“As citizens, we have so much power to change the system and to have an impact on the decisions made around how our communities are developed.”
This was the driving message that came to the fore at a public seminar held to address public concerns and questions around the roles and responsibilities of ward councillors in South Africa. Hosted by non-profit organisation, Development Action Group (DAG), attendance at the seminar was strong, as participants reflected a solution-oriented approach and practical ways forward for communities were considered.
“We also realised that we face the same issues across the city. One of the main points that came out is that it’s time for us to claim back our power,” said researcher at DAG, Querida Saal.
“We need to use the existing systems more efficiently and strategically in terms of where we interject, so that we can change decision making around how resources are allocated and how budgets are being spent.”
Despite suggestions of party affiliation being inextricably linked to ward councillor inefficiency and a lack of accountability, Saal indicated that the same issues are experienced with councillors regardless of political party affiliation.
“We face the same issues with councillors regardless of political party affiliation. They’re not responsive or accountable and the system isn’t working.”
“Another issue was the electoral system…there’s a conversation around how to change the status quo and how to prioritise needs of the community [on a case by case basis] as opposed to the party mandate.”
Saal said one the ways to hold ward councillors accountable is to participate in the meetings that councillors are supposed to hold.
“There’s an annual report that has been identified as an important document for communities to engage with. In that report, municipalities outline what they have and haven’t achieved…”
“The way forward for us will then be to share the resources that we had. We want to develop a report around this event so that we can identify best practices and where things are working well…The significance of this event was around knowledge sharing and looking at the process of public participation and how to make it more meaningful.”
According to DAG, many ward councillors lack transparency and are often accused of mismanagement. DAG, therefore, seeks to educate the public on their rights as community members and on how to hold their elected officials accountable.
“Often, councillors have been accused of mismanagement in housing allocations and so forth. There’s very little accountability and transparency from their side and there’s a lot of frustration in people,” said DAG executive director, Aditya Kumar.
“Ward councillors are the main way in which the public can engage and participate in our democracy.”