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Local government in South Africa:
Building a new structure after apartheid
By Nick Swift

29 February 2004: A nation like South Africa would appear to present a unique opportunity to observe the dramatic interplay of forces involved in establishing what much of the rest of the developed world would consider normal forms of local government by virtue of the fact that the speed with which the changes necessary to bring that process about, in view of its history, has been such as to invest them with an urgency quite unfamiliar in countries where the path of municipal evolution has been comparatively gradual and slow.

For the same reasons, the recent historical context is of greater than usual relevance in considering the current state of municipal affairs in South Africa.

Democratic elections were held in 1994, and the majority African National Congress (ANC) party embarked on successive programmes to rebuild the economy. Even before those elections, however, in 1993, representatives of 26 political groups who assembled at Kempton Park, near Johannesburg, produced a temporary constitution to last until the victors in the 1994 elections created the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, which they did in 1996. A by-product of the discussions at Kempton Park was the Local Government Negotiating Forum (LGNF). The LGNF in turn brought about the Local Government Transition Act (LGTA) 209 of 1993, which marked the course for the next several years, consisting, broadly, of phases for the restructuring of local government, including establishing provincial committees and local forums for negotiations to determine the precise forms local government would take in each area, and part of which, naturally, was deciding boundaries.

In the pre-interim stage, from the passing into law of the LGTA to the local elections in November 1995, local councils were an amalgam of representatives from groups hitherto denied a voice, such as trade unions, and from the municipal government establishment as it had existed prior to the end of the apartheid era. The pre-interim mechanisms were extended to August 1996 to accommodate Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal province, which did not participate in the November 1995 elections because of disagreements over boundaries and problems with registration of candidates and voters.

The South African Local Government Association (SALGA) came into being in November 1996 to further the aims of democratic local government.

The years 1996, 1997 and 1998, respectively, saw: the creation of the Constitution, which sets forth the aims of local government in terms of democratic accountability, provision of sustainable services, social and economic development, environmental care, and community involvement; the Green Paper on Local Government, consisting of a number of papers on key topics; and, in 1998, the White Paper on Local Government, the Municipal Demarcation Act, and the Municipal Structures Act. The White Paper built on the Green Paper, offering, among other things, a template for legislation and delineating metropolitan, local and district councils as the three species of local government. The Municipal Demarcation Act put into effect the order of the Constitution for the founding of an entity to decide municipal boundaries by establishing the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB), including as criteria such factors as areas under traditional authority, infrastructure and facilities, and patterns of settlement and of land use, extant and foreseen. In the course of determining boundaries for local government, much amalgamating occurred in furtherance of the MDB’s additional mandate of reducing the total number of local authorities.

The Municipal Structures Act created the three kinds of councils and all the attendant details for their election, design and operation, including the condition that half of the candidates on the party lists should be women. (In the event, that goal, although striven for, was not achieved.)

The Municipal Electoral Act of 2000 amended the 1998 Electoral Act in certain respects. It empowered the Independent Electoral Commission to administer local elections in conjunction with local municipal electoral officers, and ensured the proportional representation method, as well as, for instance, that a ‘first-past-the-post’ system would apply in the case of ward councils.

In the elections in the 284 new municipalities that were held on 5 December 2000, the ANC won by a large majority (59 per cent). It was the agreed perception that local issues had been a relatively minor consideration in the contest in which there were 55 national parties registered and 54 local (with overlap, a total of 79), that saw a voter turnout of 48 per cent, and in which the opposition was unequivocally claimed, at 22 per cent of the vote, by the Democratic Alliance, the product of the union of the New National Party and the Democratic Party. Thankfully little violence appeared at election sites: an example of a factor predictable only by its absence in many countries that take for granted the sort of democratic devices South Africa has been so assiduously building in such a short time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a major difficulty (that, in fact, delayed the election) was the dissatisfaction with various provisions, particularly with what they saw as the attrition of their powers by the ignoring of traditional boundaries, expressed by traditional (tribal) leaders. Some tribal areas were, indeed, divided, the MDB’s vow to avoid doing so as much as possible notwithstanding. A technical committee examined the tribal chiefs’ concerns and, eventually, the election went ahead after the President of the Congress of Traditional Leaders (not the only group with such a theme) acknowledged the sincerity of President Mbeki’s commitment to finding a just solution.

It was envisaged at that time that three intergraded phases would occur for the growth of municipal government in South Africa: from 2000 to 2002, the elected councillors and other officials would be trained to discharge their duties well, and the structures of the new local authorities would be entrenched; their consolidation would continue through to 2005; and between 2005 and 2010, the long term viability of the local government forms would be demonstrated, as well as their ability to interact with other levels of South African government.

At this point, meeting infrastructure requirements and achieving service delivery are matters of some urgency for local government in South Africa. Local government policy and legislation are the responsibility of the Minister for Provincial and Local Government, and supervisory duties belong to him and to the provincial ministers, also known as the Members of the Executive Council, who can step in where they see local authorities failing to comply with legislation. The issue of the role of traditional authority continues to be discussed. The people in local government themselves appear to favour enhancing their national presence and lessening the power of provincial associations. The job of seeing that South African local government is and continues to become all that it should be for the benefit of South Africans continues to be the SALGA’s, but a 2003 report by the (Johannesburg) Centre for Development and Enterprise identified a distrust of private enterprise on the part of officials as seriously undermining the economic development on which so much else will depend.

The legal basis for local government in South Africa is Chapter 7 of the 1996 Constitution and, also, Chapters 3 and 13, which deal, respectively, with principles of cooperation and local government finances. Unitary and binary levels are both employed. Major metropolitan areas are governed by a unitary structure, and district and local council governments represent, respectively, upper and lower levels. The latter two differ from the former in that their approach to delivering services is according to local conditions. Currently there are 231 local councils, 47 district councils and six metropolitan councils, including municipalities that straddle provincial boundaries. Members of the Executive Council in each province decide whether the mayor will be executive or elected by an executive committee. Such committees vary in their degree of power, with some being only advisory.

World Mayor 2023