ANC move to scrap provinces

The African National Congress’s national executive committee (NEC) has begun debating the future of South Africa’s nine provinces, in line with a resolution at last year’s national general council that the party should “review [the] provinces in the context of the increasing devolution of powers and functions to municipalities”.

The Mail & Guardian understands that at the NEC meeting held in Ekurhuleni at the weekend, Valli Moosa, former environment minister and now a prominent businessperson, gave a presentation on the provinces.

He did so on behalf of the NEC’s legislature and governance sub-committee which was mandated by the ANC leadership to research the political and administrative functionality of provinces, with an eye to formalising discussions about whether provinces, in their current form, are still relevant.

It is understood that the presentation was a largely factual analysis of provincial government. The sub-committee was instructed by the NEC to improve on the presentation before the next NEC meeting by including possible scenarios for provincial government.

A provincial leader said this week that at this stage the debate centred on two scenarios: retaining the provinces in their current form and removing their political powers so that, in essence, they would become administrative arms of central government.

Debate over the bitterly emotive subject was shelved pending a more detailed discussion document. It is understood that the meeting was divided between those — mostly from national government — who believe change is needed and NEC members from the provinces who were protecting their turf.

Reducing the provinces to administrative entities would mean scrapping legislatures and provincial cabinets.

A review of the provinces has been bubbling under the surface for some time, but the ANC leaders have skirted the issue because of its political sensitivity. Many senior ANC figures are known to feel that provincial government was thrust on the party during constitional negotiations, primarily by the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party, to dilute ANC power. Their preference is for strong central and municipal government.

Provinces were ostensibly a compromise between the unitarists and the federalists during the negotiations of 1994. Since 1999, when President Thabo Mbeki took the reins, there has been a perceptible hardening of attitudes in the ANC to the provinces because of their perceived inefficiency.

The ANC is a unitary and national organisation and is guided by the principles of democratic centralism. But, under pressure from the IFP and NP, the 1996 Constitution became a hybrid between the unitary and federal systems of government.

Many believe that the real debate should be about whether provinces are needed at all, However, there is little chance that the ANC will scrap them entirely, as they have become a powerful means of dispensing patronage.

Also at issue is the cost of the current provincial system. The political administration of provinces cost the taxpayer R16-billion in the last financial year, about 8% of the total transfer to the nine provinces from national government, according to National Treasury statistics.

Provincial ministers, their bodyguards and private secretaries soaked up R500-million in remuneration alone, while provincial legislatures, widely viewed as impotent in the face of national government, cost R617-million to administer.

Provincial ministers, as the political heads of departments, have the task of providing strategic leadership to ensure that provinces perform their service delivery and oversight functions. But their success was called into question at the end of last year with the release of the Provincial Budgets and Expenditure Review 2001/02 to 2007/08, which showed that the provinces underspent by R4,7-billion in the 2004/05 financial year.

Discussions about the future of provinces have also been taking place in government, and a troika of laws, which are either still under review or have been promulgated, have already centralised political power by strengthening the government’s hold over the lower tiers of rule.

The Intergovernmental Relations Bill (already promulgated), amendments to the Public Service Act and the draft Municipal Employees Bill will enable the government to set goals from the centre, monitor administration and exercise overall supervision of provincial government.

The legislation, specifically the amendments to the Public Service Act, also aims to bring local government into a “single public service”, so that it is more accountable to national government.

At the opening of Parliament in February, Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela, Director General in the Department of Provincial and Local Government, said that one of the government’s strategic priorities this year would be to address the “structure and governance arrangements of the state”.

“A review will be undertaken of the structure and role of provincial governments with regard to supporting and monitoring municipalities,” she said. “This will include an assessment of their capability to play an effective role in supporting, implementing and overseeing national development priorities in general.”

The NEC’s review of the provinces is likely to irk opposition party members, particularly IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who has, in the past, lashed out at the ANC-led government for trying to foist a unitary system of government on the country through various legislative proposals.

While there is no time-frame to the NEC discussion, it is likely to gain momentum ahead of the party’s national policy conference next year where proposals on the future of provincial government will be tabled.

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Vicki Robinson
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