Posing the Question on the Future of Provinces

democracy governance politics
Tuesday, 10 April, 2012 - 15:02

In this article, the author focuses on the debate around the future of South Africa’s provinces, and how the abolishment of provinces could impact on the functioning of government, especially at local level

The debate around the future of provinces in South Africa (SA) is an old one that tends to gain momentum at certain points within the political calendar and die down again. In the run-up to the Polokwane African National Congress (ANC) conference in 2009 and during the review process of the White Paper on Local Governance, the debate was at its most intense stages. As usual, the debate is usually emotionalised and is full of party-political diatribes. Recent events in various provinces throughout the country have forced the debate back onto the table, only this time there is an added effort to move beyond the ideological clichés in debating the issue, to looking at long-term goals of improving the quality of democracy in SA and the role provinces play or are to play in it.

As mentioned before, this debate is mainly taking place within political party structures and processes. This article aims to lift the lid on this debate and to pose it in the public domain. It presents some of the main arguments presented in the debate to aid the reader to formulate their own position and come to their own conclusion on what the future of provinces should be.

As a point of departure, it may be useful to first look at the current role of provinces. For far too long the role of provinces in SA has been dominated by the political concerns which characterised the constitutional negotiations of 1992 to 1994. The central political preoccupation at that time was the issue of ‘power’ and the fear of the minority parties that central government would become too overbearing. The notion of countervailing power was and continues to be central to the current definitions and conceptions of the role of the second sphere of government in SA.

Kitano and Rapoo (2001) note that major opposition parties, academics and proponents of a multi-tier system of government saw provinces serving not only as multiple centres of power outside of central/national government, but also as ‘countervailing’ sources of political, legal and constitutional authority to be counterpoised against the power of central government. Therefore, the post-1994 provinces were positioned as second order prizes to be won by political parties which perceived no prospect of capturing power at central/national level. This explains the frantic reaction by opposition parties at the slightest rumour that the ANC might be thinking of radically restructuring or abolishing provinces.

Currently, the ANC has majority control in most provinces in the country. So why does it continually toy with whether it should abolish provinces completely, or restructure them into oversight structures to allow municipalities to become central institutions for implementing policy and delivering services to citizens?

In the past, the ANC has traditionally been less enthusiastic about the provinces than some of the opposition parties. It perceived them as an unnecessary additional layer of government and since 1998 leading to Thabo Mbeki’s ascendance to the presidency, there was a perceptible hardening of attitudes in the ANC to the provinces due to their perceived inefficiency, corruption and ineffectiveness in delivering services. In August 2010, the Democratic Alliance (DA) published a discussion document accusing the ANC government of seeking to centralise power. The paper reads that: “The drive to centralise power in the ANC-controlled national government has accelerated since President Jacob Zuma took over office. This trend, favoured by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, has gained momentum in recent years as a result of two notable processes: renewed efforts to deploy loyal ANC cadres to key positions of power and, secondly, through a torrent of new centralising legislative and policy proposals that seek to take power away from municipalities and provinces and place all state security, revenue distribution and planning functions under the direct control of the national government.” (Democratic Alliance, 2010).

For a while this debate has taken place within political circles with position papers, discussion documents, round tables and commissions created to look at the question. While the ANC on the one hand claims to seek to optimise efforts to realise good local governance, social equity and efficient use of state resources through this debate; opposition parties on the other hand see the ANC as intensifying efforts to centralise power. Within the ANC, there have been somewhat opposing voices around this debate. While some call for the complete abolishment of provinces, others call for a shift in emphasis, with provinces assigned an oversight role over local municipalities. This is of course assuming that provinces have enough resources and capacity to play that oversight role.

So, what will it mean if provinces are abolished altogether? Provinces currently serve as the middle layer of leadership within the ruling party. Currently, a trend exists where one climbs the ranks from local government level, to provincial and then to national. This pattern offers a career growth path which is good whether one is a politician or a civil servant. No employee or politician wants to be locked forever in one position, in particular those at municipal level; so provincial government offers that second layer up the ladder. As a result of the career growth pattern outlined above, provinces are able to attract better skilled and capacitated people and generally pay better salaries in comparison to local municipalities.

A position at a provincial legislature is considered much more senior than one at local municipal council level and in turn senior provincial and regional party leaders get assigned to provincial legislatures and local branch leaders and independents are assigned to local council level. A move from a position at provincial level to a position at municipal level is generally considered a demotion. And so, if provinces were to be abolished, and municipalities suddenly have at their disposal the pool of skilled and experienced personnel and politicians that provinces are able to attract, first they would have to match the salary scales that provincial governments are able to offer, and secondly, the state would have to pay relocation and all other related costs for all employees employed at provincial level. Looking at the current and even long-term developmental needs of SA this is an event it can ill-afford.

However, looking at recent events in provinces such as the Eastern Cape, where most departments are performing poorly, threatening to lock the entire province in poverty for decades still, and Limpopo where corruption and maladministration have sanctioned most of national government departments’ intervention - one can agree that drastic steps are necessary to turn the fate of provinces around. To assign the Eastern Cape provincial departments an oversight role over municipalities, for example, raises very little confidence when they have failed time and again to perform their own functions.

Whatever the future of provinces may be, what is becoming apparent is that it is time for citizens to get involved in this debate and to push it outside the political boundaries into the public domain. In looking at the future of provinces, it is also becoming clear that it must be looked at in conjunction with the future of local municipalities. While everyone agrees that local government has not delivered on what it was intended to deliver, which propelled the ministry of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) to develop the turnaround strategy in 2009, it has been noted that the capacity challenges in local municipalities can largely be addressed if provinces were to be abolished.

If we are to consider the debate and ponder the question it is useful to also, ask the following questions:

  • If provincial resources were to be redirected to local government, would this guarantee a local government system that works well?
  • Do provinces have to be abolished for the government system to operate efficiently, or are there other ways in which provincial and local governments can be restructured to enhance resource efficiency and delivery?

The debate on the future of provinces has undoubtedly instigated a potentially powerful and necessary process of revisiting the role of the second sphere of government. But the parameters of this debate have so far been very narrow, failing to deliberate seriously on the nature of provinces, their current form and what structure they should take in future. While it is within these narrow parameters that the potential for improving on the three-sphere system has emerged, discussions around the future of provinces will add little value to governance if it continues to be confined within narrow political interests.

- Nontando Ngamlana is executive director at Afesis-corplan www.afesis.org.za. This article first appeared in the January/February/March 2012 edition of the Transformer.


Athol Trollip, 2010, Centralisation: The ANC’s plan to undermine Constitutional Principle. Democratic Alliance August 2010 | De Villiers, B, The Future of Provinces in South Africa, Republic of South Africa, 2008 | Human Science Research Council, 2007, Looking at the future of provinces, HSRC Review Vol 5 - No. 3 | Kitaho C, Rapoo T, 2001, Future of Provinces in South Africa, Centre for Policy Studies, 2001

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