Manipulating municipal boundaries: The future of holding onto political power?

When 200 municipal boundaries are being altered, how sure are we that this is really for the benefit of residents, and not just an attempt by the ruling party to manipulate votes? And how do we, the citizens of South Africa, stop it? By Julius Kleynhans.

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21/06/2023 11:46:26

.Image: Wikimedia

Manipulating municipal boundaries: The future of holding onto political power?

We are witnessing a new era in municipal politics, as the ANC realises that it is losing power because of the failure to deliver effective municipal services. As a result, we see strategies emerge that allow politicians to hold onto power – even if they don’t deserve our votes anymore. 

In the 2021 local government elections the ANC lost power in Gauteng’s big three municipalities. We also witnessed opposition parties led by the IFP take control of several municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal. Still, the ANC received 46% of the vote, winning the majority votes in 167 out of the 213 contested municipalities. The DA won 22% of the vote, getting a majority in 13 municipalities, and the IFP managed to get the majority in 10 municipalities. 

On a national level, we have watched how the Minister of Home Affairs and Parliament deliberately slowed and watered down the Electoral Amendment Act which enables independent candidates to stand, leaving the playing field stacked against the independents. Parliament - dominated by the ANC - voted for another R300 million to be handed over to political parties in March, despite the extreme financial constraints the country is experiencing. At a local government level, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, violence is increasingly used to eliminate political opponents. 

Now there is reason to believe that one of the potential strategies to regain power is to change municipal boundaries through a process called municipal demarcation. Municipal demarcation is governed by the Municipal Demarcation Act (MDA) and takes place under the leadership of the Municipal Demarcation Board, an independent authority responsible for the determination of municipal boundaries. 

In essence municipal demarcation means changing the boundary of a municipality to include or exclude certain communities. These governance boundaries may overlap with political boundaries and may lead to the exclusion of a segment of the electorate.  Demarcation therefore has the power to shape constituencies to meet particular political outcomes.  This power makes demarcation vulnerable to political manipulation and can be abused to gain power.

Let me illustrate by using the example of Hartbeespoort, a small town in North West province. Community members in Hartbeespoort opposed a proposal where the Madibeng Municipality excludes three of its wards and proposed merging it with the Bonjonala District’s ward 7 to form its own municipality. If this decision goes through, it would split the town of Hartbeespoort and excludes one ward, dissolving the  stronghold of a specific political party that enjoys majority support from local voters. The community proposed that it makes more sense – also from a geographical point of view – to exclude the Hartbeespoort wards from the Madibeng Municipality to form its own municipality, which will cover the entire Hartbeespoort town. 

It is OUTA’s view that the demarcation process must not be weaponised for political power, but rather to ensure sustainable services to the affected communities these municipalities are mandated to serve. When municipalities can serve their communities well and cater for future needs, then only can potential expansion be considered to assist communities outside of its current boundaries.

There are currently proposals for more than 200 adjustments to municipal boundaries throughout South Africa. This is where civil society needs to be vigilant. The Local Government: Municipal Demarcation Act, 1998 (MDA), provided for the establishment of the Demarcation Board which must be independent and must perform its functions without fear, favour or prejudice.  One of the most important functions of this is the demarcation of wards and the assessment of the capacity of municipalities to perform their functions, as well as adjustments to ensure proper service delivery to the people. 

Before the determination of a municipal boundary the Demarcation Board must publish a notice in terms of section 26 of the Municipal Demarcation Act (MDA) in a newspaper circulating in the relevant areas. This year it seems that the preferred method of publication relied heavily on the Daily Sun.  This notice states the Demarcation Board’s intention to consider demarcations and invites the public to make written representations about this. The period for comments closed at the end of April 2023.

It seems that the Demarcation Board will consider all representations and views that were submitted, and potentially hold public meetings throughout June to get constructive input on their determinations. The Demarcation Board will thereafter publish its determinations in the provincial gazettes and allow a period of 30 days for objections by the public.  We urge the public to keep an eye out for this. It is extremely important that residents of affected municipalities study this and participate in the process to ensure that the Demarcation Board follows the correct procedures. Also make sure that you gather sufficient information through a meaningful public participation process in order to make informed decisions.

The changes in municipal boundaries may determine who wins – or loses – the next local elections. Sadly, it seems that municipalities have become a battleground for political parties mostly because of the tenders that goes with controlling a municipality. These tender battles normally come at the expense of the residents. 

We want to remind all South Africans that a municipality has a clear mandate to provide the basic infrastructure and services that establishes the foundation the local economy can build on. It’s not a space for political ideologies and battles. Whatever the Demarcation Board determines, we hope that the areas affected will benefit from its decisions to uphold the municipality’s mandate instead of determining who gains more votes because of the adjustments to these boundaries.

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