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Focus on local government is too narrow: Economic development and safeguarding the environment are also key

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Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

Municipal councils are constitutionally mandated to deliver social and economic development for communities. Furthermore, councils are responsible for creating a safe and healthy environment. One area in which the latter filters through is via environmental impact assessments. Therefore, when assessing municipalities’ performance in the lead-up to the November local government elections, the focus must move beyond timely refuse collection and proactive ward councillors.

During the build-up to the 2016 local government elections, the prized metros and the integrity of the voters’ roll took centre stage. It was an eventful affair, filled with colourful characters vying for votes. Promises of bringing change rolled off the tongue easily. Carefully choreographed messaging was the order of the day.

In contrast, the run-up to the 2021 elections scheduled for November is notably more understated on those counts. The absence of fanfare and big personas gives South Africans across the country space to reflect on the quality of services and governance within their respective local government structures. 

The focus in 2021 is not so much on political parties’ campaigns or the big personalities being fielded as mayoral candidates. Rather, the overall state of municipalities in all corners of the country, metros included, is the focal point.       

The definition of a municipality is that of a unit consisting of a community, a council and an administration, according to South African Local Government Association (Salga) guidelines published in 2011.

In short, the community component is self-explanatory while the council refers to the collective of elected councillors who are responsible for policy matters; and the administration aspect denotes the machinery which ensures that municipal services are run optimally and finances are well organised. In theory, all three components are supposed to be mutually reinforcing in attaining the goals of local government.    

In terms of the 2011 Salga guidelines, the listed objectives of local government include: “To provide democratic and accountable government for local communities; to promote social and economic development; and to promote a safe and healthy environment”.

The 1998 White Paper on Local Government emphasises the developmental role of municipalities with reference to social and economic aspects, as well as their responsibilities in creating a safe and healthy environment.      

The objectives are inscribed in Chapter 7 of the Constitution, which outlines the powers and functions of local government. As well as the Constitution, the powers, functions, roles and responsibilities of local government are further articulated in the Municipal Structures Act, the Municipal Finance Management Act, and the Municipal Systems Act.

Furthermore, the Disaster Management Act, for example, stipulates that municipalities must have their own disaster management plans; and the National Environmental Act mandates municipalities to conduct environmental impact assessments. 

When the above is taken into consideration, it can be argued that characterising local government elections merely as assessments of whether ward councillors have performed to par and municipalities collected refuse on time is a misnomer. Admittedly, those are important considerations, but they do not represent the entire picture. 

An overly ward councillor-centric view of local government in a way allows political parties to escape justifiable scrutiny on a broader scope of issues, on the one hand. On the other hand, municipalities’ constitutionally directed role in social and economic development, as well as in environmental management, often takes a back seat and goes unnoticed.

Beyond refuse collection and conscientious councillors, municipal councils have a responsibility to promote social and economic development. In fact, the guidance is for municipal councils to work closely with the private sector, among other entities, towards the latter for the good of the community, a major sub-component of the overall municipal unit.

Viewed in that light, the country’s dire unemployment figures, for instance, could legitimately be regarded as a factor in local government elections in terms of which municipalities are the worst-affected and why. Also worth considering would be which municipalities are excelling in attracting investments and creating employment for their communities.

In addition, it is worth exploring and scrutinising which municipalities are contributing to economic development and which ones are dragging it down. Indeed, municipalities’ records in managing the environment ought also to be subjected to robust engagement as part of the discussions around local government elections.

As such, local government elections are not just incidental. On the contrary, the parties and candidates that emerge victorious after the November poll will be responsible for the economic fortunes and fate of thousands of communities around the country. BM/DM

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