01 July 2021 | Story Dr Nitha Ramnath and André Damons
Discussing local government elections. Panellists in the University of the Free State Thought-Leader webinar hosted on 29 June 2021.

Elections are supposed to bring better, more accountable governments into place, but at local government level this has not happened so far. No real change should be expected with new local governments. The elections are not necessarily the answer.

This is according to Prof Susan Booysen, Director of Research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), who was one of the panellists at the University of the Free State (UFS) Thought-Leader webinar on Tuesday (29 June 2021). The webinar with the theme South African politics and the local government elections: scene setter for a capable state? is part of the Free State Literature Festival’s online initiative, VrySpraak-digitaal

Mr Ebrahim Fakir
, Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI), and Prof Sethulego Matebesi, Associate Professor and Academic Head of the Department of Sociology at the UFS, were the other two panellists who discussed politics and local government elections – which is only four months away. 

Not much progress in local government

“We've seen minor changes, more coalition governments that have been coming into power – at least in the metro cities.  In the last few elections, there have been in the region of 30 or so local and major municipalities with coalition governments in South Africa,” said Prof Booysen.

According to her, she does not believe that we can go without elections; however, elections are not necessarily the answer, as there has not been much progress at local government elections as well as on other levels.

Prof Matebesi is in agreement with Prof Booysen, saying that the forthcoming elections would not bring about any change. Said Prof Matebesi: “If we agree that problems in local government – which leads to poor performance – are caused by political and not administrative leaders, if we agree that the local government system is not geared for power-sharing, and if we agree that the challenges of political leaders can partly be ascribed to the dominance of internal party politics, particularly the immense power vested in the office of the mayor – where there is sometimes a complete disregard for council resolutions – then I believe that the 2021 local government elections will not affect the changes, and produce a strong local government, capable of fulfilling its constitutional mandate.”

Decent government can withstand bad politics 

Mr Fakir said it is not possible to talk about a capable state or governance or effective government if we do not talk about politics. Axiomatically, it would mean that if politics precedes government, the type of politics prevalent in society would determine the nature of government thereafter. 

“Even if there is bad politics – with robust institutions, processes, and procedures according to which decisions are made and resources are allocated, society will be able to withstand a period of bad politics. The US and the UK have had bad politics for some time, with robust institutions. However, in South Africa, only 20 years into transition, our institutions are not robust enough and have therefore been available for the malevolent acts of state capture due to corruption,” says Fakir. 


He outlined five markers for a capable state:

1. A strong regulatory capacity – the ability to make laws and policies that are prudent, appropriate, and that fit the circumstances of the society.
2. A technical capacity – the engineering works, the ability to technically maintain and build the infrastructure and carry out the necessary activities required to make a society functional and facilitate its social and economic activity.
3. An administrative capacity – the ability to execute and implement strong oversight, serious ways of extracting accountability. 
4. An extractive capacity – the ability to raise taxes, revenues, rates, so that there is funding for the kind of things that need to happen at local government level.
5. A coercive capacity – the ability to ensure compliance with rules.

“I would argue that if one had to take each of these five measures, you would find that local government – and government in general – are lacking. So, if you have bad and malevolent politics, if you have bad ethics in society, then the ability for these five functional areas of capability in state suddenly starts to wither away, and you have a weak state,” Fakir said. 


South Africa is going through transformation and transition fatigue in the local government area. “At each local level of the state, there is a cadreship of representatives who are more powerful and can exercise power over the PR system. This type of dysfunction filters through the system of accountability and oversight, and as such, people who are responsible for coalface delivery collapse because the oversight is not there.” 

According to him, we have bad politics, and because of this our institutions are easily manipulated, our processes are easily undermined, and people are put in those positions because they can be easily manipulated. 

“Because of that, you have poor accountability, laxity, a poor attitude of working with a sense of ‘all will do as they please’ – the one takes licence from the other, and people feed off each other’s desire for lack of compliance, giving rise to a predatory state.” 

Prof Francis Petersen, who was the facilitator, said the challenges relating to local government will persist.  
“Ultimately, it is about the culture of service, the trust that needs to be developed between the citizens and local government. It is not only about the technical competency, but also about the ethical and value systems,” said Prof Petersen.

According to him, the role of universities in this should never be underestimated.  Platforms should be open to debate and discussion to offer potential solutions to politicians and to bring across that ethical and critical analysis. 

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