Honourable Speakers present;
Ladies and gentlemen
It is a singular privilege to be part of this auspicious occasion where we exchange ideas on how better to strengthen the institution of Speakers, which is one of the most visible pillars of our participatory democracy at local government level.
We meet today, in this virtual settling due to continuing Covid-19 precautions, to deliberate on strengthening local government in order to ensure good governance, enhance accountability and speed up service delivery as we slowly prepare for the upcoming local government elections scheduled to take place in 2021.
We are greatly honoured to have in this online forum the Speakers from our various municipalities, without whom these municipalities simply would not function. As a department whose role is to exercise general oversight over local government, we are well aware that we could not fulfil our constitutional obligations towards municipalities without close cooperation with our municipal presiding officers. We also believe that the unity of purpose among our Speakers is an important ingredient in advancing and strengthening the democratic processes at local government level.
Programme Director, we all know full well that being a Speaker is more than wielding the gavel and shouting “Order, Order!”. Speakers are an integral part of our participatory democracy. They have a critical role in ensuring that the democratic institutions they lead can ultimately become the voice of the people that is articulated through their elected representatives, that is councillors. This is why we, as Cogta, have a vital interest in ensuring that all decisions taken by our municipal councils are taken according to the principles of democratic decision-making. And the role of Speakers in ensuring this is paramount.
Role and functions of the Speaker
As you are all aware, the municipal Speaker is a full-time councillor whose role and functions are set out in Section 37 of the Municipal Structures Act. According to the Act, the Speaker:
• presides at meetings of the council;
• performs the duties and exercises the powers delegated to the Speaker by the council;
• ensures that the council meets at least quarterly;
• maintains order during meetings;
• ensures compliance in the council and council committees with the Code of Conduct for councillors as set out in Schedule 1 of the Municipal Systems Act; and
• ensures that council meetings are conducted in accordance with the rules and orders of the council.
In practice, all of this means that the Speaker’s role in a municipality is key to ensuring oversight, accountability, integrity, discipline of office, and the efficient running of council meetings. As such, impartiality in the exercise of his or her function is essential for the Speaker. The Speaker must clearly distinguish between his or her activities as a politician and his or her functions as a Speaker. It also means that the function of the Speaker and the non-partisan exercise of that function must be respected by councillors, political parties and various interests represented in the council.
Key principles of the Speaker’s role and their application
The key principles underlying the role of the Speaker therefore are:
• chairing of council meetings;
• implementation of the Code of Conduct; and
• exercise of delegated functions, including facilitating public participation in legislative matters; establishment and functioning of ward committees; and support to councillors.
The overall principle in the determination of the function of the Speaker is that the Speaker is in charge of the legislative arm of the municipal council. In practice, this means that he or she must guard the integrity of the legislative process. Furthermore, the Speaker must protect the ‘checks and balances’ between the legislature and the executive, in other words, the ‘oversight’ that the council must exercise over the actions of the executive.
Integrity, privileges and interests of the council and councillors
The Speaker is the guardian of the integrity of the council and the guardian of members’ privileges and interests as council members. The privileges and interests of councillors include freedom of speech and immunity in the council as well as the use of council facilities, receipt of allowances, training and support, etc. Importantly, this role, combined with the Speaker’s role in terms of the Code of Conduct (Schedule 1 to the Systems Act), requires the Speaker to guard against the abuse of councillors’ privileges and interests.
What this means is that the type of functions that the Speaker exercises requires him or her to be the legitimate guardian of the integrity of the council and of council members. This does not mean that a Speaker is somehow elevated above the council. He or she must exercise his or her duties within the rules determined by the council. Speakers have also been assigned further responsibilities and duties which cover the Standing Rules of Council; Code of Conduct for Councillors; councillors’ attendance of council and committee meetings; facilitation of stakeholder engagements; facilitation of municipal oversight function; ward committees; and public participation.
Code of Conduct for councillors
The Speaker must actively implement the Code of Conduct for Councillors and develop mechanisms to monitor the general conduct and performance of councillors and report to council annually on the conduct and performance of councillors against the Code of Conduct for Councillors. In this regard, the Speaker must also investigate any suspected breach of the Code of Conduct for Councillors, and report to Council on the outcomes. The Speaker must subsequently ensure that reports on investigations into possible breaches of the Code of Conduct for Councillors are submitted to the MEC for Cogta in line with item 13(3) of Schedule 1 of the Municipal Systems Act, 2000.
I know that some of you may be beginning to ask yourselves if we are on some kind of a refresher course of your roles. My answer to this is that one thing I have learned during my time in public service is that the more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realise the less I know. We can all agree that learning never really ends. And this is why we must take every opportunity to learn from one another to be able toexecute our responsibilities better.
How the Speakers discharge their responsibilities – Key observations
I have observed in my role as MEC for Cogta that there are Speakers who are hesitant in taking decisive action on matters of ill-discipline among councillors. And yet it is Speakers’ job to ensure that ill-disciplined councillors are sanctioned according to rules that govern discipline. Cases of councillors failing to attend meetings, disrupting meetings and councillors failing to perform their duties get referred to my office regularly. This would not be the case if the Speakers knew and did their job in relation to matters of councillors’ conduct.
There are also Speakers who hesitate to call to order Mayors whose Executive Committees are not submitting Section 44 reports to the municipal council. And yet it is the Speaker’s job to ensure that the Executive Committee and other Section 79 Committees of the Council report regularly on their activities. Functional committees are an essential ingredient in a successful municipal council.
Some Speakers have similarly adopted a lax attitude towards the critical function and role played by Ward Committees and the enhancement of participatory democracy at a local level. You cannot possibly be proud that you are the Speaker when you lead a municipal council with dysfunctional ward committees. These ward committees are critical components in transforming our local government; they are indeed enablers of effective service delivery. If your municipality is plagued by public protests, you should be asking if your ward committees are working well or at all. Before a disgruntled community resorts to protests, it should have the option of raising its concerns about service delivery at ward committee level. And in many instances, a functional ward committee could resolve service delivery issues before they spin out of control and give cause to public protests.
I have also observed, worryingly, that some Speakers do not promote the culture of building consensus. This is critical in ensuring that divisions are minimised and the municipal council functions as a unit. We have seen that where municipal councils are sharply divided, even on trivial issues, service delivery is ultimately compromised. There are several municipalities in this province where we have had to intervene as the Provincial Government because the council had not acted with the necessary unity of purpose.
I have likewise observed that some Speakers do not fully comprehend the legislative role of the municipal council. This is why we have municipalities that fail to prepare and approve credible Integrated Development Plans (IDPs) and Budgets. The budgets of some municipalities are routinely found to lack credibility and the same would likely apply to IDPs.
As Cogta, we are concerned that all manner of tensions are becoming commonplace between the political and administrative interface in our municipalities. If you go through the latest reports from the Auditor-General, you will inevitably observe that poor oversight is one of the main reasons for poor audit outcomes and regressions. In such municipalities, you will often find instances of poor compliance with the legislative and regulatory frameworks which ultimately compromises good governance, sound financial management and, in the end, also service delivery.
The idea behind this Speakers’ Forum is to ensure adequate understanding on the part of all municipal Speakers of what is required of them in their elected roles within their given councils. The ideal municipality, as we at Cogta see it, begins with a competent, fair and proactive Speaker whose understanding and focus on his or her role means that his or her Speaker’s office executes its mandate without encroaching on the executive mandate of the Mayor or the oversight mandate of individual councillors. As Cogta, we will expect nothing less of every one of our municipal Speakers in this province.
The upcoming local government elections give this prerogative a fresh urgency. If your municipality is not performing well, you are unlikely to be re-elected when your residents casts their ballots next year. If your municipality is the scene of public protests in communities, this is a good indication that things are not going well at the council level either.
You will be aware that over the past year, we have been jointly launching the groundwork for the District Development Model (DDM) in our individual districts. This is not just another layer of bureaucracy – on the contrary: the new model, which seeks to coordinate service delivery across different spheres of government around municipal districts as hubs, is a much needed change in the way we will conduct business at local government level going forward. As Speakers, you will have an important role to play in this process and it is vital that you internalise the new model even before it goes into full operation in your municipalities.
As I conclude this address, my hope is that this forum will contribute towards smooth running of our municipalities – as we slowly emerge from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic and as we prepare for the 2021 local government elections. The Speakers are a key component in making our local government work better. They are also powerful office bearers and if they are to improve the way our local government works for communities, they need to understand and discharge their roles to the best of their ability.
I thank you!