The National Treasury’s recent invocation of Section 100 of the Constitution to intervene in a number of provinces, has rekindled the debate on the future of provinces in South Africa. Largely emanating from within the structures of the African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partners, this ‘flickering’ debate has been on the cards for a while without ever seeming to reach its conclusion. The criticisms raised centre on political, economic and structural and administration (efficiency) questions.
The various interventions by National Treasury in Limpopo, Gauteng and Free State have fanned the flames higher, without shedding new light. In the public discourse, all three - if not all nine - provincial administrations seem to be painted with the same brush by those calling for provinces to be merged or scrapped altogether. But so far, the debate has failed to tackle the fundamental issue: proposals to change the function or number of provinces can only be meaningfully evaluated in terms of what this will mean for service delivery and social development. And this, in turn, means careful assessment of the relationship between existing and proposed models of provincial government to local government and governance.
There is obvious merit to the charges that provincial government has frequently been unable to fulfil its role. Examples of leadership and capacity deficits, maladministration, and concerns around procurement and financial systems abound. The often-heard conclusion is that this level of government - with its nine legislatures, nine executives, nine sets of provincial ministries - is simply a waste of resources, a place to play games of politics and patronage without contributing to governance or development.
Those who call for the scrapping of this sphere, argue that provincial functions can more or less simply be devolved to municipalities. However, as we know, municipalities are not without their own problems, in fact, the majority of them have similar - if not worse - functional inefficiencies as provincial governments do. Equally, those who argue in favour of the status quo do not provide compelling arguments on what should be done instead to fix the problems.
Provinces are an intermediary structure of participation and accountability in the system of governance. They are an important layer of political representation and therefore a vital organising tool for political parties. Most importantly, provinces have both executive and legislative functions, what would happen to the National Council of Provinces should provinces be scrapped? As the provinces are a significant employer, what would happen to the personnel currently employed in this sphere of government: is it a simple case of pushing them up (national) or down (local government)?
The performance of provinces (and municipalities) is uneven; it has been good in some places as well as shocking in others. Lessons are yet to be shared on why some provinces have done better than others, including a consideration of our apartheid history: in terms of politics, personnel and underlying challenges, including the concentration of poverty, the provinces had very different starting points. Also, provinces that are export or services-driven and include large metropolitan regions will fare better compared to provinces that are more oriented towards agriculture and lower-end manufacturing services.
The debate has yet to mature to a point where it recognises the meaningful differences between apparently similar units and the best practices are yet to be transplanted elsewhere. Ideally, proposals to strengthen the system should address those differences rather than call for a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Also, history should not be overlooked. The provinces, with their current boundaries, were formed as a result of a political compromise that ushered in non-racial democracy. For both good and ill, these frameworks clearly have an enduring hold on political parties, civil servants, and citizens working within boundaries that stretch back to before 1994. Networks of power and patronage and pride have been built up around the present provinces.
The geographical provincial boundaries have also translated into entrenched political and social identities and proposals to scrap or reduce these are likely to be fraught on this basis. Proponents of eliminating or reducing the number of provinces will have to consider the value of confronting this head-on - potentially strengthening regional or ethnic identities - and weigh it against other means of achieving macro-economic imperatives for the purposes of speedy redistribution of wealth. The fundamental question remains: How does one restructure the system to achieve sound governance, and address the large and urgent issues of service delivery?
It is with this in mind that Isandla Institute recently hosted a roundtable dialogue to stimulate the debate on the future of provinces from a local government and governance angle.
Anger and frustration expressed in service delivery protests have become a permanent feature and a popular mechanism for showing dissatisfaction, generally directed at whatever level of government is closest to hand. While it is evident that 18 years into democracy, many/most citizens are not satisfied with the levels of service delivery and social development, many South Africans can also not be bothered to dissect which sphere of government is genuinely responsible for specific failings. But designing effective solutions does require this. Is it useful to discuss provinces without reflecting on the broader intergovernmental system in order to accurately diagnose where and how the system is failing its people? Despite its shortcomings, can we confidently claim that there is no role for an intermediary structure between national and local government?
The ANC will debate its position on the matter at the policy conference in June 2012 which will make recommendations for adoption by the party’s national conference at the end of the year. The National Planning Commission's references to the matter seem to indicate one influential strand of thought that seeks to improve functioning with minimal changes to the overall structure of government. In contrast, the ANC's alliance partner Congress of South African Trade Unions has powerfully expressed a view that there should be far-reaching structural change - scrap this layer of government altogether.
Whatever conclusion is reached, it must set out a clear and clearly achievable path towards more accountable, representative and redistributive government; one that acknowledges real differences in the challenges and resources in different regions of the country; one that also takes account of the widely varying performance and capacities of existing provincial and local governments; and a pathway that will ensure coordination and planning on an appropriate scale, competent and attentive oversight of implementation, as well as provide citizens with ready access to and tangible influence over their own governance.
This is a debate in which all South Africans have a vital stake: let the contributions begin.
- Pamela Masiko-Kambala is local government policy researcher at Isandla Institute.