Transforming the Tragedies of Local Government Failure in South Africa

By Glenn Ashton

Perhaps the greatest single failure of governance in the new democratic dispensation is situated at the local government level. While some improvement has occurred, the lives of far too many citizens, especially those in small towns and rural areas, remain fundamentally unchanged. Desperate migrants from rural areas to the urban heartlands are also seriously compromised, competing directly with better-equipped, more skilled economic refugees from elsewhere on the subcontinent.

The term service delivery protest is axiomatic but the underlying reasons for these differ markedly. In one town it may be because politically connected mayors, councillors and officials live the life of a Gupta while citizens suffer. In another it may be because water has stopped, or never started flowing through inadequate resources or outright incompetence. It may be about frustrations in waiting for houses, or about who reaps the benefit from local government projects. Or it may be about shit, as so often seems to be the case in Cape Town.

Local governance is the most critical – and vulnerable – tier of government, simply because it affects us where we live, work and relax. If local government is not working then people’s lives are directly affected, often with tragic results, as attested by the death of Andries Tatane and dozens other less well known victims of friction between poorly-trained police and angry, frustrated citizens.

Interestingly frustration with service delivery is not isolated to poorer areas. Many wealthy, well-resourced urban citizens experience similar levels of frustration at municipal incompetence. Billing problems in Johannesburg, planning problems around the petrochemical complex south of Durban and increasing dominance of developers in the municipal planning process in Cape Town are examples of poor and non-transparent governance that impact and frustrate all communities, rich and poor, alike.

The obvious difference is that wealthy communities possess sufficient resources to assist themselves. Poor people living in shacks or RDP houses lack even the most basic resources, or often even the skills or means to communicate with recalcitrant municipalities and community leaders. The work of communicating poor service delivery to councillors and authorities is simply eclipsed by the bitter reality of grinding daily poverty until frustration lights a fuse.

How did we lose our way? One fundamental reason was the marked shift of focus by the initial democratic government from the core principles of the Freedom Charter inspired Reconstruction and Development Principles, towards Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel’s neoliberal Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) perspectives. This had more to do with international investor confidence and World Bank demands than with turning around the inequities of apartheid. South Africa applied its own structural adjustment programmes, rather than having them externally imposed by the Washington consensus.

Municipal restructuring was formulated around hegemonic neo-liberal policies, particularly from the financial perspective. Trevor Manuel, instrumental in drafting the Municipal Finance Management Act, noted in his introduction to the preceding green paper, “I wish to record my appreciation to…the World Bank for financial assistance and guidance with the reform process and preparation of this Green Paper.”

By 2005 the World Bank itself realized that its policies for developing nations were flawed when it published “Economic Growth in the 1990s: Learning from a Decade of Reform”. These lessons have not yet trickled through to municipal structures and institutions. Neither have recent reforms in local government structures. Consequently the worst aspects of self-serving capitalism permeate all tiers of government but it is at local government level that the effects are most obvious.

Added to this are increasing expectations from national and central government to fulfill “unfunded mandates.” These responsibilities devolved by national government through legislative fiat cover areas such as structural planning and environmental management. Dysfunctional municipalities are expected to manage these mandates and pick up the tab.

Some assistance is available but this is all too often re-directed to more urgent needs, or lost through poor financial management. Most municipalities remain financially non-compliant and are effectively under administration. The problem is especially dire in the North West, Free State, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

Are there solutions to this impasse? Can we learn from elsewhere?

Firstly, we need to restructure local government. Local government has seen little structural change from the old command and control model. Authorities and politicians remain isolated from the people they administer. Unless this changes there is no hope for reform. So the first task is to bridge this gap.

There are basically two models of local government – the managerial on the one hand and the governmental on the other. Pre-1994 we relied on managerial but should have shifted to a governmental system under the new constitutional dispensation. This did not happen, mainly because of a poor grasp of what was actually required. We have not yet modeled a suitable system and rolled it out; instead we attempted to shift from authoritarianism toward participative democracy while simultaneously stripping away institutional memory and expertise. This recipe was doomed to fail. The failures were, and remain, spectacular.

The municipal systems amendment Act of 2011 was meant to address structural problems but instead it exacerbated conflict by polarizing the relationship between political players, workers and unions. While some house cleaning ensued, examples like North West province remind us of profoundly dysfunctional relationships between municipalities and communities. Silo governance and buck-passing are the order of the day. Reliance on the neo-liberal, MBA-style New Public Management (NPM) model remains entrenched, way past its sell by date.

Change is possible. Brazil developed participatory, citizen’s budgets, where financial management is decided at community level. Obviously essential services must be funded but the details of where remaining funds are spent is collectively decided. Elsewhere, housing provision is devolved, in contrast to centralized, neo-liberal housing policy. Benin has devolved service provision through locally representative committees.

South Africa remains plagued by profound structural poverty. Expectations to solve this at local government level are doomed. However local government can, and should empower citizens. Combining our rich social capital with real entrepreneurial spirit can succeed to produce far more profound impacts than has been the case, despite the skepticism of neo-liberal and free market pundits. We do not need public private partnerships and outsourcing to succeed – we need to tap into existing resources.

By creating communal opportunities, the power of individuals becomes diluted and influence-peddling is marginalized. Transparent social budgeting through empowered community participation encourages manageable size communes. In turn, these facilitate equity and encourage broad participation. By cross-pollinating between classes huge benefits can be realised through progressive, rather than authoritarian governance.

We really need to create working models, which can be duplicated. By creating examples we can shift the balance to keep the doors of democracy open. Examples in Brazil and elsewhere show how improved education helps people to properly manage their own affairs.

We also need to involve more young people. Old people must listen while informing, not dictating. We need rational discourse at town hall level so communities become sufficiently empowered to take responsibility for their own destiny. Top-down managerial approaches are bound to fail. If we are to succeed at local level, government by the people, for the people, is the logical start point.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at

Read more articles by Glenn Ashton.

First published by The South African Civil Society Information Service (



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