Turning 21 is usually a cause for celebration. In the secular world it’s the age when a person enters adulthood, reaches maturity, and takes on greater responsibility. November 2021 marked 21 years and four full terms of local government in South Africa, but there were no cocktails or silly hats to note the occasion.
There was no time to acknowledge the milestone. We were struggling to hold the most chaotic and disrupted election since at least 1994. More importantly, there was precious little to celebrate. We haven’t achieved the ideals and goals of the 2000 municipal project.
Even worse, we have clearly regressed over the last decade. Local government didn’t mature and become more responsible in its teens – it’s currently living in the basement and asking national government for more pocket money.
How did we end up with municipalities so thoroughly broken, dysfunctional and riddled with corruption? The vision we had for transforming local government is unrecognisable; what was ambition now seems like hubris.
How did we get here and what can we do about it?
1990 to 2000: preparing for democratic local government
The legacy of apartheid spatial planning and separate development is most apparent at local level. Before 1996 municipalities had very little power of their own and existed “at the mercy of the provinces”.
Local government was fractured and service delivery was unequal. The sub-council of Johannesburg, for example, had no responsibility to Soweto residents and people living in Alexandra received no help from Sandton officials.
Between 1990 and 2000 local government was transformed into a sphere of government equal in law to national or provincial government. Municipal officials were democratically elected. Local government was now ‘wall-to-wall’; there was no corner of South Africa that did not fall under a local authority.
Most importantly, local government was autonomous, with legislative and executive functions independent of national and provincial structures. Municipalities were tasked with the same mandate as other spheres of government: to integrate the fractured communities within their borders and to redistribute resources from the rich to the poor.
2000 to 2008: the wonder years
The 2000 local government election, the first democratic election of its kind, was the beginning of an experiment and a dream. Local government, for the first time in South Africa’s history, would be democratic, representative and inclusive. Over the following decade our dream grew bigger; municipalities would be also be accountable, accessible, transparent, transformative, and pro-poor.
National government acted with intent and impetus to strengthen local government with all the resources at its disposal. It transferred basic service infrastructure to municipalities and created new administrative laws at a steady rate. In the place of apartheid’s centralised power structure and unequal development there were guidelines for community inclusion, financial transparency, and social transformation.
It is hard to recollect the optimism and hope of that period. Most of our memories are shaded by hindsight and embarrassment at the corruption and patronage that we overlooked. However, for the brief time that our planets aligned, for those few years when we enjoyed a healthy economy and a relatively clean government, we thought that we could accomplish anything.
We repaid the national debt that was run up in the last years of apartheid. We had a budget surplus, a growing social safety net, and declining unemployment. We had a World Cup to host – surely we could keep the lights on at the same time?
2008 to 2016: disillusionment
The failures of local government started long before 2008 but they had become impossible to ignore by then. The global financial crisis and the problems at Eskom put paid to any cosmetic efforts at a national level. Thanks to double-digit price increases the cost of electricity doubled between 2008 and 2012, just as the national economy was reeling from the global recession.
Corruption and mismanagement were firmly established in many municipalities but money and excuses had hidden the extent of the problems. Both were drying up. The water and electricity infrastructure inherited from national government had not been maintained, service delivery protests were growing in frequency and intensity, and capital budgets were stolen or returned unused to Treasury.
All the beautiful laws and regulations were being ignored or abused as a culture of impunity set in. Any initial successes in service delivery were halted, and then eroded or reversed. Instead of devolving power to wards and communities, power was centralised within political parties. Instead of decentralising control, municipalities were merged.
Worst of all, instead of making a dent in apartheid spatial planning, informal settlements mushroomed in the cities as in-migration steadily increased. State failures at every level of government became a problem for the metro municipalities.
The six metros increased to eight for the 2011 election. It would have been nine but Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg) was held back while Mangaung (Bloemfontein) and Buffalo City (East London) graduated. This was the starkest warning yet: no municipality – not even a rich would-be metro with a wide tax base and devolved services – was immune to corruption or mismanagement.
And yet, with few exceptions the ANC was returned to power across local government in the 2011 election. Voters were still loyal enough to give the party another chance. But over the next three years the rest of the world recovered from the recession while we spun our wheels and our stories of future GDP growth. And then loadshedding returned.
2016 to 2021: despair
Since 2016 we have held three elections and two clear trends have emerged. South Africans, particularly young people, are sick of the ANC and they are tired of voting.
The ANC lost significant power in 2016, particularly in the metros. The party’s losses grew bigger in the 2019 national election and after 2021’s dust had settled the ANC controlled a minority of the metros.
Just under half of South Africa’s population lives in the metros, and a majority of the economic activity and employment takes place in just these eight municipalities. The success or failure of local government is measured by what happens here.
Loosening the ANC’s stranglehold on local government did not lead to widespread improvements. Coalitions of opposition parties collapsed in Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg. Questionable – and ultimately illegal – interference from provincial government placed Tshwane under administration.
By 2021 the voters had grown tired. Turnout and registration numbers tumbled to levels last seen in 2000, a useful and grim illustration of all the gains that have been ceded over the last 21 years.
What happens now?
It has been seven months since the local government election. Only three metros (Cape Town, Buffalo City, and Mangaung) are governed by outright majority. The other five have seen coalition governments, minority governments, collapsing coalitions and, in the case of Mangaung, being placed under administration.
In just seven months there has been physical violence in council chambers, councillor assassinations, and national government threatening to intervene. The new term of office has barely begun and a majority of the metros are already at risk.
Even if the ANC is kept out of power and opposition parties can find a way to work together in the public interest, our electoral system punishes wards councillors, independent candidates, and by extension communities. Real, grassroots, bottom-up democracy will never be a priority for political parties.
The Third Republic will be launching a new project in June called MetroMonitor. MetroMonitor is a real-time analysis of the eight metros, focusing on political / economic risk, service delivery, and community development. Our first goal is to provide a comprehensive picture of what is happening in our cities.
We will be providing monthly and weekly summaries of important events in the metros, political developments, and budget analysis. We will also be working with communities and independent political actors to increase community participation and political reform.