Municipal Elections | When Voting, be Guided by your Conscience

Note: A version of this piece appeared as a comment on page 4 of the Sunday Independent edition of 24 October 2021.


Moulana Ebrahim I Bham*

Every election cycle, we urge South Africans to exercise their right to vote for political leaders who can be entrusted with the responsibility of serving them.


The season is underway. To reach us, candidates and political party leaders are braving the open effluence on the alleys of squalid settlements. They are knocking at our doors to persuade us to vote for them. When you open the door and recognise them, they greet with such familiarity and suspiciously rehearsed exuberance. They quickly start to restate their case as to why they deserve your vote.


You wonder whether the campaigners could have taken the trouble, say some four-short-months ago, to come to pay you a visit, sans elections. When you remind them of what has (not) gone by in their previous pledges and promises, they look contrite and seem to have acquired that rare heeding trait. They are prayerful for third chances.


Paying attention to the electioneering messages, it is natural to wonder what real and viable options there are. As a matter perspective, you are not sure why this time around, it will be different.


Though the ConCourt ruling of 11 June 2020 was on accommodating independent candidates at provincial and national elections, it underscores and stresses the value and import of independent candidates, which have been available in municipal elections since 2000. The constitutional court ruling states: “being coerced to form or join a political party is an issue that may fundamentally touch one’s inner core; a matter that goes to one’s conscience.” (Case CCT 110/19; para [52])


This landmark ruling did not only underscore the importance of one’s conscience as a candidate but also entrenches the choices that we wield as voters. It should also be a matter of conscience that we are not apathetic. Voting remains a big deal because our vote will decide the composition of the next councils that will run our municipalities, past the polls on 1st November 2021.


Lives, honour and dignity are at stake in our country. We cannot sustain pendulum swings of experimentation with (re)arrangement of governing councils that only guarantee instability that goes with horse-trading in the council chambers and in caucus break-away rooms. At the same time, neither can we be so destructively drastic by throwing away the baby in the adage, with the bathwater.


Further beyond the dilemma, however, we can only be certain that we want our ward representatives to be approachable, listening and responsive to our needs. They should be individuals whose starting point is a commitment towards non-negotiable minimum levels of service.


The bar is set too low when we continue to cry for ‘service delivery’ referring to potholes on the roads, uncollected refuse, blocked drains, raw sewage running on the open streets and burst pipes that gush and waste precious clean water, for weeks on end.


Our chosen councillors should be individuals that will enforce performance agreements of municipal management officials. These councillors will check the conduct of officers that let themselves get embroiled in party politics, instead of rendering their professional service to the citizens. As a matter of maintenance of minimum standards, all such services, which are usually budgeted for, if not billable, should be in working order, across the country, whether in district municipalities or in the metros.


A prophetic tradition of Muhammad (peace be upon him) goes: “The leader of the people on a journey is their servant…” As servant leaders, we need councillors that will give expression to the needs of their communities, demanding and embodying accountability and not turn into interlocutors, proffering excuses of ever-deteriorating municipal services.


We want councillors that have a demonstrable track record of service within their communities. They should be those individuals who identify with the aspirations of the residents of their respective wards. Such councillors will be developmentally-conscious and champion initiatives and projects borne out of the spirit and substance of public participation and community engagement.


We take voting as a means towards the fulfilment of a sacred duty. The divine ordinance from the Noble Quran (5:58) reads: “…Indeed, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due.” Elected positions are given in solemn trust. Giving an individual the vote is to trust in their sense of responsibility, akin to vouching for their candidacy at a level of divine testimony. Whoever is given much, a commensurate return will be expected.


Perceptions of corruption, opportunism and tendencies towards selfish careerism are an anathema to notions of good governance. It is up to the candidates who will emerge successful in the municipal elections to arrest the trend of waning trust in our public officials. It should also remain up to us to remain engaged and note remain silent in the face of poor governance and maladministration.


The witticism that is called “Einstein Insanity” is a one-liner that goes: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” For far too long, we have tried the same approach expecting different outcomes. At the same time, to be indifferent towards suffrage and the vote others sacrificed their lives for, is perhaps a betrayal of their memory.


We should therefore still go to the ballot box but vote with the level of discretion that is informed by listening to our inner selves and applying our minds to what is best for our nation at large, starting with our immediate locality. Participating in the municipal elections gives us the opportunity to make that expression of conscience, at the level that is closest to our immediate lives, homes, neighbourhood and the environment.


*Moulana Ebrahim I Bham is the Secretary General of the Council of Muslim Theologians [Jamiatul Ulama South Africa], established in 1923 as Jamiatul Ulama Transvaal. He is also the imam of one of the largest Muslim congregations in South Africa at Hamidia Masjid in Newtown.