Volume 3 No 2 (2006)


IT IS OFTEN said that of all spheres of government, local government is the closest to the people. But what features most in recent media reports and public debates is the sense of alienation, of disappointment, of despondency with this particular sphere of government. Perhaps this is because these are the stories and insights that make for ‘good’ news – who would be interested in a detailed account of positive changes and encountered difficulties to realise even more improvements, if we can dwell on the unrealised milestones and political controversies? This is not to suggest that local government is like the child who is always misunderstood; there clearly are institutional, political, technical and, as some (like Ebrahim Fakir below) would argue, conceptual problems that beset it. But is that sufficient reason not to cast your vote, or is it perhaps all the more reason to go to the polls? Has the hard-fought right become a democratic duty, or does it allow one the right to choose whether to vote or not? In response to the previous newsletter, Nomboniso Gasa sent an email explaining why she will vote (see Talk Back). She makes a strong case for recognising the qualitative difference local government can and does make. In this time of critical scrutiny, such experiences and impressions need to be shared as well. Thought Matters features an edited version of an opinion piece written by Ebrahim Fakir, who is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies. The longer version is available on our website (go to the Development Dialogues webpage).



Reconceptualising local government

By Ebrahim Fakir

 SINCE THE FIRST democratic local government elections in 2000, local government has advanced South Africa’s transition in several different spheres. This is a remarkable achievement and has significant potential to deepen the transition and substantially contribute to meeting developmental challenges.

The extent to which it does this, however, depends on how local government is implemented and what role it plays in the overall strategy of social and economic transformation.

Despite the achievements, there have been only modest, though marked successes in the roll-out of basic services. Backlogs and challenges remain. Institutionally much of the local government arena has been beset with transitional fatigue, institutional weakness and governance failure. It is also characterised by a symbolic rather than substantive democratic ethos, which has failed to provide the primary democratic interface between citizens and state. In addition, local communities seem to be beset with a fractious, antagonistic and racialised community syndrome that a national reconciliation process has failed to address appropriately and adequately. In many senses these weaknesses have proved mutually reinforcing.

The short conclusion from all of this is that local government hasn’t been taken seriously enough in the state- and society-building project. Nevertheless hope springs eternal. To be fair, the December 2000 local government elections were only the first truly non-racial, democratic local government elections in South Africa and as such the forthcoming local elections present an opportunity to see this process of transition become one of substantial and substantive transformation. In order to do so however, local government must address both delivery and development issues as well as the more substantive dimensions of democracy. Thus far, addressing these challenges has been caught in a false binary: one set of solutions seeks to solve technical, capacity, managerial and infrastructure-related issues while the other sees deepening democracy, governmental responsiveness and participation as the solution. In reality, emphasising one above the other is precisely what has proved to be the problem. Addressing them simultaneously may be what is needed. To do so requires recasting both the role of the local state and the way in which society functions at local level. Local government exists for three primary reasons: to ensure the delivery of public goods and services; to give expression to the views of citizens in a locality; and to foster economically thriving, socially and culturally vibrant non-racial communities.

Building the local state and local democracy should be at the top of the agenda. This may strike some as perverse. After all, the dominant trend in world politics for the past generation has been a critique of “big government”. Yet in the developing world it is precisely the absence of a strong “state presence” that renders citizens unable to procure the goods and services they need. In South Africa, this is arguably the cause of some of the recent spontaneous social protests in some local communities.

The basic problem here lies in the conceptual failure to unpack the different dimensions of the local “state” - its strength versus its scope - and how they relate to democracy and development. The elements and dimensions in which state strength and state scope intersect should be considered in five critical areas. The first is regulatory: the state ability to manage, enforce and protect rights. With the expanded powers, functions and roles of local government in areas of regulating local economies, licensing land use, environmental protection and investing in infrastructure, it is critical that effective regulatory capacity exists. In the absence of an effective regulatory function, predatory interests can take root. The second area is the technical - the local state’s ability to handle engineering and public works, extending services like water, sanitation and electricity, health and local economic development. States that fail to supply these face an erosion of legitimacy and authority. Naturally, administrative capacity will be required in order to manage resources effectively. Besides the need for managerial and executive capacity, corruption has to be fought, mismanagement minimized and indiscipline countered. The extractive capacity of the state at the local level to collect revenue and also generate revenue is crucial for sustainability. An absence of this fuels a loss of revenue, and the growth of a culture in which meeting obligations to legitimate authorities is not considered the norm. The coercive and enforcement ability of the local state, given the expanded role of local government in licensing, land-use authorisation, bylaw enforcement and city and metro policing, has taken on new significance. Enforcement also relates to the predictability that rights, obligations and rules will be equally and fairly enforced, and that wrongdoing will be detected and appropriately punished. 

Improving governance will require better accountability, transparency, oversight and responsiveness to citizens. But it is not all down to the state. Society has an equally important role to play. The fractious and divided inheritance bequeathed by apartheid has rendered a true non-racial co-existence difficult. This in turn seems to be exacerbated by emerging antagonisms fuelled by increasing inter- and intra-racial and community inequalities. Emerging community dynamics suggest that these contradictions and antagonisms are continuing. Resolving these requires that elites and the poor, establish an intersecting body of mutual interest in a critical mass of public goods, public services and public spaces. But this can only take root when citizens themselves are certain that their local authorities are trustworthy and that they behave in a fair, equitable, consistent and predictable way.

Equally, it would be naïve to think that politics and development evolve through co-operation and consensus alone. Some conflict is a necessary ingredient, so long as it is constructive and occurs within the rules of the game. It can prove vital to a dynamic society which thrives not only on growth, but on growth distribution that is mediated by all elements of state and society, one in which local councils play a central role.



Dear Isandla,

 Thank you for putting me in your email list.  It is not often that I engage in this manner, as I prefer my privacy. However, I wanted to share my own experiences of local government.  In the city base, from which I write this email, it is hard to gage the extent to which local government has and will continue to have an impact on my life.  I grew up in a different environment, where my parents and extended family continue to live-in Ntshingeni village, St Mark’s, Cofimvaba.

 There, our measure of local government role and impact is somewhat different, in fact very different. We fall under Instika Yethu (our pillar) municipality. The presence, role and impact of local government is very difficult to express. Consider a situation where people visit their ward or local councilors for such basic issues as explanation of some requirement to access pensions of their deceased. Imagine, a local councilor who travels, often using public transport to verify the identity of someone whose document has been lost. Picture a community that has a community hall, simply because the ward councilor (who does not come from the same area) has identified that particular village as deserving of such a facility, even though his own community needs one.

 Our local government back home has been involved in such diverse issues, from employment programmes, developing IDPs, lobbying for new schools, water and electricity provision and numerous other activities. Oh sure, the mistakes, shortcomings and bungling are all present and obvious. However, what is even more obvious and evident is the change that is taking place in people’s lives. 

 I thought I’d write this brief note, to make those who write and think about these issues to be conscious of places and experiences beyond our line of vision. I will be voting on March 1st, not because ‘incumbents and newcomers to the local government arena seem equally convinced that they hold the key to better life of local people’, as you say in your bulletin. I will vote, because I have seen the impact that local government makes to the rural poor-the sense of ownership, of being a part of government processes is very powerful for people back home.

 Economic poverty, as serious as it is, and maladministration as obvious as is it in many local authorities cannot be the only ways in which we gage the performance of this very important tier of government.   There are a whole range of complex, difficult and enriching issues which must be taken into consideration.  The article on housing by the way, fails to address the issue of transfer of land ownership, especially land which was lost through the Trust Act in rural places like those who fall under former Bantustans.   This transfer of ancestral land holds much more significant meanings, both in terms of restoration of personal dignity and spiritual implications for many of the people who now have the right to ‘return’.

 There is not doubt that the nature of rural economy in South Africa is in an appalling state-and that is the understatement of the century! But we have never measured our existence (and still do not) only in terms of economic status and progress.


Yours truly,

Nomboniso Gasa


Contact details
PO Box 12263 Mill Street
Cape Town, 8001
Website: www.isandla.org.za.

Editorial collective: Edgar Pieterse, Mirjam van Donk