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Federations Magazine Article
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South African cities tackle new challenges

ocal government S in South Africa face imense
challenges to meet the needs for housing, transport,
clean water and electricity of rapidly growing populations.
These problems appear even larger when
compared to the successes of the national government
since the end of apartheid. Since 1994, while
creating a multi-racial democracy, South Africa has succeeded
in improving the standard of living, doubling exports and creating
a robust economy.
To measure local successes – and failures – the Minister for
Provincial and Local Government, Sydney Mufamadi, launched
a national review of provincial and local government. The minister
has called on everyone to participate, from civil servants to
the private sector, higher education institutions and, most
importantly, ordinary South African citizens.
When South Africa launched its successful bid to host the
2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, the bid’s detractors cited the difficulty
that local governments would face in trying to meet this
challenge. Yet municipalities have demonstrated creativity and
resolve in their preparations for 2010. On the coast of the Indian
Ocean, the Municipality of eThekwini – formerly Durban–was
lauded for its innovations. The municipality used its newly
developed port infrastructure and soccer stadiums to develop
impoverished areas surrounding these existing facilities, even
creating new transport hubs to service them. Mayor Obed
Mlaba stated that the municipality viewed the 2010 World Cup
as an opportunity not only to grow the local economy but “to
transform the city into an effective service-delivery
The landscape of local government
Local government in South Africa is made up of 283 municipalities,
which range in population, size and resources from
severely under-resourced rural municipalities to first-class
metropolitan giants called “metros.” The constitution recognizes
two types of local government. First are the metros, which
have exclusive municipal authority in their jurisdiction. Second
are local governments outside of the metros, made up of district
municipalities that include smaller local municipalities. In this
second category, district and local municipalities share powers
and functions in a two-tier level of local governance.
The six metros in South Africa are home to one-third of its
population. The smallest, Nelson Mandela Bay, has 1.1 million
residents, while the City of Johannesburg is home to 3.2 million.
The metros, which produce 59 per cent of the GDP, are South
Africa’s economic powerhouses.
Nonetheless, South Africa remains one of the most unequal
societies in the world when measured by the gap between rich
South African cities tackle
new challenges
south africa
Urban centres, the
economy’s powerhouses,
could take on more powers
Annette Christmas is a researcher with the Local Government Project
of the Community Law Centre, at the University of the Western Cape,
in Cape Town.
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
Street vendors, once banned under apartheid, sell maize in front of the largest corporate
headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa.
REUTERS/Juda Ngwen ya
SPECIAL SECTION : Cities an d thei r agen das
and poor. With rapid urbanization in the metros and cities,
unprecedented wealth coexists alongside abject poverty. The
metros have a difficult task. They must balance their constitutional
mandate of basic service delivery and improving the lives
of citizens, with the more immediately realizable incentives
that come from encouraging investment and economic development.
Johannesburg was recently ordered to reach a
settlement agreement with poor inner-city dwellers whom they
had evicted as part of a regeneration project to attract investors.
Constitutional guarantees
The autonomy of local municipalities, as part of their own order
o f g o v e r nme n t , i s
entrenched in the constitution.
Prior to 1994, local
governments were creatures
of the national and
provincial governments.
Their powers, functions and
resources entrenched the
apar theid governance
model of poor or non-existent

service delivery in
non-white areas. Since 1996,
local government has a
much broader goal of promo
t i n g s o c i a l a n d
economic development,
creating safe and healthy
environments and involving
communities in local
government, thus deepening
To fulfil this mandate,
the constitution grants
local government a list of
powers and functions. To
match these powers, it has
the right to raise its own revenues
through property taxes and surcharges on service
charges for the delivery of water, sanitation and electricity.
These account for 83 per cent of local government revenue, with
the balance made up of transfer payments from the national
government. At first glance, these taxing powers seem to confer
a generous revenue base on municipalities. However, there is a
vast difference between the revenue of cities and urban centres,
which have stable and substantial homes, offices and businesses,
and the revenue of smaller municipalities where there
is not much to tax.
District municipalities were originally created to integrate
and co-ordinate local municipal services within single areas.
The plan was to use economies of scale at the district level, so
that the district municipality would act as the supplier of bulk
services. The districts were also given the task of supplying and
assisting impoverished municipalities. However, practice has
revealed that they play a very different role from the original
plan. District municipalities are, more often than not, directservice
providers to local communities, creating uncertainty
about the functions and powers of the local municipalities. This
results in duplication of administrative and political centres
and creates potential for conflict. In July 2006, tax levies on
businesses were abolished, ending an important source of revenue
and severely diminishing the capacity of districts to
redistribute services to local communities.
All of these factors have raised the question of whether there
is a need for the two-tier system of local government outside
the metros. Local municipalities with strong emerging urban
centres, such as Bloemfontein, do not benefit from the hierarchical
parameters of the district system of government. It has
been suggested that local municipalities with strong urban centres
be given metropolitan status, while the two-tier system of
district and local government
should be collapsed
into one system.
Stumbling blocks
In the past 18 months, various
parts of South Africa
have been affected by a
growing number of community
protests. Most of
the protests have been over
the lack of service delivery
by municipalities. Reports
in the media have highl
ighted communi t ies’
concern about the slow or
non-existent delivery of
housing and basic services.
Part of the problem is
the lack of a clear and simple
delineation of powers
and functions between
local and provincial governments.
The constitution
provides that where a
national or provincial function
can be more effectively
administered by local government, that function must be
assigned to municipalities, provided that they have the capacity
to fulfil it. While water, electricity and sanitation are firmly in
municipal hands, housing remains a provincial function. The
mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille, cited “red tape delays with
the municipality’s own projects, especially when it comes to
housing” as a key impediment to delivery. The Western Cape
Province has not granted the metro’s application to take on
housing, prompting the metro to declare an intergovernmental
dispute with the province. Even the smallest metro, Nelson
Mandela Bay, has categorically stated that it is “more than capable
and is in fact already fulfilling this function.” Despite this,
housing remains a provincial function, and local government
often has to bear the brunt of community dissatisfaction with
failure to deliver.
Another critical obstacle facing local government is a lack of
capacity and the skills to deliver services to its citizens. In the
restructuring of local municipalities in 2000, much of the institutional
memory of local government was lost when older civil
Continued [pa ge 22]
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
Striking construction workers in Cape Town demonstrate outside the site
of the city’s 2010 Soccer World Cup stadium in September 2007.
SPECIAL SECTION : Cities an d thei r agen das
REUTERS/Mike Hutc hings
MARCH 2008 Federations
South Africa [from pa ge 18]
servants were let go. A major concern is that appointment of
municipal staff is often made on the basis of political patronage
and not skills and expertise. However, through Project
Consolidate, the central government has begun to deploy
skilled workers to particularly weak municipalities to assist in
capacity building. There are still concerns that this initiative is
not enough and that scarce skills may have to be imported from
Looking forward
Despite these many challenges, there are municipalities that
have found new and innovative ways to balance development
with service delivery. The Nelson Mandela Bay metro has
embarked on an extensive program to find efficient alternate
energy sources to reduce emissions and attract investment to
the city. In tandem with the renewable energy projects directed
at industrial centres, the metro has established pilot projects to
supply solar-heated water to low-income areas. Installation
and maintenance costs are minimal. While still in the preliminary
stages, these projects could bring hot water to many
low-income homes. The director of electricity and energy for
the city, George Ferreira, said that without the “buy-in of the
political leadership of the municipality, this project, which
explores uncharted terrain, would not have seen the light of
Creating integrated sustainable cities in which the marginalized
in South African society would share the benefits of
development in local government is an immense project. The
metros – the success stories of local government in South Africa
– could easily be the drivers of development, with limited provincial
and national government interference. Many South
Africans are asking that wherever local government capacity is
lacking it should be developed as a priority.
The review process on government raises critical questions
as to whether the current configuration of provincial and local
government has improved the delivery of basic social services
and deepened democracy in South Africa. The answers to these
questions could fundamentally change local government and
improve the lives of all South African citizens.
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