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  • IntroductionThe place of participation in South African local democracy
  • Claire Bénit-Gbaffou (bio)

The existing literature on South African local democracy and participation is extremely rich, inspiring and diverse, its development contingent on the post-apartheid context which gave rise to great expectations in terms of democratic development and social transformation (Harriss et al 2004). South African research has focussed on social movements and civil society (Ballard et al 2006, Cherry 2001, Heller 2003, Miraftab 2006, Oldfield and Stokke 2006, Zuern 2001), on municipal institutional history and change (Cameron 1999, 2006, Tomlinson 1999, Harrison 2006, Mabin 2006) and on electoral patterns and behaviour at the national, but also at the local, level (Southall 2001, Lodge 2001, 2005, Cherry 2004, Mattes 2005, Friedman 2005). This collection of papers attempts to start bringing together these different approaches, relying on different methodologies and disciplines, in order to deepen our understanding of the interaction, at the local level, between social movements and the political system, understood as the power structures of local government, the electoral system and local party politics. In other terms, what are the relations between civic and social movements1 on the one hand, and local government structures and politics on the other hand? How does the latter shape political opportunity for social movements and how does it set up constraints and limits to their development and action? How in turn do social movements shape local government practices and possibly policies – in other words, what is not only the nature, but more importantly the political outcome of social movements' intervention in urban governance?

Most papers converge in the conclusion that institutional participatory mechanisms (ie those organised by the state – ward committees, ad hoc participatory or development forums, integrated development planning [End Page i] processes, etc) currently in place in South African cities do not work properly in practice, and aim at unravelling the reasons for their failure. Bénit Gbaffou focuses on ward councillors in Johannesburg, and analyses their limited accountability and their incapacity to bring their constituencies' demands to Council – due to both a centralised council decision-making structure, and to a dominant party system which rewards loyalty to the party above all. Piper and Deacon assess the inefficiencies of ward committees in Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg), which they attribute first to ignorance (by civics, residents, and even councillors themselves) of power mechanisms and institutions that are available to them and, secondly, to the over-politicisation of the committees that renders them either meaningless (in case of ANC-led committees) or powerless (in other cases). Wafer's account of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) confirms that ward councillors have a limited importance in municipal decision-making: they are by-passed by civics and social movements willing to make a difference. In fact, they do not even care to organise at the ward level because it is not considered a relevant scale for negotiation and decision-making. Mattes' quantitative study reveals that South African residents rank very low in terms of their use and contact with their local government compared to other African countries – a sign either of residents' lack of knowledge of relatively new democratic institutions or (and this may also explain their lack of knowledge) the little importance they attribute to their powerless local councillors. This however does not prevent electoral turnout levels from being high as underlined by Fauvelle-Aymar in her quantitative study of the Johannesburg 2006 local elections. She shows that, contrary to the classic – but also in fact Western – political model of electoral behaviour, electoral turnout amongst black voters decreases when their level of education rises. This can be understood as reflecting higher expectations on the part of the poorest: but these expectations might be directed primarily at the ANC as a powerful dominant party rather than at local government and ward councillors.

These dysfunctional participatory institutions lead residents to adopt other modes of expression frequently in their attempts to be heard. Mattes shows the importance of protest as a means for residents to participate in South Africa as compared to other African countries: a specificity than can be read both as the result of the anti-apartheid legacy and as the most efficient...


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