South Africa’s municipalities are often not worth the votes that are cast for them. Local government is in a dismal state, almost without exception. Turnaround strategies have been doing the rounds, with miniscule effect, ever since 2009.
Damning auditor-general reports have been issued religiously every year. Both the minister of finance and the president of South Africa have diagnosed and lamented local government lapses. The department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) has been working on constructing a parallel district substitute for much of the local operations, but voters can certainly not vote for it.
Voters, when they go to the polls in the local elections, will truly be asked to suspend their disbelief. They will be implored to trust that their votes can make a difference. This will be despite the evidence from previous elections and the periods of governance that followed.
Depending on the recommendations of the Moseneke inquiry into whether South Africa can hold free, safe and fair elections in October, it will probably be between four and 10 months that the voters have to decide whether local governments deserve their votes.
Both political and municipal governance issues will influence voters’ two sets of decisions: whether to vote or not, and which party or individual will get that vote if participation is their choice.
The difference that the elections can make politically is modest, yet significant – especially in steering more councils towards, or away from, coalition government. The 2016 elections illustrated possible changes. Zumaist politics hurt the African National Congress (ANC). It suffered the loss of around eight percentage points of support, when calculated nationally, compared with its 2014 result.
Election 2019 brought a three percentage point recovery. Stumbling “New Dawn” ANC politics and Democratic Alliance (DA) disintegration will be factors that can scatter existing party support bases in favour of multiple micro-parties that are also complex coalition building blocks.
Modest percentage support changes will be sufficient to catapult more municipalities into coalition government, as happened in South Africa’s metros in 2016. In the years that followed, South Africa learnt that coalitions are not the magic wand that brings accountability and better quality governance. Problems notwithstanding, there is probably no escape from coalitions as part of South Africa’s future local government package.
When parties are no longer entrusted with outright electoral majorities, coalitions are the future. This form of government, as argued in Mistra’s Inconvenient Marriages: The politics of coalitions in South Africa, however, will have to be rescued from its current standing as a substitute for inter-party contest, which applies in the periods between elections.
The apparent party-political argument, which feeds council and administrative instability and a culture of “eyes off the ball of constructive governance” is: that which parties could not achieve in the election (majorities, or political significance), becomes possible if the instrument of coalition politics is used. This has exacerbated levels of already deficient accountability and pro-people local government.
Coalition governments are not alone in these “challenges”, to use the euphemism of the times. Consistently, over democratic local elections since 2000, South Africa has had in the region of 30 coalition governments per election, and most of these sites did not deliver a hint of improved accountability or governance. While sub-standard governance was also a problem across the board, coalitions added exacerbation.
Voters can rightfully demand that both the politicians and municipal administrations take governance seriously – they are required to serve citizens and should be held accountable for failed municipal projects. Major trends of recent times illustrate the failures. The minister of finance indicated in May this year that around 63% of South Africa’s municipalities are in financial distress, and that about 40% of the 257 municipalities adopted unfunded budgets.
In many cases there were no paper trails of expenditures and no inclination to correct this. In reporting on the 2019/20 financial year, the auditor-general declared that only 27 municipalities achieved a clean audit (10 fewer than in 2017, the beginning of the term of this set of local governments).
President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out in his budget vote that municipal governance in North West had collapsed, and that no Free State municipality had achieved a clean audit.
The reasons for these problems are well-recognised. The municipalities lack skills, disregard procurement rules, do not collect revenue (at least in some cases because monies cannot be collected from the indigent and unemployed – albeit often because of incompetence and lack of systems), and do not pay creditors. Approximately 46% of equitable share, grants and other monies from national government was being diverted to salaries for municipal officials and councillors.
Cogta furthermore recognises political interference, infighting, instability and poor oversight as core reasons for municipal malperformance. As the experiences in South Africa’s metropolitan coalition governments have demonstrated, these exact issues came to define these governments.
These vices require correction. As the Moseneke Inquiry assesses whether it will be safe to have local elections in Covid times, politicians and officials must work on bringing voters a product that is worth voting for.
If the politicians (and especially the party politicians) and municipal officialdom do not take this seriously, they are exposing local government to a takeover by the District Development Model (DDM), a non-elected governance structure. The DDM is positioned officially as a saviour, but perhaps it is a bureaucratic monster which is waiting to subsume many of the development functions that have been delegated (frequently fruitlessly) to local government.
Cogta, the originator, subscribes to the benevolent version of the municipal replacement story. For Cogta, the DDM is the intergovernmental, cooperative governance construct that is anchored in the Constitution’s sections that obligate national and provincial government to support and strengthen municipalities in their capacity to manage their affairs.
In the local sphere, municipal politicians and officials in equal measure have a massive obligation to correct local government. They need to ensure that voters do not waste their votes on municipalities that are expensive, corrupt and, in effect, inept municipal toy telephones. DM
Mistra, 2021. Booysen, Susan (ed): Marriages of Inconvenience: The politics of coalitions in South Africa. Johannesburg: Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. Marriages of Inconvenience will be launched on 8 July via Zoom.