the public can question their credibility publicly to their satisfaction,” explains Zwane to Corruption Watch. Once the preferred candidate has been elected, their details are given to the Independent Electoral Commission and campaign work begins.

Because the community participates in his or her election, the OKM councillor is held to a high standard of accountability and efficiency.

Some of the policies inscribed in the OKM pledge are:

  • A portion of the councillor’s salary is transferred into a trust managed by OKM, with the individual only keeping enough for living expenses and obligations such as income tax;
  • A right of recall is reserved at all times to ensure that the councillor follows the mandate given by the movement;
  • In the instance where a community marches over service delivery issues, the councillor is obliged to not only participate, but lead the march – provided it is legal – and deliver the community’s grievances on their behalf.

“In terms of the pledge, after the City transfers my salary into my account,” says Zwane, “I transfer the whole amount to the trust account of OKM and only then do I get access to my living wage.” The wage is determined openly in a community meeting setting and should be enough to support her household and cater for her council obligations as well.

“If you’re an opportunist then you’d protest and say it’s not fair because the City pays me this salary, why must I share it?” The point, she explains, is to have a councillor live within the same standards as her constituency and avoid abandoning the community when better political prospects appear.

The money that is left over in the OKM account is used for purposes such as transporting members to meetings or crisis situations, for instance when a poor family can’t afford to bury a loved one.

Is it practical?

OKM’s political officer Trevor Ngwane shares with Corruption Watch the inspiration behind the movement’s approach. Even at the small scale of a region of Johannesburg, the movement wanted to show that it is possible to have a different kind of councillor who does not turn their back on the people they are meant to lead.

“Instead of the political party nominating a representative for the community, it is the community itself that nominates,” he says. “This way they put someone they can trust who has worked for them in the past.”

According to Ngwane, himself a former ANC councillor in Soweto, elected representatives should stay in their community so that they are available when needed. “The community should always have access to you as their councillor, seeing as they voted you into power.”

But is this always practical?

In order for Zwane to succeed in improving the plight of her constituency, Ngwane argues, her wages should be the same as that of the working class she represents. This keeps the councillor’s interests in the community and not on chasing wealth and power. “This way, she will not be representing an informal settlement community while staying in Sandton for example.”

The councillor has so-called surgery hours, Ngwane explains – time set aside for the different communities represented under OKM, each of which are allocated a few hours on a particular day in the week. This way Zwane is able to keep in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the people who put her in power and give feedback on proclamations made in the chamber that affect the community.

One method that ensures accountability, Zwane tells Corruption Watch, is that of soliciting points on service delivery from her constituency to make at her council presentations. A lot of councillors lose focus and abandon the issues most important to their communities and Zwane’s observation is that because residents are not part of the decision-making processes of the City, they are at an even bigger disadvantage as they are not as aware of the processes that councillors are part of. “You get to understand how the systems of the council work when you’re inside them.” This, she says, has taught her the difficulty of the business of politics. As the only OKM councillor, the reality for her is that being in the minority means you have to have a thick skin.

“As an ordinary resident you’re under the impression that councillors represent us when at council,” she says, “but I have come to learn that party politics often take up plenty of time and energy once community issues are raised.”

Working towards growing, happy communities

There are times when the pressure gets too much, Zwane concedes, especially when there are issues among OKM leaders. Community issues are easier to bear, whereas it’s a lot harder to deal with internal organisational issues, she reckons.

“I cannot be attacked by the City on the one hand and on the other be failed by people who should be giving me support,” says Zwane.

One thing that provides comfort for Zwane is that growth for OKM is inevitable. The fact that the party managed to retain its seat in council, with a significant growth in votes from 0.9% to 29% in two local elections, is no small feat.

Asked if the prospects for independent candidates in the local government election space look promising, Zwane said she definitely thinks there will be changes to the way both political parties and labour unions view communities.

“People are starting to see what is really happening and how the big parties are not likely to change things for ordinary South Africans,” she says.

It has been a gamble for the small coalition of community organisations that decided to make a mark by going into the election arena. Zwane sees growth for OKM and similar organisations across the country.

“We used to spoil ballot papers as a way of putting our point across because we did not believe in the current electoral system,” says Zwane, referring to the state of politics in Thembelihle prior to the formation of OKM. “Eventually, we were headed towards establishing OKM and agreed that we’d work towards setting the standard for the type of councillor we want to lead us.”

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Excerpt
Simphiwe Zwane’s career as a proportional representative councillor in the City of Johannesburg has not turned her head – she still lives in the community of Thembelihle and is passionate about serving her people as best she can.