A State of Deep Crisis in South Africa's Local Government

By Dale T. McKinley · 10 Mar 2011

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Picture credit: jit bag
Picture credit: jit bag

Local government in South Africa, like many of our country’s mining operations, is in deep trouble. The slow but sure exhaustion of mineral-bearing seams, the insufficient and crumbling underground infrastructure and the exploitative extraction-at-all-costs mentality that so negatively characterises our mining sector can all be (metaphorically) applied to that level of government which resides at the coalface of our democracy. The resultant and ongoing crisis, for both, has long been in the making but is now coming up to the surface with a vengeance. 

For local government, the post-1994 foundations of the crisis began with the federalist compromises made at CODESA which constitutionally enshrined three-tiers of government. The placing of a provincial level between the national and the local was akin to placing a sponge under a slow dripping garden hose; i.e., it absorbs large amounts of the water before it hits the ground. Coupled to the wide range of competencies given to local government to deliver many of the basic services so desperately needed by the majority of the population, what was bequeathed was a sure recipe for institutional dysfunction.

Given the generalised political and administrative chaos inherited at the local level, combined with the massive lack of both human and fiscal resources to actually carry out designated ‘delivery’ functions, it made sense that national government would thus need to provide sustained fiscal, infrastructural and administrative/capacity support to local government. But this did not happen. Instead, as part of an over-arching neo-liberal development ideology (in the form of GEAR) the real ‘equitable share’ of national revenue that should have been provided (alongside conditional grants), was consistently slashed from the mid 1990s onwards to the point where local government was forced to rely almost wholly on self-generated revenue to fund the delivery of a range of basic services (with the present national average standing at 85 percent). 

This created a situation where local governments had to: cut back drastically on service delivery targets, with the poor being the hardest hit; prioritise ‘cost recovery’ mechanisms as a means to gain revenue, resulting in cut-offs of basic services such as water and electricity in those communities least able to afford payment and contributing to serious social and environmental decay; and, privatise/corporatise the management and delivery of basic services leading to unaffordable charges, the prioritisation of delivery to those able to pay and the creation of an enabling environment for patronage, corruption and factional politics.

Once the popular and political backlash stemming from the effective abandonment of local government to its own devices during the first decade began to hit in the early 2000s, there was a shift in the ‘strategic’ vision of the ANC/national government to the role of the state as ‘developmental’. Unfortunately, this was, and continues to be, largely accepted at face value without much critical analysis of what lies behind such a supposed ‘shift’ that ostensibly realigns the character of the state to benefit the poor majority and thus, by default, strengthens local government as the main ‘deliverer’ of such development.

A cursory appraisal shows us that developmentalism has its roots in the rise of the USA as the post-WW2 hegemon, largely constructed around the needs of ruling elites as a means to break out of nationally-bound frameworks and to expand markets globally on the one hand; and to counter the opposition to colonialism and the ideological threat of communism on the other.  What developmentalism actually achieved was the restructuring of global relations of capitalist production and the introduction of a model of liberal democracy plus welfare. 

In South Africa, post-apartheid developmentalism serves a similar purpose. This is to reorient the national economy towards global capitalism while simultaneously deflating grassroots struggles for change through a combination of welfare, meeting some popular ‘delivery’ demands and market discipline. In the more specific context of local governance, welfare in particular functions to produce and sustain (political and social) consent by smoothing over the edges of the systemic failure to deliver basic services and productive opportunities, with the goal being to pass the job of reproduction of labour and capital to the individual (of course, all in the name of helping the poor). Local government acts as the main facilitator and focal point.  

Despite several years of such ‘developmentalism’ and the more recent attempts to make-up for the fiscal deficit at local government level (with national transfers to local government coming in at around R70 billion for 2011/2012 but still constituting just 9% of total national government expenditure) as well as the adoption of a new ‘Turnaround Strategy’, the realities are as bad, if not worse, than they were when the ‘developmental state’ turn was made. 

Local government remains predominately geared towards the needs of (Thabo Mbeki’s) first economy, run like private businesses with all the attendant consequences for poor ‘clients’.  All macro-development decisions affecting the local citizenry are taken by politico-bureaucratic and economic elites and democratic representatives have largely become rubber stamps.  

Networks of patronage (which incubate and sustain corruption) drive what formal participation there is and determine who does and does not benefit from ‘delivery’ (most often tied to party political networks/links). Formal channels for citizen participation have been politically manipulated to marginalise ordinary (non-party) people. Crucially, an atmosphere has been created in which there is fear of dissent/freedom of expression and an almost complete lack of access to information. This has led to the closing down of popular space for contestation and accountability and increased conflict. Power has been centralised but responsibility has been decentralised.

When it comes to actual services ‘delivered’, it is not good enough to simply recite statistics of how many people now have ‘access’ precisely because there is a huge difference between ‘access’ and affordability. Besides this though, many services have largely been neglected in terms of maintenance and are of poor quality (witness the recent announcement of the multi-billion rand expenditure to ‘fix’ shoddy RDP houses). The result is a systemically unequal infrastructural and delivery provision where more obvious class discrimination is layered by the ongoing realities of racially-defined spatial segregation (the latest example being that of Ethekwini’s local development corruption). And, just like the rising acid mine drainage that now threatens the environmental and physical viability of large parts of Gauteng, the accumulating lack of technical, infrastructural and managerial capacitation and expertise at local government level has begun to overwhelm whatever positive achievements have taken place.

At the most visible level, increasingly violent ‘service delivery’ protests have been the staple diet across the country now for a few years running and the scope and breadth of dysfunctional as well as badly performing municipalities have not lessened. Electoral participation at the local level has, from every election since 1995, decreased across the board, a sure sign of political disengagement and disgust. A key part of this equation that is most often ignored is the closing down and/or accessibility of most all the institutional (democratic) spaces for community participation in decision-making and active participation (for example, in ward committees and various community forums). Ongoing surveys by Black Sash have found that only a very small percentage of people in communities across the country even know where/when their ward committee meets, who their local councillor is or have seen their local Integrated Development Plan (the tabula rasa for local government delivery and development). 

Added to this is the widespread reality that most of these spaces have been hijacked for party political purposes, where those outside the local ruling party are simply not welcome and treated as uitlanders. This confirms the effective marginalization/alienation of the majority of community members from the local democratic processes. As long as this remains the case it will continue to undermine any parallel actions and interventions on the technical/capacity front since these will continue to be seen and experienced as top-down, imposed ‘solutions’ in and over which ordinary people have little say and control.  

Dig a bit deeper and it is clear that the system of ‘cooperative governance’ is virtually in tatters. Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Yunus Carrim recently admitted that national government failed to intervene early on when a host of municipalities were showing signs of failure, did not ‘anticipate’ the extent to which constant ‘power struggles’ within and between municipalities ‘would paralyse service delivery’ and ‘didn’t foresee the extent to which municipalities would become the soft underbelly of patronage and corruption in our country’. Carrim’s department, in its own ‘State of Local Government Report’ in 2009, openly acknowledged the multi-faceted crisis which includes; widespread institutional and delivery ‘paralysis’, political factionalism, massive services backlogs, a spreading ‘culture of patronage, fraud and nepotism, ineffective and inaccessible systems of accountability, huge amounts of fruitless and wasteful expenditure, lack of financial management and poor overall skills as well as increasing ‘alienation’ of ordinary people from local government.

As a result, the state of local government for a long time now can best be described as one of recurring crisis management, with successive rescue ‘packages’, grandiose development plans and the parachuting promises of politicians failing to do much more than keep the local government ‘mine’ from completely caving in. Whether it is Johannesburg’s long-running billing crisis, Nelson Mandela Bay’s effective bankruptcy, Cape Town’s bantustan toilet politics, Mbombela’s mafia-like politics or Xhariep’s utter failure to deliver even the most basic of services, we have now gotten to a point where the institutional, representational, participatory and delivery bedrock of our democracy is crumbling in on itself.

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming local government elections (alongside the spin-doctoring that is bound to accompany and follow it) the past and ongoing crisis in local government is a deep crisis of development and democracy where it counts the most - in the lives of ordinary South Africans. The devastating explosions that regularly occur in the depths of our mines and which are the end-products of a long-brewing cocktail of neglect, bad planning and greed, mirror what is taking, and still might take place, at local government. When the steam is readily visible, the explosion cannot be far off.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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MOKGADI
28 Mar

Service Delivery Protests

Service delivery protests will never end as long political parties still use party politics and elect unqualified and incompetent personnel to govern at all levels of the government.

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