Barney Mthombothi

We're often obsessed, infuriated and even amused by the goings - on in politics at national level, almost to the exclusion of what's happening on the ground where ordinary people live and toil.  Politics is after all about bread and butter issues, people's basic needs.

All politics is local, said Tip O'Neill, the late veteran Speaker of the US House of Representatives. There can be no truer maxim. In our case the inversion of such a truism is essentially what's wrong with our politics.

Last week a group of ANC councillors in the Tlokwe (Potchefstroom) municipality, outraged by the alleged corruption of their mayor, joined forces with the opposition to oust him. He was replaced as mayor by a member of the Democratic Alliance, much to the chagrin of ANC headquarters. Neutrals have been left either thrilled or amused by the spectacle. The ANC has threatened to dismiss its recalcitrant councillors.

The question is: who are the councillors beholden to? Is it to the voters who voted them into office or to the party which nominated them? Are they loyal to voters or to party bosses?

I'm sure the DA or any of the opposition parties, faced with the same conundrum, would behave similarly to the ANC.

Chris Christie, the voluble Republican governor of the US state of New Jersey, is a staunch supporter of Mitt Romney and a trenchant critic of Barack Obama. As the keynote speaker at the Republican convention, Christie delighted delegates with witty jibes about Obama. But when Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, leaving a swathe of destruction and many people homeless, Christie suddenly became friends with Obama. He stuck by him like a long-lost buddy. That incensed many in the Republican Party. Some even blamed him for Romney's defeat by Obama. Fact is Christie knows on which side his bread is buttered. Obama held the key to unlock the resources to help Christie repair the damage suffered by his electorate. He faces re-election next year. His fate is in his voters' hands. Nothing focuses the mind of an office-bearer like an election.

SA's democracy lacks that symbiotic relationship between the voters and those in power. Too often elected officials seem obliged to pay homage to party bosses rather than to those who voted them into office. There has been glaring interference by party bosses in the affairs of municipal or even provincial government; mayors or councillors being removed by head office diktat. A few years ago ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe summoned Barbara Hogan, a cabinet minister, to Luthuli House to account for some misdemeanour. Mantashe must have realised his folly because, after the outcry, he never attempted the power grab again.

Parties have a legitimate expectation to have their policies implemented by their elected representatives. After all, that's why they're in business. But where those policies or wishes run contrary to the aspirations of voters, the latter tend to lose out.

Negotiators at Codesa decided on a federal system - instead of the unitary state favoured by the ANC - in an effort to weaken or water down the powers of central government. But the ANC has had its way by virtue of the fact that it controls most levers of power in local and central government. It is therefore able to coerce all its elected officials to do its bidding. And voters get the short end of the stick. But it is the current electoral system that tends to militate against the interests of voters. Elected officials defer not to the voter, but to the party which has nominated them. Accountability won't improve unless the system is changed.

The courage of the Tlokwe councillors in defying their party and doing what is in their voters' best interests should, therefore, be commended. It is the sort of rebellion that serves the true cause of democracy.