The reality is that South Africa is a unitary state and not a federal state. Therefore, while these three spheres operate at different levels, they need to work together, says the writer. In this file photo protesting Orange Farm residents barricade the Golden Highway. 25.04.16. File photo: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)
The reality is that South Africa is a unitary state and not a federal state. Therefore, while these three spheres operate at different levels, they need to work together, says the writer. In this file photo protesting Orange Farm residents barricade the Golden Highway. 25.04.16. File photo: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Correcting service delivery failures requires inter-governmental harmony

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 24, 2021

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OPINION: The reality is that South Africa is a unitary state and not a federal state. Therefore, while these three spheres operate at different levels, they need to work together, writes Bheki Mngomezulu.

Chapter 3 of The Constitution of the Republic states that South Africa has three spheres of government, and they are national, provincial and local governments. It continues to state that these spheres are “distinctive, interdependent and interrelated”. Sometimes this is misconstrued to mean that each sphere has to stand on its own.

The reality is that South Africa is a unitary state and not a federal state. Therefore, while these three spheres operate at different levels, they need to work together.

Chapter 7 of the Constitution focuses on the local government sphere, where municipalities belong. The objectives of local government include providing democratic and accountable government for local communities. It is also responsible for the provision of services to communities in a more sustainable manner so that they can develop and sustain themselves.

In this regard, it promotes people’s social and economic development in all respects. Moreover, this sphere of government is responsible for promoting a safe and healthy environment for local communities. Lastly, local government is saddled with the responsibility to encourage the involvement of communities as well as community organisations in all matters that fall within the local government sphere.

Against this backdrop, it is clear that while both the national and provincial spheres of government are important in consolidating our democracy, it is the local government sphere that is closest to the people. Unfortunately, most of the resources, both financial and those pertaining to the human capital or the labour force, are largely shared by the national and provincial spheres.

Local government is the least resourced sphere. This is an irony. Other factors which compound the problem faced by local government include inter alia corruption, incompetence and mismanagement of municipal resources. Nepotism and the preference of political party members who belong to the party that governs the municipality, paint a pessimistic picture about the prospect of turning the majority of the under-performing municipalities around.

Local government cannot achieve its Constitutional goals without the support of the provincial government. In fact, Chapter 6 of the Constitution focuses on the provincial government. After listing the nine provinces, spelling out how the provincial government is constituted, what each provincial institution should do and how Members of the Provincial Legislature (MPLs) should conduct themselves, Section 139 pays a particular focus on when and how the provincial government should intervene in local government.

Specifically, sub-section (i) makes it clear that “when a municipality cannot or does not fulfil an executive obligation in terms of the Constitution or legislation, the relevant provincial executive may intervene.” This is the thrust of the argument in this article.

In a nutshell, failure by the local government to execute its Constitutional mandate is not the sole responsibility of this sphere. Local government has to put mechanisms in place to ensure that district and local municipalities remain functional. This includes proving these municipalities with the necessary support in the form of skills, financial and material resources, as well as the capacitation of the human capital. Failure by the local government to provide this support amounts to dereliction of duty.

It would be illogical for the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs MEC to only come in to invoke Section 139 of the Constitution once the municipality has collapsed, having not provided all the necessary support needed. When a MEC does this, his or her action amounts to abuse of power. As mentioned earlier, the three spheres of government are not competitors. Instead, they should work together in order to achieve the same goal, which is to better the lives of South Africans.

However, looking at the campaigns for the municipal elections – including the one scheduled for 1 November, it is not surprising to see that some politicians have very little understanding as to what falls in each of the three spheres.

When canvassing for municipal elections, some politicians talk about issues that only national government can do. For example, some politicians talk about the expropriation of land without compensation in the municipalities they would win. This is despite the fact that this issue has not yet been concluded by parliament. Others tell the electorate that they will increase old-age pension in the municipalities that will fall under their jurisdiction. This is despite the fact that (as mentioned earlier) South Africa is a unitary state and not a federal state.

Flowing from this discussion, the following becomes glaring. Prospective politicians need to be educated about the governance system used in South Africa. This should begin at the branch level so that by the time people are elected into any of the three spheres, they will be clear about their roles and responsibilities. Importantly, they would also know how to take preventative as opposed to corrective measures, which are usually costly.

* Bheki Mngomezulu is professor of political science and deputy dean of research at the University of the Western Cape.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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