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River Club opposition excluded from Obs ward committee

The award-winning Observatory Civic Association, which has led the opposition to the River Club development, has been excluded from the ward committee in ward 57 following new rules being adopted by the city in January.

Ward committees were established by the Municipal Structures Act “in order to enhance participatory democracy in local government” and are supposed to be a direct link between communities and the municipality. They are also, according to national and local government policy, supposed to reflect the diversity of organisations active within the ward.

Yet ward 57, which extends from Rosebank to Salt River, and includes Observatory, is dominated by safety and security organisations and business, with no civic organisation represented.

Of the 10 seats on the ward committee, four seats have been allocated to safety and security organisations, four seats to business, one to environment and one to arts and culture.

The Observatory Civic Association (OCA), which received an award for the most active conservation organisation in the province by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport in 2018, is not included. Nor are any of the other seven civic-based organisations active in the ward. Yet civic sector organisations make up the largest percentage of non-government organisations active in the ward (31%).

Safety and security sector organisations comprise 27%, and business sector organisations comprise 23% of organisations in the ward, yet each hold a disproportionate 40% of the seats.

This is contrary to the city’s new rules for the election and establishment of ward committees, which was approved by council on 27 January without a public participation process. It states the sectors, and the number of representatives per sector recommended by the ward councillor, “must reflect the diversity of registered organisations active in the ward”.

OCA chair Leslie London, who last year received a leadership award from the city, believes their exclusion is deliberate. The OCA has been one of the leading opponents of the controversial River Club development where Amazon Web Services’ new headquarters are set to form part of R4.5bn mixed use development on the Liesbeek River floodplain. The land is the site of South Africa’s first colonial dispossession and of significant cultural and heritage value to South Africa’s first nations, the Khoi and San.

The OCA, together with the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, were the applicants who successfully approached the High Court for an interdict against construction at the River Club, pending a review of the municipal and provincial planning process. The city, with the exception of its environmental department, and the province have backed the development in court, and through planning processes.

London said when the OCA was on the ward committee which served prior to last year’s local government elections, it was made clear that the city viewed them as “troublesome” and that they “worked against the city”. But as the educational organisation Civics Academy notes, ward committees exist to communicate what people in the community want, and to hold the ward councillor to account, not do the city’s bidding.

“It turns out that despite legal guidance that says ward committees must represent the diversity of interests in the community, our ward councillor has interpreted that to mean he can decide whom to invite and whom not to invite. And he simply excluded the sector with the biggest number of organisations in the ward registered with the city – civics.”

Beyond the lack of representivity on the ward committee, London said it was “gobsmacking” that council adopted a new set of rules for ward committees without public participation. “It’s about as backwards as you get for participatory democracy.” The city has not responded to questions on this issue.

Mohamed said he’d based his selection of sectors represented on the ward committed based on what he anticipated would be his toughest tasks during his tenure.

He said four organisations in the business sector were chosen as business had suffered during Covid lock downs and economic recovery was needed. Four seats were also given to the safety and security sector, as it was the biggest issues raised during his election campaign. The two tied together as crime affected investment in the ward.

One of the remaining two seats were given to environment, as ward 57 was situated between the Table Mountain National Park and the Liesbeek River, and with an expanding city, it was necessary to ensure any expansion was undertaken responsibly.

A seat was given to the arts and culture sector as he wanted to realise the “unique aspects to Salt River which has major arts and culture sector that is not being tapped into”.

“I want to tie arts and culture into business so we can bring the tourism sector into the Salt River area. I want to piggyback on Bokaap and District Six as cultural nodes in the city,” he said.

Subcouncil chair Matthew Kempthorne said the matter was a “non issue”.

“Each ward councillor sets the sectors to be represented and last time around education was upset they weren’t put in.”

Questioned why safety and security and business were given emphasis, he said the improvement districts within the ward, which fall within these sectors, were included because they represented all property owners in the ward. As to the improvement districts obtaining their funding from the city through special levies paid by property owners, Kempthorne said they were nonetheless “completely independent”, set up as not-for-profit companies with their own boards.

Regarding the ward committee rules stipulating that the diversity of organisations need to be represented, he said improvement district organisations represented the majority of people in the ward.

“The ward councillor followed all due process,” said Kempthorne.