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Party politics, elite accountability and public participation: ward committee politics in the Msunduzi Municipality.


The paper explores whether ward committees are in fact the non-partisan structures for community participation in local government stipulated by legislation and official policy. Findings from the municipality of Msunduzi suggest that, where they actually function, ward committees are dominated by local political leaders. In most IFP wards and some ANC wards, ward committees are simply extensions of the local party branch, and reflect the pathologies associated with the 'dominant party syndrome'. In other wards there is both more party pluralism and less direct party control, but often intraparty factionalism or local political rivalries dominate the composition and operation of ward committees. In short, ward committees allow for little community voice alternative to dominant ward political leadership.

1. Introduction

This article explores the innovation of ward committees in the municipal governance of South Africa in relation to party politics. That parties are the most important actors in South African politics is a widely held view, especially given the alleged 'dominant party syndrome' associated with the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Simply put, do ward committees offer an opportunity for the local community to engage, and hold accountable, officials and councillors independently of party agendas, or are they an innovation dominated by, and even advancing the interests of, the local party branch?

That this question is a real one is revealed by the divergent conceptions of democratic engagement reflected in the design of 'participatory governance' at municipal level versus local government electoral politics. The former explicitly eschews a partisan conception of local engagement between the municipal council and residents, in favour of a notion of a community segmented sociologically (eg youth, the disabled, women) rather than by party. Conversely, electoral politics at municipal, provincial and national level is overwhelmingly framed in terms of party competition for votes. Whatever the reasons for this divergent conception, legislation and policy make it explicit that ward committees are meant to be non-partisan, and dedicated to advancing the interests of the ward collectively.

But how likely is it that ward committees can play this non-partisan role given the dominance of parties? This problem is sharpened by analysis which portrays South African politics as manifesting the pathologies of a 'dominant party syndrome'. In brief, ANC popularity means government is in danger of taking power for granted and so becoming less responsive and accountable to constituencies, intolerant of civil society, and mismanaging or even abusing office. Indeed, even if some degree of ANC electoral dominance is a good thing for democratic consolidation--as Butler (2004:119) argues--this needs to go hand-in-hand with non-electoral mechanisms of elite accountability, and ward committees seem to promise just this. But are ward committees really independent from local party branches, and do they encourage forms of accountability separate from party competition?

With this in mind we investigated the operation of ward committees in the Msunduzi Municipality (KZ225), which includes the city of Pietermaritzburg, in KwaZulu-Natal, during 2005 and early 2006. We chose Msunduzi because the diversity of parties in Msunduzi suggested that we were less likely to find the pathologies of the 'dominant party syndrome', and thus ward committees might well be able to play the non-partisan role envisaged for them. In the event, this was not the case. Where functional, ward committees tended to be colonised by party agendas, albeit in a variety of ways not necessarily imagined under the 'dominant party syndrome' view. This erodes much of their potential as mechanisms of elite accountability and responsiveness alternate to party competition. However, the partisan character of most ward committees does not necessarily undermine their role in facilitating greater public participation--especially when such participation coincides with local party agendas. Hence ward committees might facilitate greater 'access' to decision-making, but add little by way of new 'voice'.

In making this argument the article situates ward committees in the context of post-apartheid local government reform, more especially the attempt to build 'public participation' into local governance. The 'dominant party syndrome' perspective is outlined next, including its relevance to ward committees. The findings of the study are then explicated and analysed in these terms.

2. Ward committees and post-apartheid local government reform

Post-apartheid local government reform has been an intricate and prolonged affair. Central to the functioning of new-look local government is the requirement for it to operate in a more democratic manner. Thus, Section 152 of the Constitution of South Africa includes among the objects of local government: (1)(a) 'to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities' and (1)(e) 'to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government'. In terms of the Local Government Municipal Structures Act 117 of 1998 but especially the Local Government Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000, municipalities are required to complement their formal structures of representative government with a system of 'participatory governance' (Barichievy et al 2005), including allowing all residents a say in the passing of by-laws, the development of the municipal budget, Integrated Development Plan (IDP), municipal performance and the like.

2.1 Participatory governance

Notably, 'participatory governance' is not representative democracy, understood as the regular election of councillors, but refers to the manner in which municipalities govern between elections. More specifically, it refers to a set of structural and procedural requirements to realise what the Act terms 'community participation' in the operation of local government. Thus, 'community participation', more widely termed 'public participation' at other levels of government, is one of the objectives of the legislation and 'participatory governance' is the mechanism through which this is to be realised.

There are three substantive aspects to the innovation of 'participatory governance': the redefinition of the municipality, requirements for public participation, and ward committees. As outlined in Section 2(b) of the Local Government Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000 (hereafter referred to as the Municipal Systems Act), the local community is included alongside councillors and administrators in the legal definition of a municipality, a move of great symbolic significance. The second innovation is really a set of requirements for public involvement in various decision-making processes. Thus Chapter 4 of the Municipal Systems Act details the procedures municipalities must adopt to promote community participation. These include the receipt, processing and consideration of petitions and complaints lodged by members of the local community, notification and public comment procedures, public meetings and hearings, consultative sessions with locally recognised community organisations and (where appropriate) traditional authorities, and reporting back to the local community.

Especially important here are the imperatives to public consultation around the annual budget, the IDP review process, the Performance Management System, service delivery contracting and all by-laws, amongst others. These bring community participation to the foundational activities of local governance. For example, the Local Government Municipal Finance Management Act 56 of 2003 contains detailed requirements in respect of public participation during the budget process. Included here is the requirement that, immediately after an annual budget is tabled in a municipal council, the municipal manager must make it public and invite the local community to submit representations on it. It also provides that the municipal council must consider any views of the local community.

While clearly important, these requirements for public participation in local government processes are arguably surpassed by the one structural element of 'participatory governance': ward committees.

2.2 Ward committees

Ward committees are first mentioned in the 1998 White Paper on Local Government, but it is the Local Government Municipal Structures Act 117 of 1998 (hereafter referred to as the Municipal Structures Act) which outlines them in some detail. This act provides for ward committees to be established in each ward of a Category A or Category B municipality, if the municipality so chooses, though of late government has been suggesting that the ward committee system be made compulsory for all municipalities (Msengana-Ndlela 2006). Chaired by the ward councillor, ward committees are intended to consist of up to ten people representing 'a diversity of interests' in the ward, with women 'equitably represented'. In respect of their role, Section 74(a) of the Municipal Structures Act states that a ward committee 'may make recommendations on any matter affecting its ward (i) to the ward councillor; or (ii) through the ward councillor, to the metro or local council, the executive committee, the executive mayor or the relevant metropolitan subcouncil'. Section 74(b) adds that a ward committee 'has such duties and powers as the metro or local council may delegate to it in terms of section 32'.

This suggests that ward committees are mostly advisory bodies to ward councillors but may enjoy greater powers if the council sees fit. This role is further clarified in subsequent legislation. While little mention is made of ward committees in the Municipal Systems Act, following the Community Participation Conference held on March 28-9, 2005 the Minister of Provincial and Local Government published a Notice entitled 'Guidelines for the Establishment and Operation of Municipal Ward Committees' (Notice 965 of 2005), which held that the 'duties and powers' delegated to ward committees may not include executive powers (Section 5(3)(d)). The guidelines instead emphasised their role in communication and mobilisation.

In respect of communication, Section 5(3)(b) of Notice 965 of 2005 allows ward committees to be delegated to 'create formal unbiased communication channels ... between the community and the council'. In fact, the government-issued Resource Book on ward committees (Department of Provincial and Local Government 2005:36) sees this as 'the primary function' of ward committees. This is to be achieved by advising and assisting the ward councillor on local needs, issues and policy, passing information from residents to council and back, and interacting with other forums and organisations on matters affecting the ward. In respect of mobilisation, ward committees may achieve this by attending to all matters that affect and benefit the community, acting in the best interest of the community, ensuring the active participation of the community in service payment campaigns, the IDP process, the budgetary process, decisions about service provision, bylaws, and by delimiting and chairing zonal meetings.

Overall, the 2005 Notice embodies a double movement: on the one hand, the potential decision-making powers enjoyed by ward committees are substantially limited by prohibiting any significant delegation, but, on the other hand, the deliberative role of ward committees is enhanced by specifying that central municipal issues and processes could well pass through ward committees. This seems consistent with the observation of Yunus Carrim (2001:3), ANC MP, former chairperson of the Local Government Portfolio Committee, and architect of much local government legislation:
   Essentially, the system overall seeks to provide a balance between
   giving residents the fullest space to participate in municipal
   affairs and ensuring the right of councillors to ultimately govern.

The 2005 Notice is significant in three more respects. First, it encourages ward committees to engender constructive relations between state and society. Hence, Section 5(3)(b) suggests that ward committees be delegated by municipalities to 'create ... cooperative partnerships between the community and the council'. Further, ward committees are exhorted in Section 5(1)(3)(b)(v) to 'ensure constructive and harmonious interaction between the municipality and community through the use and co-ordination of ward residents meetings and other community development forums'. Second, ward committees have a near-exclusive claim to legitimacy reflected in Section 5(3)(a) which declares them to be an 'official specialised participatory structure in the municipality'. Third, the Notice places much emphasis on the non-partisan role of ward committees, with Section 2 defining the status of a ward committee as 'an advisory body' which 'is independent' and 'must be impartial and perform its functions without fear, favour or prejudice'. The Notice proceeds to provide detailed requirements for the composition of ward committees and for the election of ward committee members. It also includes a Code of Conduct which affirms nonpartisan action by ward committee members for the good of all.

By late 2004 the national Department for Provincial and Local Government (2004:17) was reporting that, with the exclusion of the Western Cape where the 'process was in progress', no less than 86.8 per cent of all possible ward committees had been established across the country. In KwaZulu-Natal some 302 or 83.43 per cent of ward committees had been formed, with just 60 outstanding.

This roll-out of the ward committee system should be seen against the backdrop of a significant number and diversity of protests about the poor performance of local government. Thus, in late 2005 the Minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula, reported to Parliament that there had been 5,085 protests against local government country-wide against issues like poor service delivery in the previous year (Daily News, October 14, 2005). With the local government elections looming in March 2006, the national government moved to reassure voters with various initiatives, including the deployment of Community Development Workers. Ward committees have enjoyed much affirmation as a result of this concern to improve the responsiveness and accountability of local government. Hence in a media briefing on the Cabinet Lekgotla President Thabo Mbeki (2005:2) said:
   There are instances in many municipalities where basic services are
   not provided to citizens, not on account of lack of resources, but
   because of poor planning. For instance, some new settlement
   projects with formal housing, water and electricity lack sanitation
   facilities; others suffer from ageing electricity networks and
   unreliable refuse removal services.... These challenges call for
   close monitoring of the content of Integrated Development Plans and
   their implementation, including support to Ward Committees and
   speedier roll-out of the Community Development Workers (CDW)

But how well are ward committees functioning, and are they really the nonpartisan structures they are intended to be? Indeed, is it realistic to expect them to be able to play this role given the dominance of parties in South African politics?

3. Ward committees and party dominance

Most scholars see parties as important political actors in liberal-democracies, and in South Africa more specifically. Moreover, it is also widely held that the interaction of parties with each other and with the overall political system is central to the health of a democracy, especially an emerging democracy (Roskin et al 1997:216). In South Africa's case, this concern with party systems has led many to characterise the system as a 'dominant party' one. While similar to a 'one-party system' in that a single party dominates every level of government, it is different in that opposition parties are free to contest elections. However, like one-party systems, dominant party systems tend towards corruption and unresponsiveness to public demands (Roskin et al 1997:217).

A major theme in the study of contemporary South African politics is that the ANC's popularity has made the post-apartheid political system a 'dominant party' one, with attendant costs and benefits. That the ANC is massively and increasingly popular is confirmed by every election result since 1994. Indeed, in 2004 it exceeded 70 per cent of the national vote and, for the first time, won all nine of the provinces. Notably, this growing popularity sits hand-in-glove with a greater concentration of power. For example, Tom Lodge (1999) points to a growing centralisation in ANC processes; Habib and Taylor (1999) discuss the growing dominance of the ANC in the tripartite alliance; Mattes (2002) refers to the rise of executive power at the expense of parliament; and Butler (2000) notes the concentration of executive function in the office of the President. When added to perceptions about Mbeki's 'zero-sum approach to power, viewing alternative sites of capacity as competitors rather than potential resources' (Butler 2000:200), the overall trend seems clear.

The significance of ANC power for democracy in South Africa is read in two divergent ways. On the one side are those observers who believe 'that only an extended period of political stability can establish the preconditions for the longer-term entrenchment of democracy' (Butler 2004:118), because of the tremendous social and economic divisions that characterise the society. Thus any threat to ANC dominance is a threat to political stability. The contrary view is that ANC dominance is harmful to democratic consolidation. Those to the centre-right of the political spectrum (Giliomee and Simkins 1999:337-40) hold that the lack of a viable opposition will encourage authoritarian tendencies in government, the fusion of state and party, and thus the progressive erosion of autonomous institutions and conditions for political competition. Similar views are expressed by those on the left, for example South African Communist Party Deputy Secretary-General Jeremy Cronin has noted the ANC's 'swings between demagoguery and managerialism', warning of 'terrible perils for democracy' and that '[Robert] Mugabe epitomises where we could end up' (Cronin quoted in Malala 1998).

As Butler (2004:119) notes, taken together, these positive and negative readings of ANC dominance pose a stark dilemma:
   While South Africa cannot afford a robust opposition, or a
   fragmentation of the liberation movement, neither can it afford the
   consequences of deepening ANC domination. South Africa's democracy
   is not robust enough to cope with fluidity and party system
   reconstruction because of the need to build sound, legitimate, and
   trusted institutions. Yet the longer the ANC remains dominant, both
   electorally and in the executive, the more harm may be caused by
   state-party integration, patronage politics, opposition
   de-legitimation and the abuse of incumbency.

In this context, Butler argues that the only attractive scenario is an extended period of ANC dominance, but with 'a real, but unrealised', threat of electoral defeat. In addition to this Anglo-American emphasis on party competition, he points to the trend in international scholarship to emphasise the role of non-electoral mechanisms like ANC pluralism, the market, and civil society to also hold elites accountable, thus reducing the unresponsive tendencies in a dominant party scenario (Butler 2004:120). Indeed, the best scenario for the consolidation of democracy in South Africa may be 'a collaborative political order, marked by consensus and compromise within and between parties and institutions', led by 'a cohesive tripartite alliance, enjoying sustained and co-operative relations with opposition parties' (Butler 2004:129).

Assuming Butler is correct, what does this mean for ward committees? It suggests that, if they operate as intended, they can help build the kind of constructive, inclusive state-society relation which does nevertheless still act as a brake on local elites, and thus helps democratic consolidation. Moreover, even assuming that Butler is wrong, and that what is really required for democratic consolidation is a more active opposition to ANC hegemony, then ward committees still promise something like this in asserting local community or ward interests over party agendas. The key point is that on either reading, autonomously operating ward committees which advance community rather than party interests, thus holding local elites accountable, would be good for democracy.

But do ward committees really operate independently from local party branches? Do they actually affect the quality of local power relations in a way which reduces party competition and encourages greater elite accountability? Or are ward committees little more than an extension of the local party branch and its politics, effectively pursuing a partisan agenda in the name of the local community? That there is something to this latter view is suggested by certain concerns expressed by former chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Local Government, Yunus Carrim (2001:4):
   As the ANC we need to develop our policy on ward committees. We
   need to give guidance to ANC-run municipalities on how these
   committees should be elected and what political meaning should be
   given to the 'diversity of interests' that the law requires to be
   represented in these committees. Ideally, the ward committees
   should be used to mobilise the broadest range of interests in the
   community behind progressive goals as part of the overall national
   democratic transition. ... It would be important for ANC and
   Alliance structures to play a role in ensuring this representivity.
   It would be important too to avoid the ward committee becoming a
   site for narrow, sectarian turf battles within the ANC and
   Alliance--as this could be very destructive. For ward committees to
   work we need to have strong ANC branch and other structures and, in
   turn, strong ward committees must be used to strengthen ANC branch
   and other structures.

There seems to be a tension in Carrim's argument here. On the one hand, like the Ministerial Notice 965 of 2005, he affirms ward committees as institutions over and beyond the local party. On the other hand, he sees them as champions of 'national democratic transition' which require strong party structures to realise their potential and which, indeed, can be used to build the ANC! Such comments raise the spectre of ward committees as, at best, a means for building ANC branches and, at worst, ANC interests portraying themselves as community interests.

There is a further, and related issue, namely, are ward committees in wards won by opposition parties able to operate independently of the control of local branches? If not, then the effect of party dominance on state-society relations will be similar to the 'dominant party' scenario as local party elites set the agenda in the name of the 'community'. Some might see this as an important hedge against ANC dominance at the municipal level, and thus good for political competition. However, it does generalise the dominance of party (and thereby the state) over civil society organisations (and thereby local communities). This raises questions about the robustness of non-party mechanisms of elite accountability and responsiveness. To explore these issues we selected for study a municipality which, while dominated by the ANC (23 out of 37 wards), included wards won by opposition parties: nine by the Democratic Alliance (DA) and five by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

4. Findings


In exploring the operation of ward committees in Msunduzi we compiled and analysed the relevant documents and literature, both primary and secondary, including council and ward committee minutes, where they exist. Second, we conducted in-depth interviews and follow-up interviews with key roleplayers, including 21 of the 37 ward councillors, key municipal officials, and political party, organisational and civic leaders. Third, two focus group sessions with select ward committees were conducted. A grant from the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal made the research possible. Basically, the insights relevant to our concern in this article can be summarised in three main claims:

* ward committees are dependent on ward councillors to operate,

* the ward committee system requires significant municipal support to function effectively, and

* ward committees are too politicised to offer an independent source of non-electoral accountability to parties.

4.1 Effective ward committees require good ward councillors

Effective ward committees which deepen the municipal deliberative process require an effective ward councillor. Without a councillor who is competent, well-organised and committed to the ward committee, the structure cannot operate. This is because the councillor is responsible for how often the committee meets, what it discusses, what information ward committee members acquire, and what information the council obtains from ward committees.

In the Msunduzi case there was evidence that a significant minority of ward councillors were simply not up to these tasks, either because they were incompetent, ignorant of their responsibilities in respect of ward committees, or constrained by party political or local power contests (Gardner 2005, Mngadi 2006). Thus less than 50 per cent of ward committees met regularly, and even amongst those that met regularly, the frequency varied widely, including weekly, monthly, bi-monthly and annual periods. The Speaker (Colin Gardner) reported that 40 per cent of the ward committees were non-functional. Further, the official in charge of public participation (Sasa Mngadi) described 10 of the 37 ward committees as too 'politicised', and the eight DA councillors are described as 'doing their own thing'. Conversely, just eight (roughly 25 per cent) of the ward committees are described as 'very functional'.

In addition to the functioning of ward committees, the Msunduzi case also illustrates the centrality of ward councillors to the constitution and composition of ward committees. Thus while consultants were meant to institute ward committees, they did not do this in all cases. Several ward councillors, many from the DA, reported setting up their own structures. Research indicated that as many as eight of the original ward committees were later re-established or reformulated. Further, the way ward committee members were 'elected' varied tremendously. Some ward councillors reported having sectoral representation with meetings in localised areas, some had one mass meeting, while others co-opted people from existing organisations. Hence, the Ward 27 ward committee looked remarkably like the City Improvement District committee, and the IFP-associated ward committees looked extraordinarily similar to the IFP branches. One ANC ward councillor reported that he had amalgamated the ward committee with the ANC branch into a single committee of 26 members. According to the ward councillor, he 'created this merger to avoid a state of animosity between the two groups which are essentially the same thing' (Naidoo 2005).

Notably, many ward councillors reported co-opting new members as ward committee members left or stopped participating. One interviewee claimed that the ward committee members in one particular ward (W34) were neither nominated nor elected but simply co-opted onto the committee, 'just people [ward councillor] Adams could work with' (Wagner 2005). All in all, then, the Msunduzi case redeems the claims that good ward committees are dependent on good ward councillors, but these cannot be guaranteed.

4.2 Effective ward committees require significant municipal support

As necessary as ward councillors are to the effective functioning of ward committees, they are not sufficient. The Msunduzi case also shows that municipalities need to support ward committees by effectively institutionalising them. More specifically the municipality needs to (i) ensure the correct constitution of ward committees, (ii) train ward councillors and ward committee members, (iii) resource committees and, perhaps most importantly, (iv) clearly define the role of ward committees in council processes.

The establishment of ward committees in Msunduzi was outsourced to a company named Lavender Development Specialists (hereafter, Lavender), a group of ANC-aligned lawyers and ex-councillors (The Witness, September 13, 2001; Gardner 2005). Lavender was given until Christmas 2001 to establish all 37 ward committees. However, by the time this deadline was reached, only 16 ward committees had been established, six of these in the Edendale area (The Witness, November 16, 2001). Lavender was granted an extension to March 2002 (The Witness, December 28, 2001), but by mid-April 2002, nine wards (all or mostly in the Vulindlela area) were still without committees (Echo, April 11, 2002). By 2003 some form of ward committee existed in all areas, however nominal.

The issue of the appropriate constitution and ongoing maintenance of ward committee membership was evident both from the incomplete and varied nature of the establishment process, but also from the failure of most ward committees to meet the inclusive requirements of government. Simply put, there are too few women and youth on ward committees, around 25 per cent and 27 per cent respectively in Msunduzi, and conversely, traditional leaders had disproportionate influence on the composition of ward committees in the Vulindlela rural area. This area, which contains a formal traditional authority which is also a stronghold of the IFP, was the last area in which ward committees were established (Echo, April 11, 2002). One of the ward councillors in this area (Ward 3) directly attributed delays in setting up a ward committee to the 'political intolerance of IFP izinduna' (Echo, September 13, 2001). The two political parties concerned, the ANC and IFP, eventually resolved their differences by agreeing that five ward committee members would be appointed by the Vulindlela Traditional Authority and five would be elected from the community (Echo, April 11, 2002).

Almost across the board, other than in some of the more elite areas, the issue of training emerged as an important one. Bill Lambert, DA councillor for Ward 25, described his ward committee as comprised of competent and experienced people including a university professor, a former city manager and retired business people (Lambert 2005). This description was remarkably rare, however, with eight of the 21 councillors interviewed talking of the ignorance of many committee members about how local government operates; and municipal officials (Mngadi 2005, Gardner 2005) referring to the ignorance of many ward councillors about how local government works.

In addition, complaints about the training provided for ward committee members, again by Lavender, were widespread. Eight of the 21 ward councillors interviewed complained that training was late or delayed and inadequate. Indeed, a quick scan of the content of the training reveals that it is intended to bring ward councillors up to date on local government legislation and policy around key areas like the IDP. This course content appears more relevant to the municipal rather than the community end of the local government political spectrum, and hence perhaps better suited to training ward councillors--people who can assist and advise councillors or even act as or become ward councillors themselves--than fostering community development or skilling participatory government practitioners for whom modules on ethics or theories of democracy, for example, would have been more relevant. In fact, the Ministerial Notices 2649 of 2003 and 965 of 2005, and the Resource Book on ward committees (Department of Provincial and Local Government 2005:68-9), explicitly call for a much broader range of training areas, including 'community upliftment', 'conflict management', 'democracy and community participation', 'principles of good governance', 'leadership' and 'stress management'.

Resources emerged as a major issue across race, space and party. Several ward councillors attributed the apathy of ward committee members to the fact that they were not paid, nor reimbursed for expenses. For example, as many as five councillors (for Wards 10, 12, 27, 30 and 33) referred to the problem of losing members who found or changed employment. Even more common was the appeal for office space and administrative support so that meetings could be efficiently organised, held and properly minuted. In this respect one councillor argued that ward committees should have a representative 'who works within the Municipality to take issues straight back to Council'. He added: 'the communication channel is not clear enough; it needs someone from the administration' (Blomeyer 2005). A similar view was expressed by the councillor for Ward 28, who complained that the council needed to 'jack up' their staff who often have 'no clue' about what is going on at local level (Naidoo 2005). The recent Resource Book on ward committees, also noting comparable problems with respect to communication, has even suggested that 'ward committees may be more effective when they can relate directly to a decentralized administrative unit of the municipality' (Department of Provincial and Local Government 2005:50).

These comments bring us squarely to one of the major weaknesses in the Msunduzi ward committee system: the failure to clearly and carefully institutionalise ward committees into council processes. Thus, while the legislation makes room for ward committees to be included as part of the public consultation process around the IDP, the annual budget and by-laws, to date the Msunduzi municipality has not done this. Indeed, it has not added anything to the role of ward committees as advisory bodies to ward councillors, preferring, in the words of the Speaker, 'to see what local communities make of ward committees first' (Gardner 2005). When added to the sub-optimal processes of establishment and training, and the lack of resourced support, it comes as no surprise that most ward committees have yet to realise their potential, even as deliberative forums for their wards.

It is in the light of this lack of institutional support that the municipal official responsible for public participation (Mngadi 2006) has recommended a thorough review of existing practice including: the council reclaiming the election process from consultants; instituting a more complex electoral process where ward committee members are elected to portfolios and the relevant civil society organisations attend to ensure appropriate candidates stand; proper training for ward committee members as to their role and responsibilities; the structuring of ward committee portfolios to reflect the six business areas of council (corporate services and social equity; corporate strategic planning; economic development and growth; infrastructure, facilities and services; finance; sound governance and human resources); and, most importantly, the integration of ward committees into the public participation processes of council. Included here would be a 'ward forum' where all ward committees can meet, and the building of public participation criteria into the performance review of management.

4.3 Ward committees are party politicised

It is very clear from government legislation that ward committees are meant to be non-partisan structures. In addition, they are required to build constructive relations between the local community and the council, and are attributed a special standing as an official municipal participatory structure. To help achieve this special role as independent conduit between council and community, much effort has gone into regulating the election of ward committee members and specifying a code of conduct that encourages deliberative virtues such as honesty, good faith, the recognition of diversity and transparency.

That local political dynamics impact on ward committees is undeniable. Thus several ward councillors complained of attitudes of indifference and disrespect on the part of officials towards councillors. They also complained of the tendency for ward councillors who were also members of Council's Executive Committee to secure special treatment for their wards. Of greater importance for this article are those political dynamics associated with party competition, as they constitute a major obstacle to the independent and inclusive operation of ward committees. There are at least three versions of political contestation or competition: (i) inter-party competition, (ii) intra-party competition, and (iii) policy competition.

Inter-party competition refers mainly to IFP/ANC relations, and the fact that all the IFP ward committees, many ANC ward committees and some DA ward committees appear to be subject to their respective party's control. Notably, the perception of the party politicisation of ward committees is shared by a range of respondents, ranging from the DA (Steele 2006) and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) (Pillay 2006) to some Residents' or Ratepayers' Associations (Nkosi 2005, Thompson 2006) and the Speaker, Colin Gardner (Gardner 2005).

In this regard the official in charge of public participation (Mngadi 2005) stated that the 'politicisation' of ward committees is especially a problem in historically-black areas. Noteworthy in this respect is that, of the ten wards described as 'politicised' by Mngadi (2006), seven ward councillors refused to talk to us, including four of five IFP wards. Indeed, Mngadi claims that the IFP ward committees are seen as extensions of the IFP branch, and that individuals aligned with other parties, and principally the ANC, are simply not welcome. This she explains in terms of the party's concern to retain popular support in these areas by controlling all structures that might be seen to be delivering. Given the history of often violent IFP/ ANC conflict in the province, and attendant intolerant political culture, it is not surprising that such attitudes endure. Indeed, given the pressure the IFP is under across the province as the ANC steadily chips away at its power, it would be naive to expect that party to shed the zero-sum attitude to power which has characterised it for nearly 30 years.

A similar allegation of party dominance of ward committees can be levelled at the ANC, though to a somewhat lesser extent. Consider the example, cited above, of the ward councillor who combined ward committee and ANC branch meetings 'to avoid a state of animosity between the two groups which are essentially the same thing' (Naidoo 2005). Perhaps as pressing an issue, however, is intra-party factionalism within the ANC (and also, though less obviously, within other political parties). Illuminating in this regard were the descriptions of certain ANC ward councillors as 'highly politicised' and 'friends of the mayor'--a reference to the Thabo Mbeki/ Jacob Zuma factionalism in the ANC. (In Msunduzi, this takes the form of former mayor Zweli Hloni and his associates being aligned to Mbeki and Provincial Premier Ndebele, with new mayor Zanele Hlatswayo and associates being aligned to Zuma and Provincial MEC for Economic Affairs, Zweli Mkhize.) We also found evidence of local conflicts not linked to wider party factionalism. Consider the comments of the councillor for Ward 13:
   The Ward Committee has never been functional from the onset because
   the majority of the male members and I do not get along. This has
   been the case since 2002. You should see them in a meeting. The
   mood is always tense and it gets out of control usually verbally
   and otherwise. Some members who did not win during the election are
   the problem. They refuse to accept my authority as a Ward
   Councillor. The situation is so out of control that they conspire
   behind my back all the time. They go to the extent of holding their
   own meetings without me present at their own private venue but they
   do not attend mine. This has led to my ward committee's breakdown
   as it is impossible to hold a meeting with two people. S--, for
   example, an ANC branch employee, is the instigator and he plans to
   campaign for the position of Ward Councillor in the next election.
   (Dlamini 2005)

Lastly, policy competition probably sums up the tension between the DA and the municipal officials. Where the officials described the DA as uncooperative and 'doing their own thing', several DA councillors described the municipality's initiatives around ward committees as irrelevant for their committee members. Thus, according to Gardner, the DA claimed that their councillors were 'sophisticated businessmen' and as such 'did not need to be taught how to write minutes and how to conduct meetings' (Gardner 2005). DA councillor Lambert (2005), denying that the DA's failure to attend Lavender's training program was a party-based decision, explained that his ward committee members were already experienced in these things.

The implication of partisan ward committees extends beyond just undermining their independent role, but also directly impacts on the health of civil society, undermining its ability to engage the local council. This is because the establishment of ward committees has affected other organisations and structures already in existence in Msunduzi. In formerly advantaged white and Indian areas, Ratepayers' Associations had tended to carry out some of the functions now allocated to ward committees. One ward committee (W25) was effectively composed of members of the previous Ratepayers' Associations in the area; another (W27) was either replaced, or was supplanted by, the existing Ratepayers' Association; while others (W34 and 37) are said to be less effective than, or to duplicate, previously existing community structures. The one Ratepayers' Association in a formerly disadvantaged area, the Edendale Landowners and Ratepayers Association (ELRA), continues to exist in close but ambiguous relationship with both the local ANC branch and the ward committee. As the former Association chair, LEM Nkosi put it, a close relationship between the ANC branch and the ward committee is 'inevitable' given the very strong influence of the ANC (Nkosi 2005). At the time of interview, which pre-dated the 2006 elections, Nkosi chaired the ELRA, the ANC branch and, as ward councillor, the ward committee, but this has now changed.

Ward committees thus appear to draw on local organisational legacies, either Ratepayers' Associations in historically white, and to a lesser extent, Indian areas, or political parties in historically black or African areas. On one level, this is simply a matter of ward committees drawing on existing social capital (social networks and relations of trust) to populate themselves, but on another level ward committees seem to assume many of the functions of Ratepayers' Associations, or come under the ambit of some form of party agenda-setting. Thus to the extent that ward committees supplant other civil society formations, and these same ward committees remain colonised by party agendas, we see the effective extension of party authority over local areas. Notably we are referring mostly to historically-Indian and -white areas, where there is, as a rule, greater party pluralism.

Lastly, while partisan ward committees are less likely to hold accountable municipal leadership from the same party (in Msunduzi's case, ANC aligned ward committees), those aligned to other parties or to the agendas of other parties may aid accountability in reinforcing party competition at the municipal level. However, this is not the additional source of accountability envisaged in legislation and policy, and it lacks the legitimacy offered by appeal to the community rather than the party. Arguing that partisan ward committees will not aid elite accountability is not the same as saying they will not improve public participation. In communication with Steven Friedman (2006), the latter pointed out that political parties are the most important mobilising agents in South African society. Given this, a close relationship between political parties and ward committees might well be good for the mobilising role of ward committees, especially where community and party interests coincide. The argument of this paper speaks more to the quality of public participation, more specifically whether such ward committees will contribute anything substantively different from political parties. To date the evidence suggests that this is unlikely.

5. Conclusion

Are ward committees the independent structures for community participation in local government intended by government? And, as such, can they supply the constructive form of accountability and responsiveness helpful for the consolidation of democracy in South Africa? Consistent with other studies (especially Raga and Taylor 2005), the Msunduzi case suggests not. This is because where ward committees are actually functional they remain under the influence of local party agendas, thus undermining their non-partisan role. In most IFP wards and some ANC wards, the relation of party to ward committee reflects pathologies associated with the 'dominant party syndrome'. In other wards there is both more party pluralism and less direct party control, but in the vast majority of cases local political elites remain the dominant players.

Is this good or bad for democracy? Insofar as ANC dominance of ward committees erodes their capacity to keep local elites accountable and responsive it is bad for democracy, whether or not one believes that South Africans are ready for real party competition. The case as concerns opposition parties is perhaps more complicated. It could be argued that in dominating ward committees, opposition parties are acting to ensure their survival and thus, at the level of the municipality, preventing complete ANC dominance. In challenging the ANC, opposition parties are arguably also challenging the 'dominant party syndrome' and its anti-democratic pathologies. However, even if true, such a conclusion ignores the potential implications of party dominance for relations between the local state and communities. Precisely because ward committees draw on local social capital in their constitution there is the real possibility that partisan ward committees will serve to demobilise civil society, as well as stifle concerns and voices inconsistent with local party interests.

Importantly, having doubts about the accountability dividend of ward committees is not the same as having doubts about their role in extending public participation. It is quite feasible, indeed likely, that partisan ward committees could improve public participation in that more residents are drawn into some aspect of municipal decision-making. The criticism is not one aimed at the increased 'access' offered by ward committees so much as the kinds of 'voice' facilitated through this 'access'. The evidence from Msunduzi suggests that while it may be reasonable to expect ward committees to (modestly) improve participation in municipal affairs, such participation will voice views consistent with the local party rather than views emanating from the local community.


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Laurence Piper and Roger Deacon /
Name                  Wards                      Political
                                                 March 2006

Vulindlela            1, 2, 7, 8, 9              IFP
                      3,4,5,6                    ANC

Edendale and          10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16,    ANC
Imbali                17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23

Pietermaritzburg      27, 33, parts of 23        ANC/DA
City Centre           and 36

Suburbs               18, 24, 25, 26, 37,        ANC/DA
                      parts of 36

Woodlands and         32, 34                     ANC/DA

The Northern Areas    28, 29, 30, 31, 35         ANC

Name                  Socio-economic profile

Vulindlela            Historically black
                      African, rural, poorest
                      communities. Very little
                      business or industry

Edendale and          Historically black
Imbali                African, urban
                      townships, working
                      class and unemployed
                      poor communities.
                      Some business and

Pietermaritzburg      Historically white,
City Centre           traditional city centre of
                      Pietermaritzburg, mixed
                      residential and business

Suburbs               Historically white
                      suburbs (wealthy areas:
                      Montrose Chase Valley,
                      Scottsville, Hayfields,
                      Wembley), and some
                      business and industry

Woodlands and         Historically coloured
Eastwood              area, mostly residential,
                      some industrial

The Northern Areas    Historically Indian
                      areas, mostly residential,
                      some business
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Date:Jan 1, 2008
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