Councils: where is the democracy?

Traditional councils will never change until the government actively urges communities to vote.

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I was surprised recently when a press release from the North West premier Thandi Modise’s office, urging people to register for the upcoming traditional council’s elections, landed in my inbox. The email was dated 23 November. Yet registrations had been scheduled for that very day, and the day after. I found it difficult to understand who the press statement was intended for, and what its actual purpose was, as it was clearly not going to make it to print in time.

According to Modise, the election of traditional councils in rural communities was a constitutional requirement and people were supposed to take full advantage of their democratic right to elect the right candidates. But I doubt the provincial government took the elections seriously.

My question is: has the department done enough to create awareness? This was the first time I had heard about these elections after they were postponed in June/July. The email landed in my inbox when I was at home in Jericho, a community under traditional leadership. I doubt whether the majority of the village was even aware of the elections.

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Poor leadership
According to government, the traditional councils elections are part of its attempt to instil democratic principles in traditional governance. The Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003 states that 60% of the members of the council should be appointed by the senior traditional leader while the rest are democratically elected.

The Act further stipulates that 30% of representation should be female, and that the councils are to work with municipalities on matters such as land usage and government development programmes, especially in areas where land is held by tribal trusts. Farmers on land controlled by traditional leaders will tell you that one of their biggest challenges is poor management, while anyone seeking access to the land will confirm that permission to utilise it is far from easy.

This is due to the poor leadership and ineffectiveness of these councils. Some are dominated by elderly councillors who are averse to change. One of the weirdest stories in this regard was that of the Jericho community who wanted street lights installed. Some council members evidently opposed this because they were concerned that the lights would disturb the cattle!

As far as the election of the council is concerned, there is little participation from community members, nationwide.
Michael O’Donovan, an election researcher at the University of Cape Town, commenting on why there was little participation in the tribal leadership in most KZN communities, said little was at stake when voting for a minority element within an undemocratic institution where election did not provide income, high office or long-term prospects.

He added that candidates did not have the resources to campaign. I agree. But it is also important that government takes this issue seriously by making these elections completely democratic.