Ward Committees 'Will Help Empower Local Communities'

Business Day (Johannesburg)
April 1, 2005 
Hopewell Radebe

IF WARD committees had been established five years ago to monitor and review municipalities' performances, communities would have had little excuse to destroy public infrastructure on the scale witnessed in Free State over the past 12 months.

Provincial and Local Government Minister Sydney Mufamadi says there are better ways to ensure public partici- pation in local government than have recently been experienced in places such as Harrismith, Phomolong, Kungwini and Westonaria, where residents went on the rampage after protesting about poor service delivery by municipalities.

The Municipal Structures Act provides for the political and administrative authorities of every municipality to create ward committees with tasks including the preparation, implementation and review of integrated development plans and the review of a municipality's performance management systems.

The act gives ward committees the authority to play an instrumental role in the formulation of a municipality's budget and to ensure that it is spent properly.

The ward committee model was drafted in response to years of public protests during the apartheid era, when the former government imposed municipal leaders on black communities.

However, in the first 10 years of democracy, elected public representatives have maintained the status quo, with councillors largely failing to regularly report back to their constituencies about development plans that are likely to improve their lives.

In short, Mufamadi says, although local government legislation provides for the establishment of ward committees that are supposed to articulate government policies to communities, the process has not been implemented properly.

"Without them, the country's system of government cannot be said to be rooted among the people," Mufamadi says.

At a two-day conference on community participation in Midrand that ended on Wednesday, municipal leaders accepted that their means of communication and information dissemination to the people they served on matters of governance left much to be desired.

This, they say, has resulted in residents from previously disadvantaged communities taking part in protests that lead to self-defeating results when they turn violent.

Mufamadi concedes that "a lot more still needs to be done" by councillors. He says there are far too many municipalities that still lack adequate capacity to respond to their communities' needs.

"We know of instances where concrete municipal plans have been put in place but no effort was made to communicate such plans to the population.

"Our people have a right to expect improved performance by public representatives as well as by public servants who are in the employ of municipalities."

Councillors argue that citizens have an obligation to know the channels that need to be followed in order to table their concerns with organs of the democratic state.

Delegates agreed on a programme to enhance public participation in matters of governance, especially at local government level.

The conference resolved that municipalities should dedicate resources to encourage community participation, and portfolio committees in municipalities should call public hearings to solicit approval for development priorities.

Councillors also undertook to ensure that municipal economic and social development programmes were simplified and translated into all languages to empower communities to make meaningful contributions.

To ensure that these plans worked, the conference resolved to put pressure on all municipalities to establish "a dedicated department or unit in the speaker's office with a budget, staff, administrative support and a programme of action" to ensure that ward committees were functional.

According to delegates, part of the problem has been the fact that ward committee members are ordinary people who get no training to be effective in their role.

The delegates argue that capacity building and training efforts must be directed at ward committees to build on existing experiences and lessons learnt from municipalities that have so far done well in improving the competency of their committees.

The municipalities that have performed well and have established ward committees in the course of the past five years include Durban (Ethekwini Metro) and Port Elizabeth, which falls under the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.