Thursday, October 30, 2008

New Speaker: We have to create more jobs

- Linda Jaquet -

As I hurried into the waiting room of the Municipal building in the middle of October, I struggled to catch my breath while trying to formulate a correct approach to the conversation I was about to have with the new Speaker in the Prince Albert Town Council.

I needn’t have worried. Councillor Stoffel Botes reflected a quiet confidence and an openness to share and to learn; all welcome qualities given that he is a relative newcomer to local government politics and to an influential position in an environment where interaction is robust and fraught with conflict and where even-handedness and a cool head is needed.

Botes, who has been the Speaker in the Prince Albert Town Council since the middle of September, is a member of the Democratic Alliance and, with his wife Carina and their young daughter Belinda, lives in Klaarstroom. Councillor Botes’ recent appointment as Speaker is in accordance with the verbal agreement between the DA and the ANC in the Town Council whereby they share the Executive Mayor and Speaker positions for the duration of the Council’s term.

Throughout the interview, Botes referred to the need for councillors to represent and work for the community, which he stressed includes everyone and every town and settlement in the greater Prince Albert area, including the oft-forgotten farmers and farm workers. His interest in uplifting the lives of ordinary people, he said, had informed his work as a Community Development Worker (CDW) in Klaarstroom and led to his wanting to be part of decision-making and to his entry into local-government politics in 2004.

Councillor Botes was clearly concerned about the importance of job creation in the Municipal area if the Council is to address the needs of the poor and emphasised that the magical words “job creation” had to be sustainable and help people acquire real and marketable skills. How to do this, he admitted, would not be easy and in so doing, would also mean dealing with the difficult questions of development, progress and the conservation of Prince Albert as a unique, historical rural town. He felt that the tourism potential of the town needed to be expanded, there needed to be more investment in this area of the town’s economy and thus more job opportunities created. Again, he felt that the community’s views on these essential issues should guide decision-makers.

Botes compared his role of Speaker to that of a chairperson. While the necessary laws and rules were in place on conducting meetings, he was also very aware that he had to use his discretion and common sense to manage meetings. His bottom line was, he said, that decisions had to serve the community, which meant greater co-operation between the two political parties represented in the Council. However, he cautioned that this was not easy because of the Hung Council and tendencies for councillors to play political games. He was acutely aware that this meant delays in decisions being made and implemented and raised the ire of residents.

He felt that one way of overcoming the sticking points in Council would be for both parties to be fully represented in all of the Council’s standing committees, thereby reducing unnecessarily lengthy debate of the committees’ recommendations by Council members. He counted the committees’ roles as invaluable as, he said, their members not only represented the community’s and ordinary people’s interests and views but also had specialised skills and experience. He encouraged everyone to take an interest in Municipal affairs and urged people with ideas and potential projects to present them to the Municipality.

Long term, Councillor Botes foresaw that the town’s prospects would depend on its investment in its young people. He hoped for stability in local government with people with appropriate skills filling positions in the Municipality and a Council that was well-informed and energetic.

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