In the just-concluded local municipal elections we cast two votes – one for a party and one for an individual. Voters in areas which form part of a district council received a third ballot paper for the district council election. Those votes will result in the election of councillors, who are tasked with doing their utmost to act in the interest of the people who voted.

These elected representatives fall into two broad categories: ward councillors, who are elected as individuals, and proportional representation (PR) councillors, who are elected through their parties. Each has a different role to play, but the standards of ethical behaviour expected from both are the same. These standards are set out in the code of conduct for councillors, which is a crucial instrument that citizens can use to hold their councillors to account.

With coalition talks in full swing and new municipal structures soon to be put in place for the next five years, do you know what to expect from the person you voted into that position, and what to do if they fail to live up to requirements? Read our guide to understand how to hold your councillor accountable for looking after your interests.

What does a councillor actually do?

Councillors sit in council on behalf of their constituencies or communities. According to the Handbook for Municipal Councillors, three important aspects of the councillor’s mandate are:

  • acting as representatives of the community they serve;
  • providing leadership roles in the council; and
  • acting as custodians or guardians of public finances.

All their efforts in this regard must be directed towards improving the lives of citizens in the municipality.

The PR councillor is elected through the party lists and is primarily accountable to the party. This councillor may interact with local and provincial party structures and may sometimes serve as a substitute chairperson on ward committees. PR councillors are also allocated to wards to improve their accountability to communities.

Ward councillors, on the other hand, are expected to make sure that the concerns related to the wards they serve in, and are chairpersons of, are represented in the council. Apart from the articulation of residents’ needs in council, ward councillors are responsible for:

  • giving ward residents a progress report, explaining the decisions of the council in committing resources to development projects and programmes affecting them;
  • assessing whether the municipality’s programmes and plans are having their intended impact;
  • assessing whether services are being delivered fairly, effectively and in a sustainable way;
  • determining whether capital projects are being committed in accordance with the infrastructure planning and development roadmap;
  • staying in close contact with their constituencies to ensure that council is informed of all issues on the ground; and
  • conveying important information from council to residents.

Ward councillors, therefore, serve as the interface between the citizens they represent and the municipal officials who design and implement development polices.

Your councillor is the person you turn to if you feel there is a need for a new road, for tender boxes to be opened in public in future, or for key documents such as the municipal budget or annual report to be made available in a timely manner. He or she will lobby for such requests as they are in the interest of a better-run municipality.

But the councillor’s job is not just to serve as the voice of the people, for the expression of their community needs. He or she is also a watchdog who ensures the municipality implements policies to address the needs of citizens.

The ward councillor, as chairperson of his or her ward, must raise all concerns with council on behalf of ward members when residents experience problems, for example with the financial management of a council. Councillors are also required to make recommendations to municipalities for the improvement of policies and programmes within the broad framework of developmental local government.

Councillors decline to sign accountability pledge

While the duty of councillors is to work towards better lives for local residents, it is not unheard of for these elected representatives to serve themselves instead. In the weeks before the election the Right2Know campaign (R2K) engaged with would-be councillors, urging them to sign its transparency and accountability pledge.

The organisation reported that as of 1 August, only one candidate had done so, of the numerous people encountered in election meetings across four provinces.

Local government is supposed to be the most accessible part of government, said R2K, but often local politicians don’t do their job, yet they fail to take responsibility. R2K and local community organisations campaigned for transparency and accountability beyond election day, as well as the right to recall councillors who fail in their sworn duties.

Code of conduct helps keep councillors honest

The duties of a councillor are set out in legislation such as the Municipal Systems Act, which includes, as schedules 1 and 2, the code of conduct for councillors and municipal staff members respectively, and the Municipal Structures Act, which provides for the establishment of municipalities and regulates the internal systems, structures and office-bearers of municipalities, among others. The latter also includes the code of conduct for councillors.

The code of conduct spells out specific ways in which the councillor must behave with regard to:

  • attendance at meetings;
  • disclosure of interests;
  • personal gain;
  • declaration of interest;
  • full-time councillors;
  • rewards, gifts and favours;
  • unauthorised disclosure of information;
  • intervention in administration and council property.

Breaches of the code are taken seriously, which is why there is also provision in the code for steps to be taken in such an instance.

R2K has summarised the code of conduct for councillors below. or download the full version as laid out in the Municipal Systems Act:

  • The preamble states that councillors must be accountable to the public via meetings at least quarterly, or every three months;
  • Councillors must act in good faith and in the interest of the municipality;
  • They must attend all meetings except when they have leave of absence or must withdraw due to having a vested interest in the matters being discussed;
  • After missing three or more meetings without leave they must be fired;
  • They must disclose all business interests and large gifts to the council (but the council may decide how much of this must be public);
  • Councillors who have, or whose family or close associates have, an interest in a matter being discussed must leave the meeting for that part of the discussion;
  • They may not use their position to benefit themselves or others improperly;
  • If more than a quarter of councillors object to the council granting permission to a councillor to benefit from doing business with the council, it then requires permission from the province’s MEC for local government;
  • Councillors must have permission from the council before they undertake other paid work;
  • They must not disclose confidential information obtained within the council;
  • They may not interfere in the municipal administration;
  • They must not acquire any of the municipal assets;
  • If a speaker reasonably suspects a councillor of breaching this Code, they must launch an investigation, giving the councillor a chance to respond to the findings, then present them to the council, send them to the MEC for local government, and make them public;
  • Speakers must bring this code to the attention of new councillors and display it at meeting places.
  • Councils have wide discretion in responding to such reports within guidelines; in extreme cases they can ask the provincial MEC for local government to suspend and even fire the councillor.
  • Traditional leaders who work with councils are subject to some of the code.

What to do if a councillor violates the code of conduct

If councillors do not adhere to the code of conduct, citizens may report them, in writing, for investigation and disciplinary action or sanction. A citizen is entitled to demand enforcement of the code of conduct.

Any violation of the code must be investigated by the speaker, whose duty it largely is to ensure adherence to the code of conduct and who should investigate any suspected breaches. The suspect has a right to respond, and the community has the right to expect a speedy response. The speaker’s report must be presented to council for its investigation and deliberation, and must also be made public.

Should the councillor be found guilty of such a violation, the municipal council has several options. It may:

  • Issue a formal warning to the councillor;
  • Reprimand the councillor;
  • Fine the councillor;
  • Ask the MEC for Local Government to suspend the councillor for a period; or
  • Ask the MEC to remove the councillor from office.

If the council’s investigation is unsuccessful or produces a flawed result, the MEC can intervene and conduct a separate investigation.

Most of the code of conduct applies also to traditional leaders who take part in a municipal council, but such traditional leaders cannot be reprimanded or fined. The council does have the power to request the MEC to suspend or cancel the traditional leader’s right to participate in the council.