Analysis: Re-organise SA provinces? Yeah, right.

By Stephen Grootes 3 December 2010

The ANC’s dilemma of what to do with South Africa’s provinces – seen by most as those places where the rubber of non-delivery of centralised promises hits the tar – reminds one of traversing a treacle swamp wearing snowshoes. It’ll be either a superhuman achievement or an exercise in futility. Watch this space. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

We at The Daily Maverick like ambition. It shows self-confidence and a desire to change things. But we do sometimes feel the need to point out when someone is over-reaching themselves. And, oh dear, do we feel that need right now. Because at the moment at Gallagher Estate, the ANC’s great and good are discussing the future of provincial and local government. Well, actually, they’re talking about doing away with the provinces. No wait, that’s not it, it’s about reducing their number, or maybe cutting their powers, or perhaps it’s about reforming local government.

In truth, and technically speaking, it’s about all of these things. It’s a review, but as always, that review comes with endless possibilities. This is one of those situations where, according to the spin doctors at least, almost anything could happen. We could have a whole new provincial set-up and “unified” elections (i.e. national, provincial and local voting on the same day) by 2014. But then, the last time we checked, the ANC decided three years ago to have a media appeals tribunal, and inflation targeting was a goner.

That there are huge problems in the provinces and municipalities is one of those facts, that to quote the American Declaration of Independence “we hold to be self-evident”. The discussion documents drawn up for this summit put the provincial problems under five main headings, the first few of which can be put under these headlines:

“Deployment sucks and cocks up everything”

“Councillors get away with murder”

“Politicians interfere with administrators all the time”, and

“Tensions in the alliance causing havoc”

Or, if you prefer, all the stuff we’ve been telling you about all the time. To be fair though, the ANC has been pretty honest here. There are big problems and it takes mature people to stand up to them.

In terms of the provinces, four solutions are being proposed. Things could stay as they are (which has the benefit of stability, we’re told), the provinces could be completely removed, the number of provinces could be cut, or government could just move away from a geographically based system and look at a system based on functionality.

Okay, some of that sounds exciting, but the most likely outcome is, of course, option one.

We’ll explain why in a moment, but first, let’s look at the other options. The last is a non-starter, it’s simply too complicated. Can you imagine the dog-fight over what constitutes a function and what doesn’t. And the feeding frenzy at the trough once someone realises the power that being part of a “functionality” would bring you!

Completely removing the provinces has the same problem as reducing the number of provinces. It’s not about Helen Zille and her army of lawyers just waiting for the Constitutional Court challenge. It’s not even about the fact that even thinking about removing provincial powers, in our view, is mucking about with the deal that was struck in 1994 (and quite frankly, that deal, while problematic, should not be played with yet). Nope, it’s about the internal fight that would happen within the ANC if anyone were to seriously propose it. Cut some provinces; okay, which ones? Not KZN, it’s the Zuma stronghold. The Free State, you tell that to Ace Mageshula, mate. The Northern Cape, John Block will have you. The Eastern Cape, it’s the biggest. The Western Cape, okay, you take on Helen. And Gauteng, well, it’s economically strong, and has the uncanny knack of holding the balance of power. That just leaves the northern three. Which all gave the ANC more than 80% of their votes. So politically possible, but still dicey.

So then that leaves reducing the powers of the provinces. Please see the previous paragraph. The fact is the ANC has a vast number of people who are deployed to the provinces. Those “deployees” have something to fight for. And they have the means, the money and the sheer marmite to do it. Wouldn’t you fight for your job. Can you imagine? We’ve spoken before about the powers of the provincial bosses in the ANC. Is it possible that this is actually the national ANC moving against them? And if so, could this lead to the battle royale that would see the show-down between the provinces and the centre?

There’s already evidence of a fight back. Gwede Mantashe did his “the provinces were part of the compromise we accepted in 1994, the ANC always envisaged a unitary state” thing on Thursday. An hour later, at the same summit, to the same audience, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize said “the provinces weren’t a mistake, we were the majority party during those talks”. Not a direct contradiction, but close enough.

Mageshule has nailed his colours to the mast of the good ship “retain the provinces” by saying “it would be a huge mistake to remove them completely”. He’s okay with some of them disappearing though. He clearly has ambitions of his own.

This summit has another two days to run. And it can’t make hard-and-fast decisions, anything that is decided will have to go through the ANC’s policy conference to its national conference in 2012. And that’s just the start, then there’s the government processes. But we like it when the ANC sets itself a deadline. It makes us smile. Because in the party’s documents it does seriously state that this could be done and dusted by 2014.

The fact is, like so much else in the ANC, this is about a unified political will. You want the Scorpions gone, ride the right tsunami, and before you can say “hey presto” and “abracadabra”, Puff the Magic Dragon has come to take them away, leaving just a solitary prisoner under house arrest to show they ever existed. But bring on an issue that’s bound to lead to division, and you have the recipe for the usual analysis paralysis that we are so used to.

So Helen, don’t worry, we think you’re pretty safe. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: African National Congress supporters carry a flag during their celebration in Johannesburg, April 23, 2009. Thousands of ANC supporters celebrated with Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg on Thursday as the ruling party took a commanding lead in an election that looked set to make him president. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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