THE government and the ruling party seem willing to do anything to fix local democracy - except making it more democratic.
It has become clear that the African National Congress (ANC) - and its representatives in the government - know local government's problems stem from the weakness of local democracy. Because many people have no voice in local government, they have no way of forcing councils to serve them. Until this changes, councils will not work for the people who elect them.
Evidence that the ANC knows that local government needs more democracy is its decision to give "communities" a role in choosing ANC candidates. But, while this recognised the problem, it has caused conflict, prompted ANC members to stand as independents against it, and last week pushed President Jacob Zuma into a retreat, which is likely to make life even more difficult for the ANC. By promising to review the choice of candidates after the election and perhaps hold by-elections where candidates were not those "communities" wanted, Zuma is inviting even more jockeying for position and so more protest and conflict.
Inviting "communities" to choose candidates is no solution to weak local democracy. Who are these "communities"? Everyone who lives in the ward? Clearly not: there is only one way of asking everyone in a ward which candidate they want - it is called an election. The entire "community" can't be summoned to a meeting to choose a candidate. Besides which, inviting everyone in a ward to choose the ANC candidate assumes that everyone supports the ANC, which they clearly do not since it never wins 100% of the vote. So "community" choice is really code for selection by the connected and the candidates were inevitably chosen by small groups of people in the name of the entire "community". The process was also an open invitation to wannabe local candidates to round up friends and dependants to vote for them and to pass them off as the "community".
This method allowed preferred candidates who were passed over to portray themselves not as politicians who lost a battle but as rejected choices of the people. And, since they had needed to round people up to vote for them, it was much easier to mobilise the same people to demonstrate in their support. The ANC's concession may ensure that all this continues well after the local election.
The problem is wanting to be more democratic - but then trying to substitute for democracy. If the ANC wants candidates to be more in touch with communities, it should send a clear message to its branches (who should choose the candidates) that they should select only people who listen to voters and should encourage members to keep pressing the winning candidates to take voters seriously. They should trust in open, democratic politics, not a process in which everyone is assumed to be in one party and small groups are passed off as everyone.
A second example of the problem was a recent radio discussion featuring Deputy Co- operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Yunus Carrim. He made it clear he understands the problem. He acknowledged that voters who protest have genuine grievances, that they have a right to be heard and that the problem is that local voters do not have enough voice.
Alas, he too offered a "solution" that will only compound the problem. The government, he said, was considering including local interest groups in ward committees. These committees were established to enable ward councillors to discover what local voters want. They have never done that. Because they are either chosen by councillors or in meetings attended by a fraction of local voters, they have been colonised by political parties and so they probably do more to drown out voters' voices than to air them.
On the surface, Carrim's idea seems a step forward: interest groups are formed by citizens, not chosen by councillors. The problem is that most people do not join interest groups and so the change would substitute one group of connected people for another: most voters would remain as excluded as they are now.
The ANC and the government seem willing to do anything to ward committees except scrap them. But they remain part of the problem because committees chosen by politicians or small groups will never give grassroots citizens a voice. The answer is to replace ward committees in the large cities with a second level of elected councils closer to voters and to encourage open politics in which people are encouraged to express themselves freely to councils.
In both cases, the problem is trying to give people more voice by imitating democracy. There is no substitute for the real thing. The challenge is to make the system work for everyone. That means creating conditions in which those who are now excluded can take part, not finding ways to "improve" a democracy that still needs to be made to work.
. Friedman is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.