This paper argues that local government elections constitute an important form of community participation, especially in a democratising society such as South Africa, even though they are a formal and regulated form of participation. While regulated participation through elections might be constrained by time, locale and infrastructural resources, their overall significance to ‘bring government closer to the people’ should not be underestimated. It would seem that it is in this regard that local government elections have, since the inception of the democratic order in South Africa in 1994, played an important role. The importance of such elections lies not merely in terms of the specific votes cast for particular parties, but also to the extent to which specific communities, albeit through regulated participatory spaces, are allowed to debate and consider issues germane to their everyday, lived experiences in their particular communities. Based on a number of opinion and statistical surveys of the 2006 local government elections in the Western Cape, this article suggests that participatory spaces are important only when they are readily accessible to voters at the grassroots level; and the extent to which their specific needs are aired, accommodated and influence the existing, or subsequent, planning priorities of local government. It is thus precisely at the inception and formulation phase of specific local government policies – often mooted during election campaigns – where people at the grassroots level can ensure that their voices are heard, and do indeed count, in local government planning frameworks.
Critical Dialogue: Public Participation in Review (2007) 3 (1): 16-23