07 December 2020 – by Philip van Ryneveld
We will need to learn how to support communities in the things that need government intervention, and to stay out of the things that do not
While we should not underestimate what has been achieved, it is probably fair to say that local government is not living up to the dreams we had 25 years ago. Yet local government is critical; it is the sphere of government that most affects our everyday lives and is the key to essential services.
The direct origins of SA’s current constitutional structure of decentralisation can be traced back to a discussion document called ANC Regional Policy — compiled by the ANC 28 years ago in preparation for constitutional negotiations. It was distributed across all branches and in November 1992 the ANC held a special national consultative conference where the policy was adopted — one of only two policies officially adopted by the ANC between 1990 and 1996.
It was called “regional policy” because the ANC proposed the second level of government should be called regions. The National Party wanted them to be called states. The term provinces was the compromise agreement.
There is no doubt that the clarity of thinking that was forced upon the ANC through the negotiation process — underpinned by a tone set by Oliver Tambo that it was necessary to win the arguments and not just the power — was critical in producing a constitution that is highly regarded all over the world. The agreements in the early negotiations became codified in what were called the Constitutional Principles. They included the principle that there be three levels of government.
The ANC was very wary of provinces, but the multiple civic organisations organised through the United Democratic Front (UDF) were committed to local democracy. It was accepted fairly early on by the ANC that a constitutional dispensation would need to have an intermediate level of government between national and local, but it sought an arrangement that was sometimes characterised from a powers and functions perspective as strong (national)-weak (provinces)-strong (local). Meanwhile the old National Party — knowing that it was not going to win a national election but hoping it could win power at provincial level in combination with some of the old homeland leaders, wanted weak-strong- … and were not too clear on the third level.
There were a number of important policy positions set out in the document and adopted through this process that played a significant role in shaping the current constitutional dispensation.
First, while the discussion document presented two different proposals on boundaries the conference adopted the 10 region option, which offered a basis for subsequently agreeing on the current nine provinces.
Second, the document had quite a strong focus on metropolitan government; this is where the idea was first properly established within the ANC.
Third, it set out an approach to fiscal decentralisation referred to in the document as “finances and resources”, which is largely what we have in the constitution today.
On the latter it placed a “strong emphasis upon the need to strengthen local control over the use of public resources” because “ … this helps to ensure that usage is efficiently and appropriately tailored to local conditions”.
It argued that “the link between paying taxes and receiving public services must be recognised as an important element in the strengthening of democratic accountability, and is most direct at the local level’, but that there were “substantial constraints on the extent to which the fiscal system can be decentralised”. This was partly because “the level of inequality in the country compromises the extent to which accountability can be based on a direct relationship between payment of taxes and the receipt of public services”. Thus, the main basis for redistribution, it argued, had to be national.
This meant there was a need for substantial fiscal transfers from the centre and, inter alia, proposed the Fiscal and Financial Commission as one of a number of mechanisms aimed at ensuring fairness and predictability in the distribution of grants from the centre.
In the debate on provincial boundaries there was a group in favour of the nine or 10, but another group wanted the second tier to consist of 30 or 40 regions or districts. There were two arguments — one was that districts were a more suitable scale of government for developmental purposes, and the other that the metros needed to be regions in their own right — so they could have a direct relationship with national government.
The ANC leadership was concerned that a 30 region approach would keep the old homelands alive, so that option got reconfigured into 16 regions, which was essentially the 10 region approach but with the metros being regions in their own right.
But despite the ANC winning the argument and establishing a constitution that is based on strong-weak-strong in terms of powers, this has been countered since 1994 by the “provincialisation” of the ANC itself, leading to a significant disconnect between political governance and the economy and a weakening of local government.
While the constitution is organised on the basis of “spheres” — which is aimed at making relationships nonhierarchical, especially between provincial and local government — political parties are organised as “tiers”.
That is probably a natural response; it seems counterintuitive for somebody responsible over a small area to be more important that somebody responsible over a bigger area, even if the responsibilities over the smaller area are more intense. But the extent to which the ANC gave so much more prominence and importance to provincial representatives, within the national executive committee, for example, than it did to local ones, was surprising. I believe this was a significant mistake.
The structure of power in the ANC leadership has meant that when anybody wishes to get something adopted — or canvass for a position — they tend to work province by province. This process has strengthened provincial figures in the political realm, even if it did not give them more constitutional power.
This intersects with another important dimension. At the time of the ANC elective conference two years ago I put together a graphic that compared the provinces by proportion of conference delegates, population and provincial share of GDP.
It’s interesting to look at the slope made by the three bars in each province. Gauteng slopes sharply up to the right, meaning proportionately it has a higher share of population than delegates, and accounts for an even higher share of the economy; as does the Western Cape. The others slope the other way; although in KwaZulu-Natal each bar is more similar. Gauteng and the Western Cape, which together account for 35.2% of the country’s population and 47.8% of GDP, only had 14.5% of the delegates.
Why would the strongest provinces economically — together accounting for nearly half the country’s economy — end up with only 14.5% of the delegates?
Part of the answer may lie in the fact that in the urban areas there is a strong private economy. That means livelihoods are not nearly as dependent upon the state as they are in rural areas. So this makes it easier to mobilise people to join branches in the rural provinces than in the urban areas.
And given the way power and authority is structured in the ANC it is clear why control over provincial government becomes so important. From that position alone you cannot take national power — but as a coalition of provincial interests you can do so. And, of course, that is what the “Premier League” was all about.
This is a dangerous position for the ANC to be in — when the governance geography of the party is so out of alignment with the geography of the economy.
Thus, what we have seen over the last decade is a shift in power to a coalition of provincial interests — dominated by leaders who do not have responsibility for the key areas of the country that drive the economy. Moreover, because of the grant-based funding of the provinces (for which, given the geographic inequality in the country, there is little alternative) they have no responsibility for the other side of the delivery equation — collecting taxes.
In the process the voice of local government has been weakened. We do not need to change the constitution, but we need to think how to reconfigure things better. The problems of local government are not just attributable to its place within the inter-governmental system; the most important endeavour must be about strengthening local governments themselves institutionally.
When assessing any organisation it is useful to ask three key things: what is the leadership like? What is the strategy like? What is the ability to implement? Most people would buy into the idea of community participation and the creation of value through partnership between community and local government.
Yet most of our strategies seem to be about delivery to passive recipients, usually with funds collected at the centre. This approach often fails to ignite the great potential for bottom up initiative, which not only delivers resources but is the real basis of empowerment.
We are running into serious obstacles with the delivery-from-above approach. Not only do we face implementation failures, but the fiscal crisis we are in is more severe than generally recognised. The model whereby successful big business and a small proportion of income earners generate sufficient tax revenues to fund mass delivery is increasingly unsustainable.
We will need to learn how to support communities in the things that need government intervention and to stay out of the things that don’t.
There are many things to be said about leadership. In local government we need to think about both the qualities of leadership we need, and the systems and structures that surround leadership, and consider how to improve both.
Finally, the most challenging of all is the ability to implement. Good leaders can be found, and sound strategies can be developed quite quickly, but the ability to implement requires a deep level of institution building that takes time.
Unfortunately, part of the problem now seems to be that we are trying to address inability to implement with rules and compliance. This will not work. What we need are capable, motivated people. A culture overly driven by compliance leads to people too afraid to take initiative and ultimately a failure of delivery, with capable people driven away.
There is a growing awareness in the country of the need for renewal in local government. For those who care about its future now is the time to get involved.
• Van Ryneveld was a technical adviser to the ANC on decentralisation during constitutional negotiations in the early 1990s. This is an abridged version of the keynote address he gave to a Salga/GAPP conference on November 25 titled “Celebrating 25 years of local government”.