Independent candidates: why we are supporting them

The story of independent candidates in Gauteng contains a great irony: there is a gulf between the poor results of independents and the tantalising promises of direct representation and political pluralism.

In the 2016 local election there were 529 wards in Gauteng. Only 73 independent candidates contested just 66 wards. Not one candidate won – not even in the by-elections held over the last four years. 

The independents won an average of 4.8 percent of the vote, and this average was inflated by the most successful candidates; only nine of the 73 candidates won more than 10 percent.

The graph below illustrates the poor performance of independents in Gauteng. Click on a tab for a particular municipality and hover over any column for more information:

Independents face significant challenges

If you want to campaign in local elections there are clear advantages to running under the banner of a political party. There are the critical resources that a party provides, including research, volunteers, a recognised brand, and the costs of registration. For an aspiring community activist with limited networks and funding, joining a party is the obvious choice.

Political parties have another boost over independents that is less apparent but no less important: our electoral system is strongly biased towards political parties and a system of proportional representation (PR). At every level of government, from national down to local, political seats are allocated according to the share of the vote won by a party.

There are good arguments for a PR system. The strongest one is that the system reduces the power of bigger parties and increases the opportunites for smaller parties to win representation. South African voters have surely had more choices on their ballots and more variety in government than countries that use a first-past-the-post electoral system.

The greater political power of smaller parties has, however, come at the expense of independent candidates. The hybrid electoral system of local government still favours parties: the votes that a party receives for its ward candidates are added to its total proportional share even if the ward candidates don’t win election. A few potential independents have decided to create their own parties to take advantage of the system, leading to a further draining of the pool of candidates.

The power of political parties is reflected in municipal councils. Almost every role that has real political power (mayor, deputy mayor, speaker, membership of a mayoral committee) is held by PR councillors. Ward councillors are at the bottom of the totem pole, with little leverage and few tools to push for service delivery to their constituents.

The need for independent councillors is greater than ever

The 2016 local election was one of the most competitive elections in the democratic era. The ANC lost outright control of municipalities across the country and a record number of municipalities – including four of the eight metros – had coalition governments.

Service delivery and accountability did not improve, however. Coalition governments were more likely to collapse (Nelson Mandela Bay) or face the constant threat of instability (City of Johannesburg, City of Tshwane). Political parties, big and small alike, prioritised their power struggles and turf wars over the needs of communities. 

We created The Third Republic to give South Africans an alternative to the party politics which have left our communities underdeveloped and voiceless. We want to support councillors who are loyal to their communities and not their party bosses.

We have thrown our hats into the ring for the 2021 local election. We will be supporting independent candidates who are committed to community service and the rule of law.

Written by Paul Berkowitz

April 20, 2021

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1 Comment

  1. Michael Graaf

    It’s better to start a new party than be an independent candidate. The deposit is higher but you get it back if you get a seat (or more than one). Once you have a party, you then contest as many wards as possible, preferably all. Ideally you should get a local person to be candidate in each ward, but if necessary you can contest multiple (even all) wards yourself. Then you can gather votes far and wide.

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