There is no reason for municipalities to oppose federalism

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Business Day on 21 February 2024

We live in a relatively coddled time, where failure is widely regarded as an unacceptable outcome. But failure builds character and teaches lessons. Nobody needs to learn hard lessons more than SA’s provinces and — in particular — its collapsed municipalities. Federalism is the medicine.

One of the arguments marshalled during the transition on why SA should be centralised was that certain areas are too poor to provide effective governance, requiring subsidisation. This unfortunate argument ignored the fact that there is nothing wrong with starting at zero and building up. The argument succeeded though, and we ended up adopting a centralised, but nonetheless federal, dispensation.

Thirty years later, only the naive and dishonest among us still believe centralisation is a viable route to a prosperous future. In light of their unending lack of willingness to appropriately steward  scarce taxpayer resources, SA’s provinces and municipalities must be cut off from the teat of Pretoria.

It is true that such a cut-off will be painful. But it is necessary and it will ultimately be good for democracy, in particular at the municipal level. Indeed, breathing the spirit of federalism into our formally federal constitution is not merely about authority, but also about responsibility.

Local communities must stop allowing their mayors and councillors to point to Pretoria and say “not my problem”. Only local residents can make it the local government’s problem. Shifting blame does not impress, nor does it help anyone. The DA thinks it revs people up when it points to the ANC central government when people criticise DA municipalities for addressing serious local issues. The reality it is that it looks pathetic.

Opposition governments should instead just do what needs doing, even if the central government is formally “responsible” for that function. What is more impressive? The City of Cape Town complaining that the SA Police Service is “failing to destroy” firearms seized during raids in Khayelitsha, or the city’s own law enforcers just doing so themselves as a matter of necessity?

Naturally, the question of funding will always arise. Conscientious South Africans should never give politicians this “out” though. When the Solidarity Movement decided it wanted a world-class Afrikaans technical college it went about raising funds for it and collected R300m to launch Sol-Tech. When SA mining companies needed electricity before the establishment of Eskom, they established their own power utilities.

Quit complaining and rise to the occasion, in other words. But when something truly is unaffordable, that is a reality. So, if a municipality simply cannot afford to build a new sports stadium, for example, it should not be allowed to go begging to Pretoria. It must muster its community and build what it can afford.

That stadium will belong to the community — something for which it was responsible and over which it can take ownership. If this is not an option, the municipality must delay matters and start doing things differently so it may afford a new stadium in future. If a stadium is simply plopped down by central government, not only has the municipality lost a chunk of its responsibility to its own community, but if it could not afford to build the stadium it will probably not be able to afford to maintain it.

Corruption and mismanagement

It is also not an accident, or determined consequence of history, that municipalities largely cannot afford things today. If they had not been hotbeds of corruption or mismanagement local businesses would not have fled for the hills. In other words, they must regain the confidence of business and attract entrepreneurship, and in so doing capacitate themselves.

Singapore and Hong Kong were not wealthy from year zero. They implemented policies that were attractive to local and international commerce, and they exuded competence and professionalism every step of the way. This can be true for any SA municipality or province that takes its responsibility to its people seriously enough.

Municipalities in particular must always address themselves to the constitution — not legislation — when determining their own responsibility. Indeed, section 152(1) of the constitution provides that the promotion of a “safe” environment and “social and economic development” — but, above all, “democratic and accountable government for local communities” — are key functions of local government.

Section 151(4) provides that the central or provincial governments “may not compromise or impede a municipality’s ability or right to exercise its powers or perform its functions”. Any legislation that ostensibly prohibits municipalities from securing safety and security or protecting society and growing the economy is unconstitutional.

Giving effect to constitutional prescripts must always weigh heavier than giving effect to the partisan dictates of ANC comrades in parliament. The constitution and the local electorate are the sources of a municipality’s authority, not parliament and certainly not the central executive.

Municipalities must, of course, comply with national and provincial legislation that is congruent with the constitution. Provinces have less room for action in the written constitution, but they can rely on constitutional principles like subsidiarity, to achieve much the same. Other principles of political governance, such as the doctrine of the lesser magistrate, the right of interposition, and the right to nullify, could also be useful to conscientious municipal and provincial governments looking to get things done in SA.

Federalism will doubtless mean short-term pain for municipal and provincial governments that have grown accustomed to misbehaviour and corruption. However, in the long term if communities hold their local representatives to account federalism will turn out to be just what the doctor ordered for a flourishing future.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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