South Africa


There’s no need for coalitions at local government level – a far more efficient alternative exists

There’s no need for coalitions at local government level – a far more efficient alternative exists
An Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) board in the rain during municipal elections on November 01, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais)

The Municipal Structures Act offers an alternative system of government which is far more geared towards cooperation between political parties and service delivery. This is the collective executive system. Power does not lie in the hands of the mayor, but in the hands of the executive committee.

Following the local government elections, the focus now is on the potential coalitions. In numerous municipalities, including five metros, no party was able to achieve more than 50%, thus triggering an intense and potentially heated negotiation with regard to possible coalition governments at a local level.

With the DA already having said that it will not go into a coalition with the ANC or EFF, it is possible that some municipalities will be unable to conclude coalition agreements necessary to ensure proper governance.

However, coalitions are entirely unnecessary.

The Local Government: Municipal Structures Act provides for two types of government at a municipal level. The ultimate decision as to which type of government is utilised is made by the provincial minister responsible for local government.

The first system of government is the one which has been employed by almost all the municipalities in South Africa over the past couple of decades. This is the executive mayoral system. It is a system in which the executive mayor is extremely powerful. In many ways, the executive mayor has more power at a local level than a premier has at provincial level or the president has at national level. It is thus a winner-takes-all system.

Accordingly, when it comes to the negotiations with regard to coalitions, a huge amount of debate will need to take place as to who will serve as the executive mayor and how the executive mayor’s powers will be constrained to take into consideration the other parties in the coalition.

The executive mayoral system has proved to be highly politicised, with numerous municipalities focusing more on issues of political debate and conflict than on their obligation to engage in service delivery, particularly with regard to electricity, water, waste and, to a certain extent, housing.

The Municipal Structures Act offers an alternative system of government which is far more geared towards cooperation between political parties and service delivery. This is the collective executive system. In terms of this system, the mayor is not an executive mayor and largely plays a ceremonial role. Power does not lie in the hands of the mayor, but in the hands of the executive committee.

The Municipal Structures Act provides that the executive committee must be composed in such a way that parties and interests represented in the council are represented in the executive committee in substantially the same proportion as they are represented in the council. A council can decide on an alternative mechanism, but that mechanism must still comply with the requirements in section 160(8) of the Constitution which stipulates that the different parties must be “fairly represented” on the executive committee.

The collective executive system will inevitably trigger a more cooperative approach when it comes to issues of service delivery. All the major parties in a council will be represented on the executive committee. They will meet regularly and be forced to work together. That assists in depoliticising the council and allowing the collective leadership to focus on service delivery, which should be an uncontentious agenda for all political parties. In hung councils there will no longer be a governing party and opposition benches because the main parties will all be represented in the leadership structure.

If the collective executive system is adopted, it will then be unnecessary for political parties to enter into complex and contested coalition agreements. Thus, for example, if one party got 40% of the vote, another 30%, another 20%, and another 10%, a 10-person executive committee would be represented on a 4, 3 ,2, 1 basis by those leading parties (assuming they adopt a strict proportional model). It will also lessen the influence of those small parties which got limited support in the election, but which can become kingmakers in coalition negotiations.

And lastly, even if there is conflict within the collective executive committee, it will be easier to come to agreement within a committee of 10 on an issue-by-issue basis, than it will to come to an overriding coalition agreement.

Municipalities and provincial governments should give careful consideration to shifting from an executive mayoral to a collective executive system. No change in law is required. It simply requires a determination by the provincial ministers responsible for local government. DM

Michael Evans is an attorney at Webber Wentzel who has been involved in local government legal work since 1994.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Thank you for this article. I knew there was an alternative to this executive major model we’ve endured, but never really thought about what it was.
    Very compelling option!
    I can see why politicians hate it!

  • Charles Parr says:

    Agreed, the co-operative model by managing through an executive committee seems like a very good option but I clearly the politicians won’t want it.

  • Dave Watson says:

    Both our local Municipality as well as our District Municipality use the Exco option. Proportional representation on Exco is entrenched. The big problem comes in the appointment of the MM and the Heads of Department. Exco used to conduct the interviews etc but that was removed and now its nefarious Mayor process under advisement from a select committee including external MM’s etc. So the Cadre Deployment disaster struck again and appointments were made behind closed doors, in secret and sanctioned by the subservient MEC of COGTA. Close that door, bring the process back to transparent and under the control of the EXCO and the system can start getting back on track.
    BTW. Our local politicians over the years have always opted for this option. WEe come from a deadly area in our history and we don’t need a winner takes all system here!

  • michael haddad says:

    Great contribution Mike.

  • Michel Rouillard says:

    This option is only good on paper. As a retired corporate executive that has, of necessity, become engaged in municipal administration, and seen the fighting that goes on first-hand (in a hung municipality) – I predict with confidence that this will be a greater disaster.

    Warring Councillors will repeatedly block consensus decisions – and then try to justify their stance on social media. Having seen the fractious role of FB worldwide – that will produce endless conflict.

    The other compelling argument against this is that “management by committee” has rightly been debunked wherever it surfaces. Having been a consultant that worked with a large number of corporations – I have never seen a company that thrived without the strong leadership of one key, insightful, reasonable, wise and strong person. Committee consensus is a dangerous myth.

  • Susan Bannister says:

    From Michael Sutcliffe: Mike Evans’ article covers most of the elements, except for the fact that in fact that the majority of municipalities already have a collective executive system (137 out of 257 municipalities). Also the amended Act now requires council to elect the Mayor which previously was done by the EXCO. Whilst I was City Manager in eThekwini for almost ten years, we had an EXCO and that included the ANC, DA, IFP, MF and it worked well. So this is not something new

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    Mr Evans please send your comments on to the DA and ActionSA and any other parties willing to listen and share power in a workable, equitable way as you have demonstrated! I agree , all this obsessing about the mayor just makes everything a power grab!

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Regarding Mr Sutcliffe’s comments, the system did not work so well in eThekwini as he claims. During his period as City Manager service provision in the metro was not as good as before his tenure, and has continued to slide since. The city has transformed itself from one of the best in the world from a “financial soundness” point of view to the current basket case. Also can you perceive an ANC provincial MEC setting up a system for governance which reflects the voter’s wishes?

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    Really? Lots of little tails trying to wag a potentially three legged dog with the other seven being paid either for obedience or doing trade-off for parochial support. Then, there are the government employees that seem more like soldiers of a drug cartel and that seem ready to go scorched earth at a moments notice.

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