Voter apathy and hung councils … are they connected?

Voter apathy and hung councils ... are they connected?
Voter apathy and hung councils ... are they connected?

Africa-Press – South-Africa. By Zelna Jansen

Now that citizens have voted for their independents and political parties, municipal councils will be constituted. Speakers will be elected; plans will be adopted to implement service delivery charters.

Parallel to this, budgets will have to be approved by the municipal councils. Integrated development plans focusing on social upliftment and economic development in communities will be discussed with communities and community organisations, and subsequently adopted.

Municipalities will have to implement these plans and programmes, and municipal councils will have to conduct oversight to ensure that the municipality is implementing these plans. All 213 municipalities will be embarking on this venture of community development and service delivery to the people of South Africa.

However, the 2021 local government elections (LGE) also brought forth an increase in “hung councils”. A total of 66 out of 213 municipalities are hung councils because there is no single political party with a majority. This is a sign that many voters were disillusioned by political parties in their wards, and opted to vote for smaller parties with no experience and making various promises. Only time will tell if these promises are fulfilled.

The instability associated with coalition governments in municipalities may cause stalemates in municipal councils, and in turn place constraints on municipalities to deliver uninterrupted services to their communities. The instability associated with coalition governments may cause stalemates in municipal councils, and in turn place constraints on municipalities to deliver uninterrupted services to their communities.

To achieve a majority, political parties will have to enter coalitions with other political parties. Smaller parties will most certainly have leverage over larger parties. We hope that this leverage will be used for the good of their community, and not self-interest.

However, if there is a breakdown in coalitions and a municipal council cannot pass its budget or adopt a plan, affecting its ability to deliver its mandate, it can be dissolved. Section 139 of the Constitution provides that the relevant provincial executive may intervene by taking appropriate steps. These steps include issuing a directive to the municipal council about its failure to fulfil its obligation and the necessary steps it must take to meet its obligations.

It may also assume authority of that municipality, dissolve a municipal council and appoint an administrator until a newly elected municipal council has been declared elected. In the latter scenario, section 25 of the Municipal Structures Act provides that a municipality should hold a by-election.

Voter apathy is at an all-time low and instances of hung councils being dissolved with a re-election are very likely to increase it. Statistics indicate that out of the 42.6 million South African citizens eligible to vote, only 26.2 million citizens registered to vote. Of these registered voters, 23.8 million voted. A total of 18.8 million people, a staggering 40% of the population eligible to vote, decided not to register to vote.

Since the first elections in 1994, the number of citizens registering to vote has increased from 18.2 million to 26.3 million in 2019. This number slightly decreased to 26.2 million registered voters this year. Voter turnout for national and provincial legislatures has also decreased from 89% of registered voters in 1994, to 63% of registered voters in the 2019 elections.

Local government elections on the other hand, seems to have traditionally have a low voter turnout. In the 2000 and 2006 local government elections, 48% of registered voters cast their vote. In the 2011 and 2016 elections, 57% of registered voters voted. In this year’s elections, 45% of registered voters voted.

Local government is about bringing government to the grassroots level and getting citizens to participate in decisions affecting their lives. This begs the question, why are citizens not interested in participating in voting for their political representatives at the level that affects them the most?

Covid-19 could be one of the reasons, making many people reluctant to step out. However, a pre-election study by Ipsos and eNCA (October 2021), states that voters have indicated that they do not trust politics or politicians, or that they feel that their vote means nothing, as nothing changes after an election. This could also be interpreted as voters feeling hopeless about affecting change in their communities.

The mistrust citizens have towards politics and politicians must not be addressed through boycotting elections. Rather, citizens must educate themselves on how the government works, how they can participate and subsequently hold political office bearers accountable.

An important recommendation therefore is that more civic education must be carried out by the legislatures, municipal councils and civic organisations, to ensure that community members can participate meaningfully in local government decisions affecting them, and hold ward councillors and political parties accountable. This is a better option than boycotting elections.

Empowering citizens may curb hopelessness and so reduce voter apathy. Thus, irrespective of whether a municipal council is hung or not, or whether it leads to a re-election, citizen participation is the missing element here, and it could lead to more effective municipal councils.

* Jansen is a lawyer. She is the CEO of Zelna Jansen Consultancy.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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