The German-African Councillors’ Round Table – A successful Premiere

12 septembre 2023

In early August 2023, more than 30 councillors from Germany, South Africa, Ghana and Kenya came together for the first German-African Round Table in Cologne. As different as local agendas are in African and German municipalities, the key questions that councils face are similar worldwide.

One thing quickly became clear during the discussions in Cologne: anyone who gets involved in local politics in Germany, Ghana, Kenya or South Africa, does so in order to make a difference. « At the local level you see the effects immediately », says Kira Wisnewski, a councillor in Greifswald. Silas Ongwae, a councillor in the Kenyan city of Nairobi, has succeeded in setting up two new classes in a school in his constituency, so that 80 children are now no longer taught together in one class. Dr Christoph Rosenbaum had a similar experience on the Frankfurt city council: « I wanted to help solve big problems like climate change. I discovered that the most effective way of doing so is at the local level ».

Common issues and challenges

At the top of many councillors’ agendas are adaptation to climate change, greenhouse gas mitigation and poverty reduction. Since many African countries are already much harder hit by the impacts of climate change, such as drought or extreme heat, German councils can learn a lot from their experiences. In South Africa in particular, migration is as big an issue as it is in Germany. This is because many people enter the country illegally and live in informal settlements. In South Africa and Germany alike, councils must ensure their care and integration. Jitka Sklenářová from Stuttgart raised a historical issue during the discussions. She wanted to know how other councils are dealing with their colonial heritage, for instance whether they are changing street names. It became apparent that South Africa is dealing with very similar challenges regarding the former apartheid regime, and that questions of identity and the acknowledgement of injustice are elementary in this setting.

Working conditions for councillors are often difficult

Whether in Cape Coast, Nairobi, Namakwa District or Augsburg, time is a critical factor for the honorary members of local councils. Sabine Kober from Sindelfingen said how difficult it was for many to combine work, family and elected office. It is therefore not surprising, she explained, that many councillors either do not work full-time, are already retired or work part-time. In South Africa, this problem does not exist, because councillors hold office full-time and are paid accordingly. On the other hand, political competition for coveted office is much more intense there, and sometimes dangerous.

Local and district councillors in many countries also share the fate of having to make forward-looking and sustainable policies with budgets that are often too tight. Sources of revenue vary from country to country, and a look at other municipalities can open new doors here. For example, could the trade tax levied by municipalities in Germany also be a model for South Africa, Kenya or Ghana? « In our country, the national government levies taxes that are easy to collect. Those that are difficult to collect usually remain with the local governments, » said Amankwah Kokro, Secretary-General of the National Association of Local Governments of Ghana (NALGA). Working with the local administrations that have to implement the councils’ decisions is often not easy either. Many participants reported that administrations fall short of councillors’ expectations, that the implementation of political decisions takes too long, and that administrations often have different priorities than councillors.

Many councillors face the challenge of lacking comprehensive expertise in the issues on which they make political decisions, or of not receiving enough information. Training courses on council work, for example, which political parties often offer for councillors in Germany, are a great help here. In South Africa and Ghana, on the other hand, the local government associations organise training for local councillors. Lance Joel from the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) explained: « Following local government elections, all councillors receive a one-week training course. The topics covered include procedures in the local councils, but also technical topics such as financial policy if the councillors are a member of the finance committee.”

Empowering women in local politics

Women are underrepresented on local councils almost everywhere in the world. In Germany, less than 10% of mayoral positions and less than 30% of council seats are held by women. In South Africa, the ratio is somewhat more balanced, with 37% female elected councillors and 35% female mayors. By contrast, in Ghana only 9% of councillors are women.

The reasons for the lower representation of women on councils are also largely similar in Europe and Africa: women perform more care work within the family, and therefore have less time for political engagement. Furthermore, the lack of equality for women in society is also reflected in the political system, reported Gillian Peters, a member of Namakwa District Council in South Africa. Silas Ongwae from Nairobi reported that in Kenya, women often lack the money for an active election campaign, and when they do campaign they even experience violence. This deters many women from running for office.

Participants at the Round Table agreed that the representation of women in local politics must be increased. In Ghana, the National Association of Local Authorities of Ghana (NALAG) offers special training for women who are active in local politics. The « 50-50 » campaign, with which SALGA wishes to increase women’s participation and representation in local councils and administrations in South Africa, also met with a great deal of interest. Moreover, the African National Congress, South Africa’s largest party, always alternates its list of candidates for local elections between women and men. There is a similar situation at national level in some German political parties, which have a dual leadership of
one man and one woman.

Councillors can also become actively involved in gender mainstreaming at the regional level: Boris Tonhauser from PLATFORMA suggested that European municipalities sign the European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life, and implement it in their local policy decisions. In Africa, the Network of Local Women Elected in Africa (REFELA) was already founded as early as 2011, and can generate significant impetus.

Municipal partnerships

Many municipalities, such as Bonn and Cape Coast in Ghana, have partnership arrangements. These can be official city-to-city twinning schemes or project-based partnerships, both of which also offer good opportunities for exchange between councillors. There is great interest in such partnerships, especially in Africa. The focus is not only on Germany, emphasised Lance Joel from SALGA. He sees great potential especially in South-South exchange, i.e. exchange between African municipalities. In southern Africa, for example, there are already successful forums in which municipalities with a mining industry or municipalities with a coastline meet.

General outlook

For Lina Furch, Head of Department, European & International Affairs at the Association of German Cities (DST), the discussions at the Round Table showed that the establishment of such a forum was long overdue, and that it should be continued in the future.

Gabi Schock, Chair of the Committee of Experts on Municipal Development Cooperation, German Section of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (RGRE), saw another important opportunity in the meeting. She said: « We want to support councillors in building global networks, and helping each other sustainably in global crises. » 

Sabine Drees, Manager for Foreign Affairs at the Association of German Cities, said at the end of the meeting: « This exchange between honorary councillors from German and African municipalities, which had not taken place in this form before, has proven its worth. The participants benefited from the many different perspectives and experiences, and were able to take home with them numerous ideas for their work. » There was a great need for discussion, and the participants not only welcomed the announcement that another Round Table will be held next year. The visitors from South Africa, Ghana and Kenya extended an invitation to next year’s event right away: See you in Africa!

The German Section of CEMR (RGRE), Engagement Global’s Service Agency Communities in One World, and PLATFORMA supported the event.

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