Here's why South Africa's local governments need to change their ways

Last August's vote in Johannesburg. Image: Getty.

Many local authorities in South Africa, including the large metropolitan councils of Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane, are to see some form of coalition government for the first time in the country’s history. This is because no single party won an outright majority in the recent municipal polls.

Councils could only be established, and members inaugerated, once the various political parties have agreed on the terms of coalition agreements. After all the formalities voters may well be asking: but what will my new municipal council do? And what is its constitutional mandate?

South Africa has a three-sphere system of government: national, provincial and local. Each has specific functional responsibilities. Typical local government functions include providing water and sanitation services.

Typical provincial functions include school education and health care. The national government is responsible for competencies like policing and national defence. The three spheres must interact in a spirit of co-operative government. This is required by the constitution.

Various other countries also have three-tier systems of government. The specific division of functions, and degree of centralisation or decentralisation, depend on each country’s specific circumstances.

For example India, the world’s largest constitutional democracy, has a national government (Union), 28 states (provinces), seven centrally administered territories and a variety of local government structures that includes more than 3 000 large urban areas.

Germany has a federal government, 16 Länder (provinces) and a variety of local authorities, some of which are quite small. The Länder have the constitutional supervisory authority over local government.

South Africa is unique in that its constitution is the first to list principles of co-operative government that must guide the way in which each sphere of government must behave and interact with the others. Cooperation in this context means respect for each other’s specific roles, working in a spirit of mutual trust and good faith and loyalty to the constitution and citizens.

Many of the country’s municipalities don’t function properly because of insufficient management and administrative capacity. They don’t have enough appropriately qualified and experienced staff.

This inevitably leads to poor delivery of municipal services and infrastructure maintenance. It also hampers development. In addition, the quality of financial management in many municipalities is simply not at an acceptable level. The new local councils face huge challenges in building capable and successful local authorities.

Mandate for municipal councils

The voters have clearly expressed their views about the performance of municipal councils. But they should not show their concerns only once every five years, but during an elected council’s whole period in office.

Municipal councillors' mandates are naturally directed by their political party philosophy and specific policies. But there is an overarching mandate for all local authorities, namely the constitutional mandate.

Local government is the only sphere of South African government for which the country’s constitution stipulates a specific mandate. It gives local authorities a basic framework of objectives. Section 152 stipulates that local government must:

  • provide democratic and accountable government for local communities;

  • ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner;

  • promote social and economic development;

  • promote a safe and healthy environment; and

  • encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government.

Municipalities are mandated to achieve these objectives within their financial and administrative capacity.

These five objectives are not hollow words on paper and written for lawyers or academics to analyse. They provide a very clear framework of governance for all local authorities and must be translated into practice. They provide a sound basis for good governance; the ideal that all government institutions should strive for.

Service delivery and accountability

All municipalities must have a strategic plan called the integrated development plan (IDP). This should be the road map for a newly elected council to achieve the constitutional objectives. The plans, as well as the annual budgets, should provide clear information about the “provision of services to communities”.

Voters will monitor whether the municipal services – such as water, electricity and roads  – are provided in a sustainable manner. But a municipal council should ensure in its planning that sustainability of service delivery is properly attended to.

The integrated development plan should also spell out what the council will do to “promote social and economic development”. It should also state how it will “promote a safe and healthy environment”. Policy choices will be made about the specific ways of achieving the goals set out in the plan. This should be done while taking into account the budget of the specific municipality.

Informing the citizens in a local community about the municipal council’s plans is an important basic step in promoting accountability. But it is not enough. Accountability also requires regular reporting, within a municipal council, to the provincial government, to the Auditor-General and to the citizens.

It also means that when public funds are mismanaged or the Municipal Finance Management Act is contravened in other ways, the correct steps must be taken to hold the respective officials or councillors accountable.

The fifth element of the constitutional mandate for municipal councils is “to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government”.

Involving communities

There are many ways to achieve this goal. Some are required by law. For example, a council must publish an annual budget plus an integrated development plan. It must also invite the members of the local community to comment on them. There are also other ways of involving communities which municipalities should actively explore.

It is crucial that citizens be involved in creating the future they want. Protests in local communities are sometimes motivated by a frustration that their voices are not heard.

The poor situation of most municipal councils described by the Department of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs in 2014 was a harsh wake-up call. It showed that much still needed to be done to achieve the goals set out for municipalities in the Constitution. The newly elected councils, which will have many new councillors, are in a good position to start afresh. They have to work actively to fulfil their constitutional mandate.The Conversation

Dirk Brand is extraordinary senior lecturer at the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.