Article by Dr Lionel Mtshali MPP
Leader of the IFP caucus, KZN Parliament
Published in The Mercury, 25 October 2005
Municipalities must not only deliver at
community level, they must also help to drive national policy.
South Africa's democracy may be
"young", "vibrant" and "alive with
possibility", but it is not accountable. The system of
proportional representation, coupled with the closed party list,
does not prompt our government to answer to the electorate
through the accountability of individual members of parliament
to voters in their respective constituencies, except by proxy.
The recent floor-crossing episode exposed
a particularly raw nerve in this scenario: at the end of it, our
voters were saddled with a parliamentary representation they did
not choose, and most probably would not choose, at the ballot
The only constituency-based, and therefore
publicly accountable, electoral system in South Africa today
operates at local government level.
One would imagine that our priority would
be to make the best of it. So how does one turn the democratic
accountability of our municipal councillors into the single
biggest strength of local government?
For starters, one must consider the flaws
in the underlying structure of that government. The local
government is potentially the fastest and most effective vehicle
of service delivery to the rural poor.
Where national government is too often
prone to setting up committees and establishing policy units,
local government contemplates and, at least in theory, delivers
action. Ideally, local government should draw decision-making
down to the most relevant local level.
The real test of this is the extent to
which big decisions are shared within the national-local power
In South Africa today, there is big talk
of the three tiers of government, national, provincial and
local, being interdependent, but, at the same time, independent
as opposed to the old pyramid model.
They are, if I must borrow a rather
unsavoury phrase from our apartheid history, "separate, but
equal". Yet we all know from our daily interaction with the
municipalities that, in fact, they are "separate and
inherently unequal". The underlying tensions are obvious
Decentralisation is good, but it should
not mean greater distance between local and national. In
this case it does. We also know that centralism cannot easily
deliver responsive, sophisticated or tailor-made public services
at local level.
Yet, simultaneously, all political parties
know they must set national priorities as part of the legitimate
accountability process, delivering manifesto policy objectives
strategically across the country and fulfilling the electoral
One good measure for determining the real
importance of local government is the extent to which locally
elected representatives have a visible role on the national
political stage. For the most part, the councillors are totally
You may not know your local MP because the
electoral system does not give you one. You should know at least
your councillor, whom the electoral system places in your area,
but you have never heard of him or her.
This is because, bar a few exceptions,
there is a shocking lack of leadership at municipal level. These
deficiencies have been brutally unearthed by the recent typhoid
breakout in Delmas, Mpumalanga. The national politicians whom we
saw getting involved there should have been the local
The typhoid breakout, because of the
pollution in sewer systems, illustrated an undisputed failure of
the local government in Delmas. Yet the responsibility, amid so
much local incompetence, had to be assumed by the national
In order to prevent future breakouts and
breakdowns, these two tiers of government must intermarry anew -
on brand new terms.
I believe that the forthcoming local
government elections offer a good opportunity to reassert the
importance of local governance by increasing the prominence of
local democracy at that national level.
The time has come for local government to
move on to the front foot, helping drive national policy, as
well as delivering it at a community level. And the time has
come for the national government to acknowledge and embrace
We need national policy-making more
closely informed by grassroots reality, and we need local
authorities more connected into the heart of national policy
This is how I and my party see
decentralisation. This is also why we reject centralisation. The
IFP will fight the forthcoming local government election with
this philosophy in the fore. We will also consider its
implications in selection of our candidates.·
Lionel Mtshali is leader of the IFP caucus
in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial parliament.
He writes in his personal capacity