‘Coalition country’ looks pretty uninspiring currently. A few announcements of improved systems, a round or two of pothole repairs, much ambitious, even grandiose planning. Someone always seems to be coming or going, walking out or being sworn in. The bickering is annoying, the point scoring a turnoff.  Videos of raucous and unruly council meetings are not reassuring. 

We are in the midst of a country-wide experiment in which 66 or so hung local councils have been forced to cobble together tenuous multiparty governments. 

It would appear, from the continuing by-election evidence of the decline of support for the African National Congress, that we are likely in for a national multiparty government sometime in the not too distant future – possibly even 18 months down the line.

But while much of the mainstream media seems to be fixated, once again, on the inner doings and wooings of the African National Congress and its coming elective conference, with only an occasional diversion into by-elections and conflict-ridden events at the local level, I think, right now, we need to talk about the electorate and councillors.

They may be at the very bottom of our three-tier government system and mostly ignored, but this is where, as the saying has it, the rubber meets the road. This is the only point in our democratic system where voters directly elect a representative to government and get to glimpse government in action up close. 

The electorate we have currently is not the best we could have – it’s been misled for years by mythmakers and mainstream media, and its knowledge of how government works (and how it should work) can be classified as abysmal. Generations have known only a single dominant nationalist party in government. 

Demographics, over time, inexorably change the electorate; a sustained bad experience with a governing system will inevitably have an influence. 

But for now, the electorate is what it is; generally apathetic when it comes to actually voting, somewhat one-eyed when it does.   

Councillors may be political pawns, cannon fodder or useful idiots for their masters for five years, or in it simply as their first step to status, influence and money; others are activists who will work tirelessly and take much flak to see that services are delivered to their residents, or to serve their party’s bid for the power to carry out policies they believe in. 

In some instances they may also be doing it because it’s ‘a challenge’ (as if we don’t have enough of those just living in South Africa), and they’re suckers for punishment. 

They take on the job knowing that even if they work hard, the electorate or their party may simply choose someone else at the end of their five years.

Punishment can be much harsher too. In old times it could have been a township necklace, these days it could be an assassin’s bullet, especially if you’re a councillor in KwaZulu-Natal. 

Councillors may be competent, even very competent. Or not. The competencies for the job are not derived from formal qualifications, and councillors are seldom selected for the official pieces of paper they may possess, even by parties that tend to be silly snobs on that front. As yet there is no BEE quota requirement for elected councillors and, surprise, surprise, the electorate itself (possibly with the help of ward gerrymandering at times in the past) generally ensures they’re a pretty diverse bunch.

The relationship between the electorate and councillors is the true grassroots interface of ‘the people’ and government in our society. It should be the proving ground, starting point, for any would-be national politician. It’s the real-life test of political parties and their elected representatives. 

This is where the electorate is often the most vociferous and vicious if their representative and local government fail to deliver their very specific demands. 

It is also where it comes into direct contact with all the regulations, legislation and some of the reality of budgets and administration in government.  

A week ago I was out on the pavement of my house in conversation with the men with the bakkie who were, for a fee, taking my garden rubbish to the local garden refuse dump. They had a question for me. 

‘Why, if you pay the people who work at the dump site,’ one of them asked me (making the not unreasonable assumption that I am just the type who pays rates, and for electricity and water), ‘do they say we must pay them to let us offload your garden rubbish?’

I put forward a possible reason. It may be that the site staff are under instruction – official or unofficial – to prevent commercial operations from using the site to dump refuse that is not from local residents. Because this could mean more rubbish than planned for and more expense transporting it to the fill sites. Which could mean possibly higher rates for me. 

(I didn’t have any inside knowledge, but I’m a fast thinker and talker, long-winded-sentence type.)

They took my point. But in their opinion this didn’t take account of a situation where a resident, like me, paid a local intermediary, like them, to deliver the rubbish to the site because I couldn’t do it myself.

We agreed, this gave the dump site personnel tremendous latitude for extortion of small, informal businesses, which was in fact, taking place.

We mulled over possible solutions. Such as a letter of authority attesting they are genuine factotums of a bona fide resident, or a quote for their services factoring in the moveable feast of an extortion fee. I also had to admit I didn’t even know if I had the right to use an intermediary to take my garden rubbish to the dump.

(Who knows the myriad municipal regulations and by-laws that bind us?  Who knows even that councillors have no power to order officials of the municipality to do anything?  Or what falls to the province not the council? Street and residents’ WhatsApp groups are barometers of our ignorance). 

In the end we, the pavement convocation, decided that what was needed was greater willingness to recognize the reality of all our lives by governments both local and national.

I am not a councillor but I do know many. By their accounts they have these types of conversations every day and most nights, with their local residents and businesses, on WhatsApp groups, in council meetings, in committees and in public forums. 

They will (if diligent) try to satisfy at least some of the electorate, some of the time, while still operating within the constraints of the regulations that bind them. 

It’s all much more difficult these days with coalitions of disparate, competing parties, often with conflicting policies, lashings of self-interested and would-be leaders, and endless tussles for control of this or the other portfolio or committee. So all councillors have an even bigger struggle to deliver what their constituents are demanding, effectively and quickly, keep their political principals happy, and stick within the regulations in this time flux and uncertainty.

Plus – there’s no money. Decades of atrocious management have left most of the places in which we live with empty coffers. Last month we were told seven of the 11 municipalities in Gauteng are considered at risk of dysfunction, two are already dysfunctional and in financial distress and only two are rated stable. It’s far from plain sailing for many municipalities elsewhere in the country.  

I’m not proposing a free pass or a ‘hug your councillor’ fest, but everyone could do with being a bit more realistic about what a local government coalition can achieve between now and national elections in 2024.  

I am suggesting, too, that instead of simply muttering darkly or moaning loudly at any failures to turn our lives around at the specific pace in the specific way we each desire; instead of railing against politicians in an annoyingly general and simplistic fashion, we exercise some due diligence as the clock ticks down to the coming crucial elections and inform ourselves:  watch closely how our councillors, their leaders, and the independents comport themselves in these current multiparty coalitions. Assess how they handle power and fluctuating fortunes. Start to identify who is capable of being constructive and working cooperatively with other parties.

For a national multiparty government to work and do what it has to do, it needs to consist of parties with at least some maturity and ability to ‘box clever’. A modicum of skill or experience in governing would be in their favour.  

The ANC and Democratic Alliance have track records they can build on, rescue or trash. The smaller players have a chance to demonstrate their potential.

This interregnum is an opportunity to consider the extent to which we, the electorate, whether voters or those citizens who have never got to the polls before, are prepared to tolerate the compromises, adjustments and concessions necessary for a multiparty national government to work. 

In prepping ourselves for such an “out with the old and in with the know-not-what-we’ll get” scenario, what, in our individual, pure and specific list of ‘must-haves’ are we prepared to forgo to get the chance of a more accountable government: one that represents all of us to some greater or lesser degree, working not at staying in power to impose a single ideology, but, wonder of wonders, to implement the reforms and generate the new thinking on which our survival depends? 


Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.