Lowdown on local government
Published May 18th 2004 in The Star (South Africa)
The electoral system for local government is a bit more complicated. In the recent elections, the system of proportional representation (PR) was used. The system allowed for political parties to be represented in parliament in or in the provincial legislature in proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive.

At the local level, a mixed electoral system is used, combining proportional representation and the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) system. Half the seats in a municipal council are elected by proportional representation. The percentages are calculated on the total number of votes cast in a particular municipality and seats are allocated accordingly.

The other half of the seats in council are filled by representatives from wards. Each municipality is divided into several wards. Here the (FPTP) electoral system is used. This means individual candidates run for election in a ward. The candidate who receives most votes occupies its seat in council.

Metro voters have two votes in the local government elections: one under the PR system and one for the ward in which they live. In the same way, rural voters have two votes for their district council. People in small cities and towns have three votes: two for their local council and a third for the district council under which their municipality falls.

Who is in local government
Local government also has a legislative branch and an executive branch. The elected council performs the legislative functions, and is responsible for developing policies and by-laws for the municipality. In some councils, the mayor appoints a small committee to take responsibility for the executive functions. This is known as the mayoral committee. In other councils, an executive committee is elected by the council itself. In very small councils (with 10 members or less) there is no separate executive structure.

There are two types of local government councillors. They have exactly the same status, although their focus is slightly different. Councillors elected under the PR system represent their party in the council and promote its policies for the whole municipality. Ward councillors, although from a political party, are expected to represent all residents in their ward.

They establish ward committees to help them stay in touch with the needs of their specific area. Having an identifiable ward councillor also makes it easier for citizens to to make their interests known.

The mayor and councillors are elected to play a political role, adopting policies and passing by-laws. The municipality also employs officials and workers to implement these policies and get the work done.

What local government does
According to the constitution, local government is responsible for providing basic services to communities, promoting economic development, and creating a safe, healthy living environment.

It is also expected to encourage the participation of citizens in the democratic life of their community.

The exact functions of local government differ slightly from one municipality to another, depending on local capacity and resources. The constitutional principle of co-operative government applies strongly at local level.

This means that certain functions can be shared by local councils, district councils and provincial government. When different structures of government co- operate in this way, it is easier to ensure no area is neglected.

Some of the functions of local government include building regulations, cemeteries, childcare facilities, electricity, firefighting, land use and zoning, parks and recreation, pollution control, public advertising, public places, public transport, refuse removal, roads (municipal), street lighting, town planning, trading regulations and licences (including street, food and liquor trade), traffic control and parking and water and sanitation – among others.

Planning for development
Citizens are often unaware of how much planning goes into creating and expanding a town. Town planning is one of the most important functions of local government.

In recent years, a strong emphasis has been placed on integrating (or co-ordinating) the development plans for a particular area.

Under apartheid, town planning focused on segregation, the opposite approach. Now, as municipalities transform themselves to provide equitable services, there is a need for an overall, co-ordinated vision of what each town, city and rural area can become.

Integrated development planning (IDP) is a strategy for getting all municipal departments to plan together. In this way, development priorities can be agreed upon by everybody, and coherent, long-term plans can be put in place. IDP forces departments to go beyond their individual agendas.

Every municipality in SA now has its own integrated development plan for at least the next five years.

We will be going to the polls again next year. If you will be turning 18 in the coming year, or if you have not yet registered to vote, start preparing now to make sure you can participate in the next elections. Apply for your ID as soon as possible.You can then register as a voter at the office of your municipal electoral officer.

How young people can get involved
While the intention of involving citizens in a consultative manner is undoubtedly good, the truth is many citizens remain untouched by consultative processes. Young people often end up most marginalised.

All this demonstrates that democracy cannot depend on government alone. Government officials have serious work to do, and consulting citizens often seems less urgent than attending to tough technical and financial challenges. Citizens have to take responsibility themselves for developing a strong, productive relationship with local government. They cannot sit and wait like passive customers for government to come to them. Often citizens complain that government doesn’t listen to them, but they need to develop effective ways of ensuring that their voices are heard.

Government will listen if citizens organise themselves to speak with one voice, and do so loudly. In this way, citizens become joint problem solvers and co-creators of democracy.
Young people have a unique role to play in ensuring their interests are taken seriously. Young people need to speak up. They are citizens too. They have energy, talents and fresh ideas that can make a real difference in the community.

Your contribution to South Africa
Class Activities

1. Using large sheets of paper (flipchart or brown paper work best), get learners to form groups and draw a map of their area or town. They shouldn’t worry about getting the proportions exactly right. Rather encourage them to focus on identifying the key facilities, landmarks and public spaces.
This can then be used as a tool for identifying the development needs of a particular area.

2. Flowing out of the map drawing exercise, ask learners to write a letter to their ward councillor presenting a proposal for a facility or service that is needed in their area.

3. Take your class on a field trip to your local municipality. Arrange for some councillors or officials to give a brief presentation on their work. Get one of the administrators to explain the different reasons why citizens might visit their municipal offices.

4. Have a classroom debate on the topic, “Local government
is the most important sphere of government”. An alternative
topic could be, “Local democracy depends on citizens, not on local government”.

5. As an essay-writing exercise, invite learners to respond to the question, “What makes you proud to be a citizen of the village/town/city where you live?”