Race to secure hung councils can be more unifying than competitive

Race to secure hung councils can be more unifying than competitive
Nov 8, 2021 No Comments Uncategorized OngamaM

By Ongama Mtimka

More unifying methods of local governance should be considered amidst the discussions taking place behind closed doors among the leaders of various political parties to secure their lead in hung councils arising from the recent elections. 

Political parties need to be a lot more open to find various approaches to achieve stable governments that can fulfil the local government objectives outlined in the constitution and applicable legislation. To have this attitude, they must remember the recent tumultuous experience with coalitions throughout the country in the last term. 

Interpreting the rise in hung councils at the 2021 local government elections needs a paradigm shift from lenses of divisions and rivalry to positive lenses appreciating the given voter preferences. A vote split mostly between two main rivals and then followed by various smaller parties in a council doesn’t only mean the voters are divided between the main rivals in the city. It also means “main rivals” are the two most preferred in that city. The onus then is on party leaders to interpret the significance of the outcomes and provide leadership by finding ways to give expression to the wishes of the electorate. 

It is quite evident that the proportional representation system is delivering multi-party democratic outcomes and party dominance is increasingly becoming a thing of the past in South Africa. This is no different from the general outcomes of the Westminster system after which ours is modelled. Parties then need to move along with the changing preferences of voters and not work against them. 

One way in which they can do this may be to move from the mayoral executive to the collective executive system as outlined in section 8 to 10 of the Municipal Structures Act 117 of 1998. The former delegates executive “leadership” (as opposed to powers) of a municipality to the mayor who then appoints Members of the Mayoral Committee (MMC’s) to serve at his/her pleasure. The latter delegates the executive leadership to an executive committee that is elected bearing in mind proportional representation principles and the mayor and deputy serve a coordination role. 

The parties currently contemplating their approaches to coalitions should be open to explore non-partisan executive committee systems and perhaps agree on how they may share the roles of the mayor, deputy mayor, speaker, whips, and chairpersons of the municipal public accounts committees. 

It could be that the smaller parties could share these roles while the two main most preferred parties may share the rest of the MMC roles among them. This approach would translate into the delegated executive leadership the same dynamics as may exist in the broader municipal council. This would turn the concept of the party line on its head and encourage a new breed of councilors who are cooperative at the executive leadership level and independent critical thinkers and true representatives of the people at council level. 

Some lessons from Blue Ocean Strategy thinking as written by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne can be very useful in challenging the conventional logic parties are using to approach the question of coalitions. The two, writing about business, encourage firms to use innovation around the value they offer to the market to move away from bloody competitive rivalry, the red ocean, to a strategic environment in which competition becomes irrelevant, the blue ocean,  

As part of the process to migrate to a blue ocean, the authors challenge leaders to rethink those things taken for granted in the industry “the areas the industry has competed on which need to be eliminated among other things”. 

Those are easy to identify in the context of dealing with hung councils, namely: the idea that council must be divided along party lines (governing versus opposition party); the idea that a group of parties should form a coalition to outfox others; the idea that there should be an executive mayor as opposed to executive committee; the idea that control over municipal resources must be concentrated one group that largely agrees among them. 

As is quite evident, the process being proposed here goes against the very logic of political power. Instead of crafting ways in which to build a patronage network controlled by one party or a coalition, it is proposing a more ambiguous and vulnerable approach whose strengths may be its interdependence with others in the executive leadership and in council. 

Could this not be the very same thing needed to take South Africa forward, politicians who realized their mutual vulnerability and acted in ways that showed they revered the power bestowed on them? 

Ongama Mtimka is a lecture in the department of history and political studies at the faculty of humanities at Nelson Mandela University and is the founder of the South African Journal of Political Risk. He served in the United Nations Development Programme and Electoral Commission’s panel of experts during the recent local government elections. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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