Disc Dem

Disc Dem

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Our Democracy is Disconnected

No, this is not just another rant at No1 and the never-ending tales of corruption and incompetence within National Government and their SOE’s.  The world and her brother (note the gender superiority) have a view on those issues, and quite frankly, along with the Greek/Eurozone tragedy, I am suffering from an opinion overload.

Also, top-down change, which most are baying for, will most likely not happen for at least 4 years. i.e. until the next general election in 2019. Whereupon, barring a constitutional upheaval, No1 will be blue-lighting his way to Nkandla - and if anyone really believes that he will be gone beforehand, can you please send me a sample of what you are smoking?
Nor is this going to be a rant in favour of the DA, EFF, or any other acronym-enabled political party, far from it in fact.

So what am I going to rant about?

That under the present system of local government our democracy has become disconnected and transitioned into an idiocracy. Yeah, boring low level stuff, not half as challenging as deciding how Eskom or PRASA should be run, or whether Greece should stay in the EU but, before you skip out of here, take just a moment to hear about the saga of Oudtshoorn Municipality. Since 2013, the only thing party politicians in that town have achieved is to bicker their way into bankruptcy and administration. Remember that this affects all of us because, wherever we live, our tax money will be used towards the Oudtshoorn bailout – sympathy for Greece, anyone?  Oudtshoorn is but one of many municipalities that clearly demonstrate the same party political malaise which significantly detracts from service delivery.

So, where is the disconnect, and what are the fundamental problems with this idiocracy?

The Proportional Representation Party List System is the Root Cause of Problems
There is no accountability to the electorate. Councillors are only accountable to their political party, not the electorate.  Think about that for a moment. A candidate stands for Ward Councillor.  We, the voters, don’t like him or her, so we reject them at the polls. However, they are high enough on the party list to be appointed anyway as a proportional councillor. So, the party effectively overrides the decision of the electorate, which rather defeats the point of elections, and places a candidate’s loyalty firmly in the hands of the party.
The Political cost of Service Delivery is too high
All Municipalities are struggling to fund delivery of basic services, yet we are paying twice the number of councillors than there are electoral wards. Countrywide, salaries for councillors amount to some R3bn, with proportional councillors accounting for around R1.4bn.  Even though proportional representation at local government level is written into the constitution, the cost is not sustainable at the coalface of service delivery.  New York City, with a population of around 8.5m people has 51 city councillors.  My own municipality of George in the Western Cape, with a population of <200k people, will have 53 councillors after the 2016 elections. Johannesburg will have around 260 councillors for a population half the size of New York City.  All we are really doing in South Africa is subsidising a political party’s payroll at the expense of infrastructure maintenance and development. 70% of all municipalities are spending more than the recommended 30% of revenue on salaries for councillors and officials, with almost half of these spending above 40% of their revenue on salaries.
Skewed GovernanceSmall, insignificant, proportional representation parties can, and in a number of instances do, hold the balance of power with no elected Ward Councillors.  The result in those situations is that around 4% of the voting public hold the other 96% to ransom. 
Abuse. All political parties abuse the list system to favour the party faithful who, regardless of whether they are fit-for-purpose, are appointed as councillors.  Senior Municipal Officials are required to hold all manner of qualifications, yet there is no minimum qualification to become a councillor. Some councillors are functionally illiterate, and the majority are financially illiterate.  Financial illiteracy is the most harmful as there is no understanding of the longer-term, and potentially dire, consequences of their borrowing and spending decisions. This occurs because political parties have an agenda relating solely to the acquisition of power, with little or no regard for service delivery.  In addition, the political resources available at this level of government tend not to be the sharpest intellectual knives in the drawer.
As a result, there is an across-the-board dissatisfaction with levels of service delivery, even in the so-called better run municipalities. The upper and middle classes complain about crime and grime, potholed roads that play havoc with wheel rims and tyres, and how all the money is being spent on “the poor”.  The poor complain, in many cases justifiably, that they receive either limited or no basic delivery of services.  Divisions and resentments between the classes are fanned by the politicians, who thrive on such discord.
So, party politicians at local government level have served only to drive wedges between the different sectors of our communities, whilst enriching themselves, and at the same time being disconnected from those communities.
Whichever angle you look at, it makes no sense to perpetuate this very costly and corrupted form of democracy at local government level. No doubt the politicians will find some spurious justification for its continuance.  After all, where else are they going to find the money to compensate the party faithful?    It is time to fight back against the party political cabals that are quietly, but effectively bleeding our country dry.

I have some ideas on how to redress the balance between political privilege and accountability to the people at local government level, which I will share in my next post.  I am not young enough to still know it all, so I would also like to hear from you what you think must change, and how we can attack this insidious problem. 

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