South Africans have made their voices heard. Now what for local councils?

Election officials scan voters’ identity documents during South Africa’s local government elections in Umlazi, Durban. Reuters/Rogan Ward

Many local authorities in South Africa, including the large metropolitan councils of Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane, will see some form of coalition government for the first time in the country’s history. This is because no single party won an outright majority in the recent municipal polls.

Councils will be established once the various political parties have agreed on the terms of coalition agreements. Members will then be inaugurated. After all the formalities voters may well ask: but what will my new municipal council do? And what is its constitutional mandate?

South Africa has a three-sphere system of government - national, provincial and local. Each has specific functional responsibilities. Typical local government functions include providing water and sanitation services.

Typical provincial functions include school education and health care. The national government is responsible for competencies like policing and national defence. The three spheres must interact in a spirit of co-operative government. This is required by the constitution.

Various other countries also have three-tier systems of government. The specific division of functions, and degree of centralisation or decentralisation, depend on each country’s specific circumstances.

For example India, the world’s largest constitutional democracy, has a national government (Union), 28 states (provinces), seven centrally administered territories and a variety of local government structures that includes more than 3 000 large urban areas.

Germany has a federal government, 16 Länder (provinces) and a variety of local authorities, some of which are quite small. The Länder have the constitutional supervisory authority over local government.

South Africa is unique in that its constitution is the first to list principles of co-operative government that must guide the way in which each sphere of government must behave and interact with the others. Cooperation in this context means respect for each other’s specific roles, working in a spirit of mutual trust and good faith and loyalty to the constitution and citizens.

Many of the country’s municipalities don’t function properly because of insufficient management and administrative capacity. They don’t have enough appropriately qualified and experienced staff.

This inevitably leads to poor delivery of municipal services and infrastructure maintenance. It also hampers development. In addition, the quality of financial management in many municipalities is simply not at an acceptable level. The new local councils face huge challenges in building capable and successful local authorities.

Mandate for municipal councils

The voters have clearly expressed their views about the performance of municipal councils. But they should not show their concerns only once every five years, but during an elected council’s whole period in office.

Municipal councillors’ mandates are naturally directed by their political party philosophy and specific policies. But there is an overarching mandate for all local authorities, namely the constitutional mandate.

Local government is the only sphere of South African government for which the country’s constitution stipulates a specific mandate. It gives local authorities a basic framework of objectives. Section 152 stipulates that local government must:

  • provide democratic and accountable government for local communities;

  • ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner;

  • promote social and economic development;

  • promote a safe and healthy environment; and

  • encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government.

Municipalities are mandated to achieve these objectives within their financial and administrative capacity.

These five objectives are not hollow words on paper and written for lawyers or academics to analyse. They provide a very clear framework of governance for all local authorities and must be translated into practice. They provide a sound basis for good governance; the ideal that all government institutions should strive for.

Service delivery and accountability

All municipalities must have a strategic plan called the integrated development plan (IDP). This should be the road map for a newly elected council to achieve the constitutional objectives. The plans, as well as the annual budgets, should provide clear information about the “provision of services to communities”.

Voters will monitor whether the municipal services - such as water, electricity and roads - are provided in a sustainable manner. But a municipal council should ensure in its planning that sustainability of service delivery is properly attended to.

The integrated development plan should also spell out what the council will do to “promote social and economic development”. It should also state how it will “promote a safe and healthy environment”. Policy choices will be made about the specific ways of achieving the goals set out in the plan. This should be done while taking into account the budget of the specific municipality.

Informing the citizens in a local community about the municipal council’s plans is an important basic step in promoting accountability. But it is not enough. Accountability also requires regular reporting, within a municipal council, to the provincial government, to the Auditor-General and to the citizens.

It also means that when public funds are mismanaged or the Municipal Finance Management Act is contravened in other ways, the correct steps must be taken to hold the respective officials or councillors accountable.

The fifth element of the constitutional mandate for municipal councils is “to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government”.

Involving communities

There are many ways to achieve this goal. Some are required by law. For example, a council must publish an annual budget plus an integrated development plan. It must also invite the members of the local community to comment on them. There are also other ways of involving communities which municipalities should actively explore.

It is crucial that citizens be involved in creating the future they want. Protests in local communities are sometimes motivated by a frustration that their voices are not heard.

The poor situation of most municipal councils described by the Department of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs in 2014 was a harsh wake-up call. It showed that much still needed to be done to achieve the goals set out for municipalities in the Constitution. The newly elected councils, which will have many new councillors, are in a good position to start afresh. They have to work actively to fulfil their constitutional mandate.

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