Examining the Politics of Municipal Demarcation

Thursday, 9 April, 2015 - 10:49

This article highlights municipal boundary demarcation challenges and protests as well as how communities get divided by the boundary issue and end up fighting for limited resources

The official end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 and the dawn of democracy left many people with a lot of expectations and hopes for a better life. Many who were in dire poverty, particularly in black communities, expected the government to bail them out of poverty aggravated by unequal allocation of resources by the apartheid government. In contrast the country is experiencing countless protests more than anyone could have imagined during the infant stages of the country’s democracy. Peaceful protest is a constitutional right to those who want to register their dissatisfaction and raise their voices. While there are reasons for violent protests given by those behind them, it is becoming a norm in this country that whatever communities demand, it is done through violent protest.

There are different kinds of protests that occur time and again around the country. Those who are careless in categorising these protests end up mixing them in one pot and call them service delivery protests. In reality these protests vary from one protest to another; they include service delivery, tribalism political and demarcation protests while some are a mixture of all these. This article highlights municipal boundary demarcation challenges and protests as well as how communities get divided by the boundary issue and end up fighting for limited resources. While Demarcation Board and demarcation protesters have reasons in their actions, the question is, who has a final say between the Demarcation Board and citizens in the final decisions on demarcation?

Determining Municipal Boundaries

When the democratic government came to power in 1994 it faced the major restructuring of government spheres and departments. The local government sphere faced the most. Municipalities around the country were over 800 and had to be reduced to less than 300. To run the process of redrawing municipal boundaries the government introduced the independent structure to oversee the smooth running of the demarcation process - the Municipal Demarcation Board. The Municipal Demarcation Board was established by the Local Government: Municipal Demarcation Act No.27 of 1998 to execute the following functions:

  • To determine municipal boundaries in accordance with this Act and other appropriate legislation enacted in terms of Chapter 7 of the Constitution; and
  • To render an advisory service in respect of matters provided for in this Act and other appropriate legislation when so requested.

While the Municipal Demarcation Board has been mandated to fulfil its legislative functions independently, ideally the demarcation of local government boundaries should be related to the specific objectives of local government. Any review of local government should consider at the outset the purposes or values which provide the rationale for local government and its relationship to other levels of government (Demarcation Board 2010). Section 24 of the Act clearly spells out some of the Board’s objectives in determining boundaries as to:

  • Enable the municipality for that area to fulfil its constitutional obligations, including
    • the provision of democratic and accountable government for the local communities;
    • the provision of services to the communities in an equitable and sustainable manner;
    • the promotion of social and economic development; and
    • the promotion of a safe and healthy environment;
  • Enable effective local governance;
  • Enable integrated development; and
  • Have a tax base as inclusive as possible of users of municipal services in the municipality.

For the Board to successfully attain these objectives when determining municipal boundaries it has to take into account a range of issues outlined in Section 25, some of which are:

  • The interdependence of people, communities and economies as indicated by existing and expected patterns of human settlement and migration, employment, commuting and dominant transport movements, spending, the use of amenities, recreational facilities and infrastructure, and commercial and industrial linkages;
  • The financial viability and administrative capacity of the municipality to perform municipal functions efficiently and effectively;
  • The need to share and redistribute financial and administrative resources;
  • Areas of traditional rural communities; the administrative consequences of its boundary determination on municipal creditworthiness and existing municipalities, their council members and staff.

Communities are divided for resources or demarcation processes?

The Board is faced with multiple challenges in order to execute its functions. In 2000 there were 17 cross provincial boundary municipalities and about 30 local municipalities remained under dispute. A number of these disputes have now been settled (Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference 2000). Two decades into democracy one would ask a question of whether today’s demarcation protests are just demarcation struggles or is there more behind them? South Africans have to acknowledge that colonial tactics to divide and rule black communities were crafted to have an everlasting impact.
During colonialism, black people in the Eastern Cape lost the military battles as well as economic battles with white colonialists. That left black people losing their economic independence and started to sell their labour to white men (Mayer 1980: 01). They were even denied access to permanently reside in the urban areas which were labelled as ‘white areas’ through influx control policies. But because blacks were needed for cheap labour, whites could not afford to operate independently without black people’s cheap labour. In order to access easily cheap labour they developed overcrowded townships alongside ‘white’ urban areas (Mayer 1980:16). These overcrowded black townships with insufficient resources and rattled by poverty still largely operate as cheap labour sources. Most municipalities that are experiencing urbanisation around South Africa have these kinds of townships. Due to global economic challenges citizens in these townships always compete for scarce resources for survival and fending for their families. They do not like outsiders, particularly foreign nationals in their municipal territories as they feel outsiders are coming to compete with them for the available and limited resources.

Tribalism is one issue challenging the Demarcation Board. Limpopo is a unique province in South Africa which is made up of different ethnic groups (Venda, Pedi and Tsonga tribes). Some of these tribal groups happen to be in the administration of a one local municipality. Thulamela and Makhado local municipalities that are under Vhembe District Municipality have these tribal groups in their administration. On 2 September 2013, citizens of a small town of Malamulele under Thulamela local municipality went on a rampage after a demarcation meeting and torched municipal property because they have been demanding their separate local municipality for a long time. Their current local municipality’s head offices (Thulamela) are situated in a town that belongs to a different ethnic group. The newly appointed premier of Limpopo, Stan Mathabatha, associated the protests and demands to tribalism. The financial viability of a municipality is one aspect which the Demarcation Board considers when determining boundaries. It is doubtful if this area in question will be able to sustain itself due to high level of poverty in the area. This leaves the Board on the spotlight and seen as a culprit in the whole saga. However, it is a challenging duty facing the Board to make sure that the relevant stakeholders fully participate and consulted to put this matter to a rest.

In January 2013, the residents of Zamdela in Metsimaholo Local Municipality in the Free State embarked on a violent protest to reject the merger with the neighbouring and ailing municipality, Ngwathe Local Municipality. The residents’ argument were that they did not  want to be amalgamated with the neighbouring municipality as they believed the municipality was poor and had problems with maladministration and will benefit from their municipal resources. Residents said: “Ngwathe municipality currently owes Eskom R116 million. The merger will mean that we will inherit that debt, which means our municipality will collapse. Service delivery in Ngwathe is very poor” (Sowetan 21 January 2013).

The democratic government inherited these problems where citizens have to fight for limited resources and the Demarcation Board is left to feel the brunt of citizens anger. The Board is faced with restructuring of colonial planning and to balance the scarce resources which started centuries ago. In this case of Zamdela, the Board is accused by residents of not listening to their objection to the proposed merger.

The actions of Zamdela residents clearly indicate that they did not want to share the resources of their municipality with other fellow South Africans who are also in the same poverty deck. However, the Board denied these accusations by the Zamdela community they did not listen to them and indicated that the Metsimaholo municipality itself should carry the blame. The then chairperson of the Municipal Demarcations Board, Landiwe Mahlangu, said that, “One of the most disappointing aspects in this chain [of events] has been a failure by the local leadership to raise the level of awareness [of the merger]” (Daily Maverick, 31 January 2013).

If such a large number of people protest against the proposed demarcation then who are those people who participated in the formal consultation process and how do their inputs form part of the final decision? There is a lot of research and reports in South Africa showing the public participation gaps and challenges in South Africa.

The Board should also share the blame with local leader for the missing and undelivered demarcation information to citizens rather than shifting the blame to local leaders. The majority of local municipalities around the county are currently struggling to meet their constitutional obligations. As per sections 24 and 25 of the Local Government Municipal Demarcation Act, one can argue that the step taken by the Demarcation Board was correct. The move was going to assist the ailing Ngwathe municipality although it was going to be in the expense of the better performing neighbouring Metsimaholo municipality. It was also going to bail out poor fellow South Africans who are in dire poverty and in poor state of service delivery of the ailing municipality by sharing better resources of the better performing municipality. Of course the better performing municipality has better internal control systems which might be of benefit to the neighbouring municipality.

In contrast to the Board’s action, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs intervened after the Zamdela community went on the rampage. He appointed a task team to investigate the viability of the proposed merger. However, the Board protested the Minister’s intervention and called it interference with the Board’s mandate. But how much homework did the board do on the merger of the Ngwathe and Metsimaholo municipalities? The whole demarcation process debacle raises the question about who has the final say – citizens or the Board? In the past in certain areas where people were not happy with the demarcation rulings, they laid formal objections through courts, e.g. the proposed district council areas of Hartebeespoort where inhabitants of wealthy areas objected to amalgamating with surrounding poor areas. In other instances, traditional leaders also took the Demarcation Board to court because they believed that the new boundaries were going to undermine their authority and power-base (Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference 2000). During colonialism traditional leaders were removed from their land by force and some were deprived of their chieftaincy and now they are sceptical of government processes that may temper their authority Odendaal (2012: 16). In KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in particular organised groupings of traditional leaders openly expressed their disagreement at being integrated into certain municipalities with poor consolation. But the Demarcation Board has made it clear that the purpose of the demarcation process is neither to erode the powers of traditional leaders nor to dispossess them of their lands, but rather to ensure that all citizens enjoy the benefits of local government (Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference 2000).


The demarcation process in South Africa is posing multiple challenges such as community objections to demarcation processes and the service demands on new municipalities. Violent protests accompany these objections and demands as a way of registering unhappiness with the final demarcation decisions. These demarcation protests signal that the Demarcation Board and government need to do more and better homework before coming to the final decision.

It is now becoming a norm for South African communities to use violent protests as a method of getting attention from authorities. The country must avoid falling into this trap of violent protests as this can easily wreck country’s democracy. Demarcation problem cannot easily be resolved by the Demarcation Board alone, it needs collective action by all relevant stakeholders. The Demarcation Board is also grappling with legacy of colonial and apartheid policies that are causing rifts in South African communities. The national government and the Demarcation Board need to be proactive rather than being reactive to situations when it is too late. While the country accepts the role of the Demarcation Board and its independence it should be clear as to who has to put a final stamp on demarcation decisions – the Demarcation Board or citizens? It is true that genuine participation is a lengthy process and does not tally with time frames of set programmes and projects. To avoid catastrophic situations that will take communities back, citizens must be allowed full participation and inputs in any process that affects development of their territories.


  1. Mayer, P, 1980, Black Villagers in an Industrial Society: anthropological perspectives on labour migration in southern Africa, Cape Town: Oxford University press
  2. Odendaal, A, 2012, The Founders: The origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa, Jacana Press: Cape Town
  3. Municipal Demarcation Board, 2010, Criteria for determining municipal boundaries and categorisation of metropolitan municipalities, BID NO AO3/2010MDB
  4. Republic of South Africa, 1998, Local Government: Municipal Demarcation Act No.27 of 1998
  5. Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, September 2000, Challenges Facing New Municipalities, Brief Paper 35, Parliamentary Liaison Office
  6. http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2013/01/21/zamdela-rejects-merger
  7. http://mg.co.za/article/2013-01-23-00-zamdela-residents-vow-to-fight-on
  8. http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-01-31-zamdela-a-failure-of-the-public-consultation-process
  9. http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/tribalism-behind-malamulele-protest-premier-1.1572359

- Malachia Mathoho is a senior project coordinator at Afesis Corplan. This article first appeared on the Afesis-Corplan website.

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