South Africa’s provincial system will remain as is for now, but the nine provinces are likely to have their powers diluted in favour of local government, the deputy minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Yunus Carrim, said.
At a summit staged by the ANC to discuss the future of the provinces and assess the effectiveness of the three-tier system of government, it was decided that President Jacob Zuma should set up a commission to review the system.
In an interview Carrim conceded that provincial government is not working, but that scrapping the provinces is not the answer.
“The number may be reduced, and their powers and functions may change. Local government is likely to become increasingly important as part of a more integrated cooperative governance system.”
The question of what to do about the current provincial set-up — which the ANC feels was thrust on it in constitutional negotiations in place of a system with strong national and local government — has been simmering for years.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has said that the provinces were a compromise made during the post-apartheid negotiations and that the ANC preferred a unitary state. However, others have argued that the provinces provide a harmless outlet for regional and ethnic loyalties.
The final decision on the matter will be taken in 2012 at the ANC’s national conference. However, Carrim emphasised that party leaders in provinces would be reluctant to give up their power within their defined localities.
“There are powerful vested interests in the provinces, not least provincial political leaders, who will resist the scrapping of the provinces” he said.
Support for struggling provinces
Free State Premier and provincial ANC chairperson Ace Magashule spoke passionately at the summit about the need for provinces to continue to exist, although he argued for a reduction in their number.
He told the Mail & Guardian that poor provinces such as Free State struggle to attract talented bureaucrats and suffer from a small tax base. “Without central government, the Free State will not be able to exist,” Magashule said.
“If we merge smaller poor provinces with bigger ones that have a bigger tax base, like we did with the municipalities, it would help us.” Carrim insisted that the debate about the future of provinces was not driven by ideology.
“The imperative is practical, not ideological,” he said. “The more we strengthen our cooperative governance system, the more we build a developmental state, and the more we build a developmental state, the more we will strengthen our cooperative governance system. The two are interrelated.
Meanwhile, Cosatu has said it will support the reduction or elimination of the provinces because the additional layer of government “delays service delivery”.
“The pipe is then too long before the service reaches the people,” said Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini.
He said that Cosatu wants strong administrators to replace premiers and provincial executives to ensure better delivery. “Premiers are an appendage in the system that you don’t need. It’s a waste of money,” Dlamini said.
A consequence of scaling down or eliminating the provinces would be fewer elections and a reduced burden of election campaigning on political parties. Local and national elections could be held on the same day.
The idea of scrapping provincial governments, or reducing them to mere administrative centres, is clearly a threat to opposition parties such as the Democratic Alliance and Inkatha Freedom Party, which have regional strongholds.
DA spokesperson on cooperative governance and traditional affairs, James Lorimer, said his party has shown that provinces have value. “Look at the Western Cape. Things here are done differently and more people want to live here.”
A recent survey found the Western Cape to be the best-run province in the country.
Lorimer claimed the ANC reactivated the debate on provinces to serve as an excuse the ruling party could use during the municipal election campaign next year.
“They are trying to fool the electorate by saying: ‘Look, we finally found the reason why you are not getting any services, it is because the structure is wrong.’ But they are doing this because they have run out of excuses, people are upset that after 16 years of democracy, they still don’t have decent services.”
According to Lorimer, provinces can use their autonomy to experiment with policies, as Gauteng did when it went against national government and rolled out antiretroviral treatment for HIV-positive people.