South Africa’s municipalities are a contested terrain. Divisions within (and between) political parties are overflowing into the life of municipalities, rendering some of them dysfunctional. Factionalism, patronage politics and corruption, maladministration, cadre deployment, political interference and a conflation of the party and the state have all contributed to the erosion of democratic, accountable and effective local government in some municipalities, while it has hindered service delivery provision in others. The King Sabatha Dalindyebo Municipality is one glaring example: its main town, Mthatha, is regularly hit by power blackouts and water shortages, while piles of uncollected rubbish, line the town’s potholed streets. The municipality is reported to be rife with factionalism, with assassination plots and corruption blamed for the breakdown in services.
There are countless other examples across the country. For many citizens, local government is failing to carry out its basic functions - the hundreds of service protests that take place across the country each year, bear witness to the frustration and dissatisfaction of ordinary citizens with their local officials. Signs that the elected leaders are part of the problem are widespread: from the dissolution of executive committees torn apart by struggles for mayoral nominations in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) municipalities of uMgungundlovu and Msunduzi; Gauteng’s Midvaal, subject of a damaging report of conflict of interest in a supposedly model municipality; to a series of murders in KZN, Mpumalanga and North West, which have been linked to power struggles within political parties at the local government level.
Assessments conducted by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) in 2009, confirmed that political party factionalism is a major contributor to the deterioration of functioning municipal government. More recently, National Treasury’s 2011 Local Government Budgets and Expenditure Review, directly attributed failures in municipal performance to failures in local political leadership rather than a lack of capacity in municipalities. Municipal governments, by their very nature, are political structures, the stage for various forms of contestation and conflict between people with different interests, ideas, skills and ambition. Yet municipalities are not identical with the affairs of the parties that govern them. They are state entities: public institutions with mandates and tasks to fulfil in the collective interest. It is the challenge of ‘marrying’ political objectives with state priorities that gives rise to some of the chronic problems in municipal councils. Local administration has the difficult task of governing for all, while simultaneously advancing a political agenda and translating the municipal budget in line with the priorities of the municipality’s majority political party. Any dominant political party in a municipality is bound to use that power to its advantage. What other way of doing so other than ensuring that the municipal budget (drawn by the administration) mirrors or addresses the political objectives of the majority party?
Political contestation in and of itself need not be a concern; it is a positive sign of vibrant local democracy and as such should be nurtured. But two prerequisites need to be in place if it is not to prevent good governance. First, it needs robust and resilient institutions that can withstand the potentially eroding effects of contestation. Secondly, it requires neutral, clear and transparent mechanisms to manage contestation and to allow recourse for those who feel that their issues, concerns and complaints are not attended to. Evidence across the country shows that the absence of either (or both) of these is proving to be highly divisive and destabilising. The (local) state appears ill-prepared and ill-equipped to take on the roles and responsibilities expected of it, including managing competing (and often conflicting) interests for limited resources and opportunities. This leaves the door open to unhealthy political interference and exploitation, whether for personal, factional or party gain. There are rules guiding municipal administration in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996), the White Paper on Local Government (1998), the Municipal Structures Act (1998) and the Local Government: Municipal Systems Amendment Act (2011) among others. The last of these, designed to remedy some of the failings of local government mentioned above, sets out mechanisms to enable the professionalisation of local government.
The Act’s intent to prevent undue influence by political officials or political parties over the administrative function of a municipality has been welcomed by many different stakeholders, though many note that there are limitations to the extent to which legislative provisions can address political culture and behaviour.
Some of these are in the realm of role clarification, awareness raising and capacity building, whereas others fall within the domain of political education. The institutional design of local government needs to be assessed, to interrogate whether it does not contribute to or exacerbate negative contestation. For example, there is a concern that the two-tier system of local and district municipalities’ fuels factionalism at times, as political dynamics between the district and local systems manifests itself in municipalities. Only political parties themselves can ‘govern’ how politics plays out in state institutions like municipalities. The responsibility lies with parties, especially the Africa National Congress (ANC), to manage the contestation that comes with contradictions of a growing society. Political parties have to discuss the ‘thin line’ between politics and administration, as a failure to respect this distinction leads to problems. Parties must make an honest assessment of their practices and find ways of professionalising themselves for the benefit of state institutions and citizens.
The legal definition of a municipality includes political structures, professional administration and a third leg the local communities themselves. Citizens are not bystanders in the running of their municipalities, and their urgency is increasingly being witnessed in the form of ‘stay-away voters’, the rise of independent candidates, and of course service delivery protests. Alongside elected officials who pursue their political agendas while maintaining a clear sense of their ultimate responsibility to serving the electorate, South Africa’s municipalities also need strong and vigilant communities who will fight to make real the statement that, “The people must govern”.
References: This opinion piece is extracted from Isandla institute’s discussion document titled “Local politics and factionalism: Local government as a site of contestation”. Visit www.isandla.org.za to view the references used for this article.
- Pamela Masiko-Kambala is local government policy researcher at Isandla Institute. This article was first published on the Afesis-corplan website.