Grocott’s Mail recently published an article by Lungile Penxa, a local government researcher at the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), entitled “Councillor and Community – A Partnership of Equals.”
In the article, Penxa wrote that Ward Councillors are “citizens’ politically elected representatives” who are “the link between the public and the municipal council and owe their primary loyalty to their public.” Citizens for their part, he wrote, “have a responsibility to hold councillors accountable on their duties of serving the interests of the electorates or citizens.”
He continued that citizens have a responsibility to attend municipal council meetings and also ward meetings “to see their councillors representing them, to see daily challenges that their councillors face and to understand municipal work in relation to service delivery.”
A recent editorial in Grocott’s Mail also made a similar point to that made by Penxa.
Whilst agreeing with Penxa and Grocott’s Mail, both know about the difficulties citizens encounter in trying to hold councillors to account.
Penxa would be pleased with my efforts in that regard but he may be surprised to hear that “accountability” is a concept more honoured in the breach as my experiences prove.
As a constituent of Ward 8 and a civic activist, I made it my business to ask my councillor about the composition and activities of the ward committee; also requesting copies of the ward committee minutes. That was earlier this year. When I received no response, I brought the matter to the attention of his caucus leader. I then received a cursory reply from the councillor to the effect that his ward committee was functioning and itemised issues that were being dealt without providing any information about the composition of the said committee. On minutes, his reply was that they should be obtained from the Makana Speaker, Ms Vara, as “the repository” thereof.
I duly wrote to Vara also requesting information regarding the composition and functioning of the other Makana ward committees the members of which are paid a monthly stipend of more than R200 000 per month. I also asked her about the interface between ward committees and the “War Rooms” which municipalities were directed to form by the Eastern Cape Premier.
That was in April and after two or three attempts to get an answer from Ms Vara, she eventually replied apologising for the delay as “I am mostly out of office” and that she would provide the information shortly.
Several reminders and several months later Ms Vara had still not replied. I then wrote to the MEC for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs in Bhisho, F. Xasa, bringing the matter of Ms Vara’s failure to respond to his attention. That was in June.
I received an immediate acknowledgement of receipt and as assurance that the matter was receiving the MEC’s attention. That was where it ended notwithstanding a number of follow-up enquiries.
At that point I gave up, which is obviously what those concerned were hoping would happen, until my attention was drawn to a report on ward committees as tabled before our local Council. The report claimed that ward committees had been formed in all Makana wards except Ward 4 whose forum had been dissolved due to irregularities. The report was incorrect because I knew that no ward committee had been formed in Ward 12 (Rhodes University) which was confirmed by the councillor, who also referred me to Ms Vara as the responsible person.
I then again wrote to Ms Vara about the inaccurate report and after several reminders I received a reply, not from Ms Vara personally, but from her office advising that ward committees were about to be formed in Wards 4 and 12.
Despite all my efforts over more than six months, I am still none the wiser about the composition of ward committees, including Ward 8 in which I reside, or their activities. I am sure fellow resident throughout Makana Municipality are equally in the dark. Likewise my enquiry about War Rooms has fallen on deaf ears.
Is Penxa and the PSMA perhaps better-informed?
In the same article referred to above he quotes Rhodes University politics lecturer, Wesley Seale, as saying that the “tools of our democracy are strong”. One of those tools is surely the ability of citizens to hold their public representatives to account.
Based on my experience, accountability is a hollow concept and a blunt tool because public representatives simply refuse to be held to account by ordinary citizens.
My own Ward 8 Councillor has himself stated that he is accountable to his political party and not to the constituents and he was never challenged on this matter.