South African Local Government: 10 Years Later

service delivery Municipality
Wednesday, 7 April, 2010 - 10:56

Government should help municipalities to overcome challenges such as leadership and governance deficiency and weak responsiveness and accountability to communities. Local municipalities are failing to fulfil their legal requirements to ensure participation of communities in local government processes. They should do more to encourage the culture of participation by communities in governance processes and in the facilitation of more transparent and accountable governance. Different municipalities have unique social and economic challenges which require unique solutions. Local municipalities have a role to play in ensuring democracy works for the poor at the grassroots

The first fully democratic local elections in South Africa were held on 5 December 2000. This was preceded by the drawing of new municipal boundaries in every part of the country and the dismantling of the previous apartheid divisions. The new democratic government had a vision to “Work with citizens and groups within the community to find sustainable ways to meet their social, economic and material needs and improve the quality of their lives." Particularly those members and groups within communities that are most often marginalised or excluded, such as women, disabled people and very poor people (White Paper, 1998).

However, many have argued that local government in the country is still in the process of transformation. One of the critical constitutional features of local government in South Africa after 1994 is its developmental orientation. For example, due to a range of structural disadvantages created by apartheid, rural areas still require a high level of government intervention to promote development, and if these interventions are to be successful and sustainable they must be guided by a clear vision.

Rise of Local Government

In response to South Africa’s legacy of apartheid, the newly elected democratic government launched its Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) following the elections in 1994. The African National Congress government stated that, “The RDP is an integrated, coherent socio-economic policy framework. It seeks to mobilise all our people and our country’s resources towards the final eradication of apartheid and the building of a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist future,” (ANC, 1994:1).

Within the urban context specifically, the 1996 National Constitution defined a new developmental mandate for local government, namely that it should become a key catalyst for locally-led social and economic development (ANC, 1996). This concept was taken up further in the 1998 Local Government White Paper and supporting legislation, which recognised that “Municipalities face great challenges in promoting human rights and meeting human needs, addressing past backlogs and spatial distortions, and planning for a sustainable future,” (RSA, 1998:36).

Additionally, at local government level the primary focus was essentially to pursue ‘Developmental Local Government’. Local government is required to take a leadership role, and to involve and empower citizens and stakeholder groups in the development process, in order to create social resources and engender a sense of common purpose in finding local solutions for sustainability. Local municipalities therefore have a critical role to play as influential policy makers and as institutions of local democracy. It is in this regard that local municipalities are now being pressurised to become strategic, visionary and vastly influential in the way they operate. The South African government decentralised power in order to create better opportunity for direct participation in service delivery, policy and decision-making processes by civil society. These actions were conducted in an effort to speed up reformation of developmental local government.

10 Years Since

Ten years into the new South African Local Government system, the constitutional and legal framework, established municipalities should ideally be contributing towards building a Developmental State. Therefore, municipalities are obliged to ensure the following:

  • Provide a democratic and accountable government for local communities
  • Be responsive to the needs of the local community
  • Encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government
  • Ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner
  • Assign clear responsibilities for the management and co-ordination of these administrative tasks
  • Facilitate a culture of public service and accountability amongst its staff
  • Promote social and economic development
  • Promote a safe and healthy environment

Challenges Faced in Local Government

However, diverse challenges have been met that undermine the progress and successes achieved so far. Of paramount importance would be acknowledging that the 283 municipalities in the country have different capacities and are faced with different social and economic challenges. Depending on the different challenges, it will be necessary for each municipality to focus and improve on the responsibilities that they are able to deliver.

Of the many challenges faced by municipalities, one of the major concerns is the serious leadership and governance deficiency in municipalities, including weak responsiveness and accountability to communities. Closely related to these is the high rate of financial mismanagement practice for non-developmental purposes, which includes corruption. Also, municipalities have inadequate human resource capital to ensure professional administrations, and positive relations between labour, management and councils. Lastly, the failure of municipalities to fulfil legal requirements to ensure the active participation of communities in local government processes. These failures have resulted in regular service delivery backlogs and protest throughout the country.

As a result, there is a general negative perception regarding the overall performance of the municipal governments and indeed the entire local government system.

The State of Local Government Report (2009), which conducted municipal assessments, highlights the rapid progress made by many municipalities in extending basic services since 2001. It, however, also acknowledges that challenges have emerged to varying degrees in different municipalities, which may require interventions beyond the scope of the affected municipalities.

Government’s Response

On its part, central government has attempted to observe and take into account the various obstacles that have halted the growth of development in many municipalities. This has resulted in the establishment of a framework known as the Local Government Turnaround Strategy (LGTAS), published in November 2009.

The LGTAS includes five strategic objectives that have been identified in order to guide the interventions and support the framework. The overall aim is that of restoring the confidence of the majority of our people in our municipalities as the primary expression of the developmental state at a local level. These identified objectives will act as the key drivers in order to rebuild and improve the basic requirements for a functional, responsive, effective, efficient and accountable developmental local government.

Some of the immediate implementation priorities of the LGTAS (pre-2011 LG Elections) are to:

a) Address the immediate financial and administrative problems in municipalities
b) Promulgate regulations to stem indiscriminate hiring and firing in municipalities
c) Tighten and implement a transparent municipal supply chain management system
d) Ensure that the programmes of national and provincial government and SOEs are reflected in municipal
     Integrated   Development Plans (IDPs)
e) Overcome the ‘one size fits all’ approach by differentiating responsibilities and simplifying IDPs. (COGTA, 2009,
     Local Government Turn Around Strategy, Pretoria)

In Conclusion

The South African Government has committed itself to instituting improved implementation of local government development programmes in the country. The attempt to introduce participatory and direct democracy is evident in the planning processes and policy formulation of government structures. In the run up to the 2011 local government elections, a lot more effort needs to be expended in the promotion of public participation in municipal processes as well as in the facilitation of more transparent and accountable governance.


  • African National Congress, 1994, The Reconstruction and Development Programme: A Policy Framework, Johannesburg, umanyano Publications, Johannesburg
  • COGTA, 2009, Local Government Turn Around strategy, Pretoria
  • Republic of South Africa, 1998, White Paper on Local Government, Department of Provincial Affairs and Local Government, Pretoria, Government Printer
  • Republic of South Africa, The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996,Constitutional Assembly, Cape Town, Government Printers
  • State of Local Government Report, COGTA 2009, Pretoria

- This article, written by Gugu Mgwebi, project coordinator at Afesis-corplan. It first appeared in the Local Government Transformer and republished here with the permission from the Afesis-corplan.


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