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David McDonald probes the current state of play in South African policy-making - that of local government. This is proving to be mine-fields, albeit of a more figurative and immediately political kind. McDonald starts with a quote from Thabo Mbeki: "The battle for a new South Africa will be fought at the local level . . . We are only at the beginning of this process of change." He ends with: "As one ANC activist said recently 'white South Africans feel that they have given up the country, and they are unwilling to give up [power in] their own backyard.'"

vol 11 no 1

Decentralization in southern Africa: How democratic?
David McDonald

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 1, November 1995
Page 23
"South Africa"



David McDonald is finishing a doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto on local government and environmental politics in South Africa.

"The battle for a new South Africa will be fought at the local level . . . We are only at the beginning of this process of change."
Thabo Mbeki,
Deputy Vice-President,
Government of National Unity,
June 1995

Negotiations for new, non-racial local governments in South Africa may pale in comparison to the drama and excitement of events leading up to last year's federal and provincial elections, but the results are no less important. It is at the local level that the injustices of apartheid have been most keenly felt, and local governments are expected to play a major role in addressing these inequalities.

But it also at the local level that resistance to change is strongest. Affluent South Africans are anxious to protect the material gains they made under apartheid and local government is seen as the last bastion of support for their suburban lifestyle.

In Cape Town, local government negotiations have brought about a distribution of powers that perpetuates a highly skewed and highly fragmented allocation of municipal resources. White Capetonians (and a certain percentage of middle class "coloureds") will continue to live in luxury while the costs of urban upgrading are off-loaded onto the urban poor through privatization and "self-help" schemes.

The restructuring process in Cape Town has placed substantial limits on the ability of local government to affect real change in a "new" South Africa.

The importance of local government

Guidelines for local government restructuring are laid out in the Local Government Transition Act of 1993, the essence of which is that racially divided cities and towns must be amalgamated into single, non-racial, democratically elected local governments.

Schedule Two of the Act makes local governments responsible for ensuring that all South Africans have access to basic services like water, electricity, transport, and health care. With at least 12 million people in the country without clean drinking water and over 21 million people without adequate sanitation (i.e., toilets and refuse removal), local governments will play a critical role in poverty alleviation.** Local governments are also expected, along with community organizations, unions, and businesses, to identify and manage reconstruction and development priorities. Local RDP Forums will be set up in every town and city, and RDP funds will only go to those areas that have demonstrated a good working relationship between the community and local government officials.

Little wonder then that Jay Naidoo, until recently the ANC Minister in charge of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), has referred to local government as the "hands and feet of the RDP."


These decentralization efforts represent a long-standing commitment on the part of the ANC and its allies to democratize decision making in South Africa. The ANC argues that local government is the "level of representative democracy closest to the people" and the most accountable. Involving civil society in the decision-making process is expected to strengthen support for RDP-related projects and to help avoid costly mistakes.

But calls for decentralization by the democratic movement have also been tempered by the desire for a certain degree of centralization - especially in large cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. It has long been argued that the amalgamation of racially defined townships and suburbs must be accompanied by mechanisms that allow for a more efficient and more equitable distribution of municipal resources, and a strong metropolitan government is deemed absolutely essential for this purpose.

Accordingly, the Local Government Transition Act grants Transitional Metropolitan Councils (TMCs) the power to exact metropolitan-wide tax levies, to rationalize human and capital resources in the metropolitan area as a whole, and to ensure that bulk services like sewage plants and waste disposal are made available to everyone in the city. More local services (e.g. street cleaning, refuse collection, parking tickets) were made the responsibility of metropolitan substructures.

Local government negotiations in Cape Town

Before local government negotiations began in Cape Town, the metropolitan area was divided into a patchwork of 26 municipalities, 69 decision-making units, and no central metropolitan authority. None of these municipalities had jurisdiction over another and except for policing activities very little communication took place between different local bodies. Services such as urban planning, public transport, and the dumping of toxic wastes were conducted with no central coordination and with enormous inefficiencies.

Needless to say, the service disparities between African, coloured and white areas of the city are enormous - a situation that local government restructuring is intended to address. But rather than creating a strong metropolitan government able to rationalize services in Cape Town, the negotiation process has created a relatively weak metropolitan council and strong substructures.

The first blow to a strong metropolitan authority was the exclusion from the Cape Metropolitan Council (CMC) of a number of important satellite towns. The municipalities of Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek - home to many of the intellectual and financial elites of Afrikanerdom - managed to bargain their way out of a metropolitan Cape Town and the associated responsibilities of upgrading the sprawling squatter camps and townships that fall within the CMC.

Representatives from these fringe municipalities argued that their towns were not sufficiently urbanized and not economically reliant on Cape Town proper, and their inclusion in the metropolitan area would bring about a loss of cultural and financial "autonomy." One business owner went so far as to say that the wine industry, which makes up a significant part of the fringe area's economy, "was self-contained and had greater links with France and Australia than Cape Town"!

Opponents of this position claimed that these satellite towns did fit the criteria for inclusion in a metropolitan area and that they are economically dependent on the CMC. Only a large metropolitan authority, it was argued, would be capable of financing urban upgrading in the townships and effectively managing urban growth. Loss of autonomy was not considered a problem because "effective democratic participation in government is dependent in the main on the system of representation and on the strength of civil society, not on the area of jurisdiction of an authority."

The Local Government Demarcation Board responsible for making the final decision on metropolitan boundaries decided to exclude these satellite towns, despite the Board's own admission that these "fringe municipalities apparently spent lavish sums of public money on consultants to prepare arguments against inclusion in the metropolitan area while virtually no assistance was given by these bodies to the respective non-statutory groups who differed from them." The Board also gave little consideration to the argument (put forward by a representative of the World Bank, among others) that splitting what was clearly a single metropolitan area into two would lead to capital flight from the city to the fringe, further weakening the ability of the CMC to address the enormous backlog of services.

The second major blow to a strong metropolitan authority came with the granting of metropolitan duties, and the right to "retain maximum control over local decision-making and implementation" of these duties, to the metropolitan substructures. This devolution of power will make it much easier for councillors from the wealthier parts of the city to resist a restructuring of municipal assets and service systems.

The Cape Metropolitan Negotiating Forum (CMNF) Agreement also stipulates that the responsibility of a given substructure to provide services to "disadvantaged areas" won't "impose inordinate increases in any of its taxes and charges" to rate payers - yet again relieving affluent Capetonians from the burden of urban upgrading.

Metropolitan councils retain the de jure right to collect tax levies and administer bulk services for the city as a whole, but the wording of the CMNF Agreement will make it very difficult in practice for a metropolitan authority to tell substructures what to do. Furthermore, apartheid bureaucrats still control the technical and managerial systems required to run a complex network of service facilities and they are much more likely to listen to white politicians adept at the art of municipal politicking than to listen to representatives from the townships.

To make matters worse, the provincial government, which is controlled by the National Party in the Western Cape, has been manipulating both the composition and the rulings of important local government decision-making bodies. The provincial Minister of Local Government, Peter Marais, a long-time apartheid crony from the ex-House of Delegates, replaced members of the Provincial Committee on Local Government with National Party supporters in order to reverse a decision of the Demarcation Board.

Marais insisted that the (Afrikaner-dominated) northern suburbs in the Tygerburg substructure were unable to support urban upgrading in Cape Town so he unilaterally drew up substructure boundaries that attached all of the major African townships and squatter camps to the southern suburbs. Not surprisingly, residents in this (English-dominated) Central substructure were up in arms over these proposals with local papers predicting massive rates increases if the National Party plan went ahead.

The ANC and other non-statutory bodies were also upset with the plans because it weakened yet again the ability to transfer resources within the metropolitan area. The national government (with support from several national NP Members of Parliament) threatened to declare the provincial government's moves "unconstitutional."

Marais backed down on his original proposal but then submitted an equally objectionable plan to twin the Tygerburg substructure with the townships of iKapa and the Central substructure with the township of Khayelitsha - a proposition that the leader of the ANC for the Western Cape called "economic and geographical nonsense." The controversy eventually had to go to Constitutional Court and has delayed local government elections in Cape Town until at least April of 1996 (a full year and a half behind the original election plans).

A number of commentators have suggested that the episode was political gerrymandering on the part of the National Party to limit the number of African voters on the election lists in Tygerburg; others have suggested it was old-fashioned racism. But the incident also reveals the stark economic interests at play in local government restructuring.

Whatever the motives behind the demarcation debates may be, the heavy decentralization of power in the Cape Metropolitan Area seriously erodes the ability of a metropolitan authority to distribute municipal wealth and assets more evenly and flies in the face of the spirit of the Local Government Transition Act.


This is not to say that all is bad in local government restructuring. Non-racial local government will be an immeasurable improvement on the local apartheid state and there are important political, economic, and social gains to be made. What is being emphasized here is the financial and managerial squeeze that has been placed on a metropolitan authority in Cape Town and the limitations this places on the ability of the CMC to perform its intended duties.

One result would appear to be the privatization of municipal services. A lack of state funds at the local level, coupled with a fiscally conservative macroeconomic policy at the federal level, means that private sector financing will be the only funding option available for the enormous service expansion that is required.

In a June 1995 Report to Parliament, Jay Naidoo announced that of the anticipated 60 billion Rand needed for urban infrastructure over the next ten years, only a fraction of this will come from the state. The "major source of funding" will be the private sector, either by "loans repaid through the tax base, or direct private sector investment in local government services." Although it is too early to tell which services would be privatized, it is clear that privatization will be a major feature of urban renewal schemes in the country.

This is not the place for a lengthy discussion on the relative merits and demerits of privatization in South Africa. However, it can be said that privatizing services at a time when local government resources and powers are still so unevenly distributed threatens to reinforce the racially defined class character of the city and to balkanize even further a highly fragmented service delivery system. Black Capetonians will be forced to pay market-oriented prices for sub-standard services while whites in the suburbs continue to enjoy publicly financed facilities on par with the best in North America.

Affluent Capetonians will not be able to escape the costs of urban upgrading entirely, of course, but they will be able to resist efforts to alter their lifestyles in any significant way. As one ANC activist said recently "white South Africans feel that they have given up the country, and they are unwilling to give up [power in] their own backyard."


** Local governments will not have to finance all of these projects on their own, but a rationalization of white and black municipalities and a reprioritization of local government spending is expected to represent a substantial amount of financial and human resources.

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