Time for more effective local government

October 25, 2005

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 box. 

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 relationship.


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 enough. 

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 contract.

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 invisible.

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 councillors.


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 government. Why? 

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 this. 

We need national policy-making more closely informed by grassroots reality, and we need local authorities more connected into the heart of national policy debate. 

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