There is an old joke that “in democracy it is your vote that counts, but in feudalism it is your count that votes!” Today, on the International Day of Democracy, we need to remember that the transition from feudalistic and other non-participatory forms of governance to democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Commonwealth. Women in the UK were granted the right to vote in 1928, and young people aged 18-21 years only in 1969. In many of our Commonwealth nations, democratic systems were only established in the 1960s. In my own country, South Africa, where I grew up witnessing the hardship and suffering of people within an unjust system, a fully democratic state was only created in 1994.
Having adequate resources and capacity is critical for local government to deliver local needs and priorities whilst cultivating its role in helping to respond to national, regional and global targets – including the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the reality is that very often local government is inadequately funded and lacks the capacity not only to deliver services efficiently but also to respond to these ‘unfunded mandates’ as a community leader and driver of development locally.
It has been a huge privilege to serve CLGF, the Commonwealth and the international community over the past 40 years, with half of that time dedicated to the promotion of local democracy and better services to our local communities. My professional career has been immensely rewarding: the remarkable people I have met, some of them great national leaders – like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Indira Gandhi, Julius Nyerere, Willy Brandt. Also some very ordinary, decent people, struggling in their own way to make a better life for their families. Some incredibly inspiring people like the deputy mayor of Harare, persevering with his fight for democracy despite having just had his wife brutally murdered by political thugs.
I was in Johannesburg in early July at a high level CLGF conference attended by senior mayors, ministers and officials from throughout Southern Africa. This allowed me to gauge African and Commonwealth reactions to the UK referendum outcome on leaving the EU or ‘Brexit’, a decision I had myself strongly opposed, not least as many CLGF members, had previously expressed to me their worries about the impact of Brexit on their own countries: something I cannot recall ever having being raised in the self-centred referendum debate in the UK and in the simplistic analysis presented by much of the British media.