Many people think that a local municipality is run like the national and provincial governments where the party with the most support in an election gets to govern.
A municipality is very different because the Council performs both the legislative functions of a parliament (passing by-laws, adopting a budget and doing oversight) and the executive functions of a government (entering into contracts, making policy and plans and high level decisions) at the same time.
In theory, all 231 Councillors in the City of Cape Town could sit every day to deliberate and vote on every decision that needs to be made, but this would not be a very efficient government, so Municipalities delegate specific powers to people and committees.
The City has adopted an Executive Mayoral system. This means that Council has chosen to delegate nearly all of its powers up to the Executive Mayor, members of Mayoral Committee and to the senior officials in the administration. But it is important to realise that executive authority to govern ultimately always lies with the full Council.
As it stands, once our Councillors have delegated their powers, they do not have much authority to make decisions about the wards they represent.
At the Council meeting every month they effectively rubber stamp decisions and policies that have already been made. While some of these are administrative and have little consequence, others have very serious consequences for everyone living in the city.
And so the best that Councillors can do is try to recommend, advise or influence the decision makers or act as a switchboard forwarding requests for information and complaints to the right department.
In truth, a Councillor is no longer a representative of the people in Council. They have become a ward liaison or ambassador sent to the people to represent the views of the City, sell or defend decisions that have already been made by their political superiors or the administration.
You may end up meeting with the Councilor or a Mayoral Committee member if there is frustration or crisis that needs to be resolved but there is no meaningful way for community members to engage in local decision making on a regular basis. What passes for participation is managed by a small team of officials in the administration and is limited to ad hoc public meetings, information sessions and a few opportunities to object or comment in writing.
Ward committees were intended to play a large role in this regard but membership is not even open to residents but reserved for representatives who are nominated by registered organisations. The Councillor gets to choose which sectors are represented with approval from the Sub-Council and elections are only held if there are more than one nomination. Only representatives from organisations can vote in these elections.
While some organisations may have community mandates and constituencies, this is not guaranteed or required. There is clearly a lack of opportunity for democratic participation in the election of the ward committee as residents cannot vote who should represent them. In fact, you don’t have to live in the ward to sit on the ward committee.
The City of Cape Town does not delegate any decision making powers to ward committees. They are required to meet a few times a year and are meant to play an advisory role for the Councillor and support the City with public participation but their views are rarely taken into consideration in any way. No wonder Ward Committees are mostly dysfunctional and rarely meet or have any impact in the ward.