Local government elections are undoubtedly the most contested spaces of any election in South Africa. Local government elections are a political hotbed as they determine who controls municipal financial resources, power relations of the local municipality and allocation of service delivery resources. Ward Councillors are the first point of call in the communication system of local governance, and as such the election of these ward councillors is heavily contested. Reports of potential candidates killing each other are common in the run-up to local government elections. The significance of these elections is so big that many councillors literally work for re-election into their positions (as opposed to working for community development).

Planact’s work within the local government sphere taught us a very valuable lesson: that local government elections are so important to an extent that community development takes a back seat when elections draw nearer. Ward Councillors are one of the major pillars of the local governance structures and they take centre stage in local government elections. In the communities that we work with, we have observed that the upcoming local government elections have virtually paralysed community level consultation with Ward Councillors. Incumbent Ward Councillors have taken a back seat in developmental issues as they have become more concerned about whether or not they will be retained as councillors by their political parties. This trend has a very negative effect on community development, community planning and participatory governance as the first avenue of civic-government communication has been destabilised.

water in Spring Valley

With Ward Councillors adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the ward committees have effectively been paralysed as their work in communities is dependent on the councillors. The paralysis of the ward committees means that communities’ voices and channels for formal consultation with the government are effectively made redundant. Local government representation through ward councillors and ward committees is very important for Planact’s work in community development, and as such the lessons that we have learnt about the negative effect of the upcoming elections are crucial for institutions in the same field of work.

The up-coming local government elections are also destabilising communities in a different way – through ward demarcations. A particular community that Planact is working with is set to be incorporated into the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality from Lesedi Local Municipality. Four wards (from Lesedi) will be combined into one ward when they move to Ekurhuleni. In-fighting and political jostling among the four ward councillors has reached fever-pitch level. The race for representation and being retained as a ward councillor is the single most important business for the ward councillors. The result is that community development has become less important, depriving communities of their right to consult with government for delivery of services.

Road repaved for rally

Planact’s forecast is that in the last months leading to the dates of the elections, our work in communities will be severely disrupted. Political campaigning, politicisation of service delivery and political turf wars will become the order of the day, and in effect pushing organisations like Planact to the margins. There is also the possibility that political establishments could use Planact as a political tool by claiming that they brought the partnerships between the community and Planact.

This has been an important lesson for Planact as we have got to understand that the bulk of the important community work should be done during the “safe and stable” times that are not near local government elections.

Voting in Spring Valley