We are witnessing a new era in municipal politics as the ANC realizes that it is losing its power due to failure to deliver effective municipal services. As a result, we’re seeing strategies emerge that allow politicians to hold on to power – even if they don’t deserve our votes anymore.
In the 2021 local government elections, The ANC lost power in Gauteng’s three major municipalities. We also saw opposition parties led by the party take control of several municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal. However, the ANC received 46% of the vote, winning a majority of votes in 167 of the 213 contested municipalities. The DA won 22% of the vote, obtaining a majority in 13 municipalities, and the IFP managed to obtain a majority in 10 municipalities.
On a national level, we witnessed how the Home Affairs Minister and Parliament deliberately slowed down and watered down the Electoral Amendment Act enabling independent candidates to run, leaving the playing field stacked against the independents.
Parliament – which is dominated by the African National Congress – voted to hand over another 300 million rand to political parties in March, despite the country’s severe financial constraints. At the local government level, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, the use of violence to eliminate political opponents is on the rise.
There is now reason to believe that one possible strategy for regaining power is to change municipal boundaries through a process called municipal delimitation. Municipal demarcation is governed by the Local Government: Municipal Delimitation Act and takes place under the leadership of the Municipal Demarcation Board, which is an independent authority established by law and responsible for determining municipal boundaries.
Basically, municipal delimitation means changing municipal boundaries to include or exclude certain communities. These governing boundaries may overlap with political boundaries and may lead to the exclusion of part of the electorate. Thus, delimitation has the potential to shape constituencies to meet certain political outcomes.
This power makes demarcation vulnerable to political manipulation and can be abused to gain power, at which point it becomes manipulative demarcation.
Let me explain using the example of Hartbeespoort, a small town in the North West Province. Community members in Hartbeespoort have opposed a proposal in which the local municipality of Madebeng would exclude three of its wards, and then merge those wards with Ward No. 7 of the Bojanala Platnian district municipality to form a new municipality of its own.
If implemented, this decision would divide the town of Hartbeespoort and exclude one ward, dissolving a particular political party stronghold that enjoys the majority support of the local electorate. The community suggested that it made sense – also from a geographical point of view – to exclude the Hartbeespoort wards from Madibeng Municipality to form its own municipality, which would cover the whole of Hartbeespoort and its surrounding formal and informal settlements and might improve its service delivery to the community as a whole.
We are of the view that the delimitation process should not be used as a weapon for political power, but instead to ensure sustainable services for the affected communities that these municipalities are mandated to serve. When municipalities can serve their communities well and meet future needs, only then can potential expansion be considered to help communities beyond their current borders.
Municipal limits are being tested
There are currently proposals for over 200 municipal boundary amendments across South Africa. This is where civil society needs to be vigilant.
The Municipal Delimitation Law requires that the demarcation council be independent and perform its functions without fear, favor, or prejudice. One of the most important functions of this is the demarcation of pavilions and the assessment of the ability of municipalities to perform their functions, in addition to modifications to ensure adequate provision of services to the people.
Before defining municipal boundaries, the demarcation board must publish a notice under Section 26 of the Act in a newspaper circulated in the relevant areas. This year it appears that the preferred method of posting relied heavily on Daily Sun. This made it clear the intention of the Demarcation Council to consider the demarcation and called on the public to submit written representations on the matter. The comment period closed at the end of April 2023, but public hearings are still ongoing.
It appears that the Demarcation Council will consider all offers and opinions that have been submitted, and plans to hold public meetings from June to August to get constructive input on their decisions. After that, the demarcation commission publishes its decisions in the provincial newspapers and allows a 30-day period for objections by the public.
It is therefore extremely important that the public consider this and participate in the process to ensure that the demarcation board follows the correct procedures, and gathers sufficient information through a meaningful public participation process in order to make informed decisions.
Changes in municipal boundaries may determine who wins – or loses – in the next local election. Unfortunately, municipalities seem to have become a battleground for political parties mostly because of the access to bids that accompany municipal control. These bidding battles usually come at the expense of residents and the provision of basic services.
We would like to remind all South Africans that the municipality has a clear mandate to provide the basic infrastructure and services that lay the foundation upon which the local economy can be built. It is not a space for political ideologies and battles.
Whatever the delimitation committee determines, we hope that the affected regions will benefit from their decisions to support the municipality’s mandate rather than deciding who gets more votes due to adjustments to these boundaries. DM