Opinionista Saul Musker 21 May 2018

View From Afar: Local politics is coming of age

Recent events in North West have highlighted the critical state of local and provincial government in many parts of South Africa. Is this a cause for despair? Has the experiment of decentralised government failed? Or are we witnessing, instead, the maturation of a new local politics?

Addressing the Free State Provincial Legislature during his budget speech two weeks ago, in a cryptic reference to his supposed intention to resign, former Premier Supra Mahumapelo uttered these bizarre words:

In some critical instances of our life, we are called upon as part of humanity to create the essence of the absence of presence.”

Mahumapelo repeated this refrain no fewer than four times. Some interpreted his speech as the confused ramblings of a madman; others the work of a genius postmodernist. In fact, though – however inadvertently – the phrase captures with great parsimony what many South Africans have long felt about their local government: “the essence of the absence of presence”.

Since the advent of the new constitutional order in 1994, with its complex system of co-operative governance, significant powers have been vested in the nine provincial and more than 200 local governments. In the Constitutional Assembly, the structure of the provinces was a highly contested issue. Supporters of decentralised government argued that it would allow for greater responsiveness, as local and provincial officials could tailor policies to their regional needs, and facilitate political competitiveness and accountability. Opponents, on the other hand, warned of inefficiency and the duplication of government duties, as well as conflict between the different levels of government.

During the past two decades, these warnings have appeared prescient. Provincial and local governments have routinely faltered, with their many absences more conspicuous than their presence. Beyond Gauteng and the Western Cape, provincial governments have struggled to carry out even their core functions. Service delivery protests have usually been directed at the perceived failings of local government to provide basic services, or at corrupt councillors and provincial officials. The latter have been ubiquitous.

Almost 10 years ago, the 2009 State of Local Government report found that “key elements of the local government system are showing signs of distress”. It pointed to high service delivery backlogs (the Free State had a 31.5% sanitation backlog according to its own targets, while Limpopo’s backlog was 47.6%). It warned, too, that many basic services within the remit of municipal authorities were simply non-existent: for example, over 40% of households had no access to refuse removal or disposal; while 152 municipalities, well over half of the total, received a qualified or adverse audit opinion. There was a 12% vacancy rate for senior management at the local government level – the most important roles in the civil service.

These are signs of critical failure, and they have not improved much since. Last week, Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Zweli Mkhize announced that 87 municipalities are “dysfunctional or distressed”. The Eastern Cape failed to spend 52% of its early childhood development grant in the previous year, and underspent on its education infrastructure grant, before a five-year-old drowned in a pit latrine in the province.

The unfolding debacle in North West, in the wake of protests in Mahikeng, is a reminder of just how dysfunctional the institutions of provincial and local government are in many parts of the country. The Inter-Ministerial Task Team found that North West was unable to fulfil its constitutionally mandated duties, including the provision of essential services. Indeed, the decision to place the province under administration is a drastic one, indicating a complete collapse of the provincial public service. It represents a measure of last resort, given the political fallout that national intervention will create.

For this reason, the collapse of North West signals a real and urgent crisis in sub-national government. The same is true, although less publicised, elsewhere in the country. Apart from isolated centres of competence, mostly in the metropolitan municipalities and wealthier provinces, local government is either failing or defunct. As a result, millions of South Africans are receiving sub-standard public services, for which they are entirely dependent on local and provincial authorities.

Given this state of affairs, it is tempting to question the logic of decentralisation upon which our constitutional order is based. There simply does not appear to be sufficient capacity to maintain such a vast architecture of government across the country, often with overlapping, duplicated or unclear functions. The public service is stretched thin, underskilled and understaffed. This is naturally most evident at the lowest levels of government, which paradoxically matter the most for people as they go about their daily lives.

And yet the past two years have revealed an important strength of this institutional design. The 2016 local government elections signified a sea-change in South African politics, with the election of opposition-led governments in almost every major city. The replacement of the North West government after – and only because of – the outbreak of protests was a similar indicator of political accountability at work. After all, the rationale for decentralised government is that local leaders are closer to the people they serve, and, conversely, their constituents are closer to them. It is easier to hold local and even provincial government to account than the enormous, nationally representative central government.

What these events have in fact demonstrated is the emergence of politics without governance in many provinces and municipalities. Local politics is beginning to mature, showing signs of active citizen mobilisation and interest in the conduct and performance of local government. At the same time, towns, cities and provinces lack the human and institutional capacity to govern effectively.

There is both hope and danger in this state of affairs. The additional layers and complexity of local government generate rents which can be captured by local political elites, who are able to establish their own patronage systems (as is clear in North West). If this is the case, local government serves only to sustain career politicians and their dependents, not to provide essential services. At the same time, though, if a local politics of accountability is able to develop and thrive, then local authorities are best equipped to serve their people, rather than the distant national government.

Mature local democracies will, over time, result in better service provision. For this reason, the success of many communities in cities and provinces from Gauteng to North West in holding local and provincial elites to account should be viewed as a sign of growth and promise, and as an affirmation of our constitutional design. What remains, though, is to ensure that this translates into effective governance, and not merely the occasional churn of elected officials. We must resist the temptation to focus our efforts and attention on Parliament and the Union Buildings – what happens in Mahikeng, or Bizana, is just as important to the future of South Africa. DM


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