/ 4 July 2024

Local government reform: strengthening democracy in a coalition era

The municipality is the coalface of service delivery — this is where citizens experience value for their votes, taxes and rates. It is one of the single most important spheres of governance, which cannot afford such vulnerability. (Darren Stewart/Gallo Images)

South African democracy is in an interesting period of transition, characterised by developments and transformations that, ultimately, aim towards strengthening the process, its ability to respond to the plight of the people and socio-economic conditions adequately, even in the midst of a diverse community of political ideologies, which makes the work of coalitions and the government more strenuous. 

Since 2021, citizens — “rate- and taxpayers” — have  been subjected to a series of events that have resulted in unstable municipalities and the changing of mayors and members of mayoral committees more often than ordinarily expected. This has been due to votes of no confidence and coalition agreements crashing either because of policy differences on the approach to certain matters of governance “which are issues of ideology” or infighting by politicians about what is “ego politics’’. 

At the core of these transitions and conflicts is the disastrous impact they have had on communities in municipalities where this has been happening, affecting service delivery and the passing of budgets. This has meant money not being allocated to the places it needs to go to, leading to work not being done on time and people not getting services. 

There has been a tokenisation of smaller parties in various municipalities, where they have been used by bigger parties to secure mayorships in exchange for government positions. 

While this has enabled smaller parties to form part of government and have stronger roles in the processes, slight disagreements have often led to the  collapse of these relationships and changing structures affecting service delivery. 

The municipality is the coalface of service delivery — this is where citizens experience value for their votes, taxes and rates. It is one of the single most important spheres of governance, which cannot afford such vulnerability. 

There is no doubt that instabilities and inconsistencies at local government level have led to citizens losing trust in the political system and democracy and the ability of these to respond to their plight and change their trajectories. 

The local government municipal structures amendment bill comes at an opportune time to restore citizens’ confidence and allay their concerns regarding the disruption of service delivery and the future of municipalities in a coalition country where no single party has an outright majority at the national, and in some cases, local municipal level. 

The bill proposes limitations on the number of times motions of no confidence against a speaker, whip, mayor and deputy mayor can be tabled in the council to once every two years. It also places conditions for these motions of no confidence to be deemed valid where the grounds for the removal of the office bearer must be either violation of the constitution, misconduct or the inability to perform their duties. 

In addition, the motion of no confidence must be submitted via notice and an independent panel appointed to review its validity. 

The bill further proposes a threshold for political parties who can participate in local government coalitions — they must have 1% or more of the seats. 

The challenges in coalitions at the local level have exposed legislative gaps that look at the functioning and work of governments at the local level, from the instability of coalitions to the competence of people elected in local government offices and their fitness to hold office in terms of qualification and experience. 

These are serious and positive turning points in South African legislation, which has seen the signing of the municipal systems amendment bill, which seeks to professionalise the public service at the municipal level, and now the proposed municipal structures amendment bill.  

However, while the bill has positive suggestions on the stability of coalitions and governance in the local sphere, it seems to be solidifying the role and power of bigger political parties in municipal coalitions at the expense of those with smaller constituencies. 

Although they have representation in the council, the 1% threshold comes across as disregarding the role of smaller parties and the voices of those who voted for them and believe in their message and ability to govern.  

This is another form of exploitation of the voices and roles of smaller parties in councils. 

The eThekwini municipality has 24 political parties, 18 of which fall below the 1% mark, thus, according to this proposal, only six out of 24 parties qualify to form a government. 

This is regression and an impairment to the great work that has been done on inclusivity, even to the degree of introducing reforms such as the electoral amendment bill. 

What cannot be ignored in South Africa’s changing political environment is the importance of unified legislation in all spheres of government that will allow for stable and secure coalitions because we also are starting to see how coalitions at national level are having an impact on local arrangements, which calls for more deliberation on how to strengthen legislation between the two. 

There are also broader issues, such as the role of oversight in the legislatures of provinces that have a single dealbreaker and how to allocate positions such as chairpersons of committees in a way that does not disrupt coalition arrangements and makes sure governance is treated as public service, rather than service to the self and a career step. 

Supplementary to deliberations on structures and position allocations in the government of national unity and governments of provincial unity, conversations focused on legislation and policy reform, particularly looking at coalitions and their functions, will be necessary between parties and other stakeholders who have knowledge of best practices. 

Siphesihle Mbhele is an associate researcher at the Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies. His work focuses on rural livelihoods, natural resources, including the blue economy, and climate change. He is the co-founder and host of Activating Youth Activism. Follow him on Instagram: siphesihle.mbhele; X: SiphesihleMbh11 and Podcast Instagram: activating_youth_activism.