Municipalities: Is bigger better?

Fewer and bigger local government municipalities might be the best way to address service delivery if Gauteng minister of local government and housing Humphrey Mmemezi’s words are anything to go by.

Are municipal wards and boundaries local democracy or just political sideshows? That was the hot topic discussed at the Critical Thinking Forum held by the Mail & Guardian together with the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB) in February. Political analyst Dr Xolela Mangcu moderated a panel which included Landiwe Mahlangu the chairperson of the MDB, Mosotho Moepya from the Independent Electoral Commission and Humphrey Mmemezi, Gauteng MEC for Local Government and Housing as well as the DA’s Timothy Nast, Executive Mayor of Midvaal Municipality.
Mmemezi’s argument is that not only are bigger municipalities in a better place to plan because of their bigger budgets, but they are also capable of attracting senior and well-equipped municipal officials and stand at a less risk of needing bailout from provincial government.

He said Gauteng has taken a clear decision to move away from the current 15 municipalities to fewer municipalities, which will render more services “to our communities”.

“... Small municipalities ... first lack their [bigger municipalities’] tax base, because you want a tax base to deliver services, and now they want the same mayors, municipal managers, mayoral committees and this reduces the resources [for] communities,” said Mmemezi.

Mmemezi was part of a panel discussing the significance of municipal wards and boundaries at a Critical Thinking Forum organised by the Mail & Guardian and the Municipal Demarcation Board on Monday at the Glenhove Conference Centre.

The panel, moderated by Dr Xolela Mangcu, also included executive mayor of Midvaal Municipality Timothy Nast; Landiwe Mahlangu from the Municipal Demarcation Board; and Mosotho Moepya from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

‘One big municipality’
Mmemezi said the Gauteng government does not need so many mayors and municipal managers while the community needs services; instead, more money should go to communities [because] “we put people first”.

The move, according to Mmemezi, will see the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality merge with Metsweding District Municipality.

“We have realised that small municipalities such as Nokeng [Nokeng Tsa Taemane, which falls under the Metsweding District Municipality] cannot deliver services.

Citizens concerned about ward boundaries voiced their thoughts at the Critical Thinking Forum held by the Mail & Guardian and the Municipal Demarcation Board in February. Watch as the panel of influential analysts and politicians answer questions from the audience.
“They are finding it difficult, so from time to time, as provincial government, we have to bail them out. So the best way we have resolved that, there will be one big municipality that will be able to give services to the people,” Mmemezi said.

However, the move to incorporate one municipality into the other drew strong criticism from Nast, who said he found it strange that a small municipality like Nokeng is falling apart after the African National Congress (ANC) took control from the Democratic Alliance (DA).

“When the DA governed, there was no need to bail the municipality out; it had problems but it was financially viable,” said Nast.

“Five years after ANC rule it now has to be absorbed by Tshwane. I wonder what the residents of Tshwane think that they now have to absorb all the problems and all the debt in Nokeng created by the ... inefficient council.”

He said the real issue with Nokeng is inefficient and corrupt councillors who “we continue to keep in local government”.

“Every time something goes wrong we don’t remove the people, we just change the structure and change the Act and move on,” added Nast.

‘Fragmented demarcation’
Jafta Lekgetwa, a councillor and resident of Dobsonville, who was part of the audience, raised concerns about what he called “fragmented demarcation” of wards in Dobsonville without the residents being asked for input. Lekgetwa was referring to a number of previously existing wards that have been split into different wards due to the new demarcation ahead of this year’s local government elections.

“I attended a meeting in Jo’burg personally where the issue of the wards was discussed; that meeting was chaired by the speaker of the Jo’burg city council. These are the forums where I think [it] would have been raised, but if that issue of Dobsonville had escaped that forum certainly there is something we should do about it,” said Mahlangu.

Mahlangu earlier explained how the board has to ensure that each ward in a municipality comprises roughly the same number of people, leading to people sometimes being discontented about the changes in their wards.

Despite the heated debate between Nast and Mmemezi about decreasing the number of municipalities and making them bigger, the panellists seemed to agree that municipal wards and boundaries are not just a political sideshow.

But Moepya challenged the political parties to work out why voters, after showing interest in the democratic practice of voting in their local wards by registering, don’t pitch up on voting day.

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