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The state of municipalities and the role of COGTA to ensure their stability

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Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)/Taken March 28, 2023 – Newly elected Tshwane Excecutive Mayor Cilliers Brink speaks to the media after the elections in Pretoria, South Africa. Tshwane eventually managed to elect DA’s former MP, Brink, making it the municipality’s third attempt to elect a new mayor, the writer says.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

As the political leadership envisioned how post-apartheid South Africa would look like, the type of the state that would emerge was deliberated upon. After toying with the idea of a federal state, the final decision was that South Africa would be a unitary state. To accommodate those who had embraced the idea of a federal state, a compromise was reached to have provinces. Initially, the number of these provinces was six. Later, this number increased to the nine that we have today.

When drafting the Interim Constitution (and, later, the Final Constitution which was adopted in 1996), the correct wording of the South Africa that was imagined was sought. Eventually, consensus was reached and was captured in Chapter 1 of the Constitution, which stated that “The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state….”

When describing the South African government in detail and how it was going to work, Chapter 3 of the Constitution stated that: “In the Republic, government is constituted as national, provincial and local spheres of government which are distinctive, interdependent and interrelated” [Chapter 3, Section 40(1)].

Local government under which municipalities fall form part of the local sphere. This sphere of government is discussed in Chapter 7 of the Constitution. Section 151(1) states that: “The local sphere of government consists of municipalities, which must be established for the whole of the territory of the Republic.” According to the Constitution, the executive and legislative authority of each municipality is vested in the Municipal Council. In other words, if something goes wrong in a municipality, the Municipal Council should be held accountable.

The five objectives of local government are listed in Section 152(1) under Chapter 7 of the Constitution. These are: (a) to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities; (b) to ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner; (c) to promote social and economic development; (d) to promote a safe and healthy environment, and (e) to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government.

Within this context, the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) is mandated to ensure that local government realises and/or achieves spatial justice as well as social cohesion by operating in an integrated manner.

For all these goals to be achieved, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) must play a leading role. It is this government department that is assigned the responsibility to ensure that municipalities are always functional and stable. Given what is currently happening across the country, the question becomes: has this department dropped the ball?

In total, South Africa has 257 municipalities. These fall under metropolitan (8), district (44) and local municipalities (205). According to Section 139 of the Constitution, if a municipality fails to execute its function, the COGTA MEC intervenes and places such a municipality under administration. While this is permissible in law, it should not be the first step. Other various mechanisms should be used to assist and to warn such a municipality. Only when this has failed to produce the intended results should the MEC place the municipality under administration.

Right now, several municipalities across the country are not stable. On February 9 2023, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that of the 257 municipalities, 163 were characterised as being dysfunctional. This includes between 6 and 7 of those that fall under the metropolitan category. In the Eastern Cape, Nelson Mandela Bay metro in Gqeberha has been unstable for some time. The same goes for Buffalo City in East London (Monti). eThekwini, which is the only metro in KZN, has had its fair share of challenges. Its mayor, Mxolisi Kaunda survived a vote of no confidence soon after the metro’s deputy mayor (Philani Mavundla) was shown the door. Mangaung in Bloemfontein could also not be insulated from the scourge of instability.

While all these metros have clearly failed their people in terms of service delivery, the three metros in Gauteng have received more airtime. Since the departure of Herman Mashaba as the executive mayor of Johannesburg, there has been no stability. Senior positions such as those of Mayor, Speaker and Municipal Manager have changed hands regularly. The final ousting of Dr Mpho Phalatse after surviving on a legality earlier saw Al Jama-ha’s Thapelo Amad claiming the mayoral chain. This followed squabbles in Council meetings among different political parties.

The City of Tshwane could not be out-done by Johannesburg. Randall Williams made history when he wrote two resignation letters in February 2023, igniting pandemonium in Council. As if this was not enough, Dr Marunwa Makwarela put one foot in the mayoral office and exited the stage unceremoniously.

The drama that followed left a lot to be desired as the municipality failed to elect a new mayor due to various technicalities. Among them was the issue of 69 spoilt DA votes which contravened the IEC’s election procedures. It was only recently on March 28, 2023 that Tshwane eventually managed to elect DA’s former MP Cilliers Brink. This was on the municipality’s third attempt to elect a new mayor.

Ekurhuleni has also been unstable for some time now. Things got worse after the 2021 Local Government Election which saw Mzwandile Masina from the ANC exiting the stage. DA’s Tanya Campbell who became the mayor by chance has been living on borrowed time. In October 2022, Campbell was voted out of office but was reinstated by the South Gauteng high court on a procedural matter.

However, on 30 March 2023, her fortunes changed when she was ousted with 126 votes supporting the motion and only 91 voting against it. Interestingly, her replacement was neither the ANC nor EFF as expected. Instead, it was Sivuyile Ngodwana from African Independent Congress (AIC). He obtained 129 votes against Tanya Campbell’s 75 votes. Even if ActionSA’s 15 councillors had not walked out, Campbell would have managed only 100 votes. The fact that ActionSA walked out added salt into the wound regarding the state of coalition politics in Gauteng’s municipalities. This is a taste of what we can expect after the 2024 general election if there is no outright winner.

The picture that has been painted above is not a good one by any standard. Although the focus has only been on the eight metros, there are many municipalities at the district and local level who have been equally unstable or even worse than the ones discussed thus far. This focus was a deliberate move to demonstrate that what we see at the lower levels of the municipal structure is reflective of what obtains at the metro level. It paints a bleak picture!

Going back to what was mentioned at the beginning, the question becomes: to what extent has COGTA delivered on its Constitutional mandate? In other words, has COGTA managed to bring stability in the country’s municipalities? Put differently, if municipalities in all three categories collapse or become unstable, can COGTA honestly claim innocence? If so, then who is to blame? If ensuring that municipalities are stable is not COGTA’s responsibility as the Constitution says, then whose responsibility is it. Importantly, what is the national government doing about this untenable situation?

These questions raise several issues. One of them is whether those who run municipalities have requisite skills and knowledge needed to perform at that level. Another critical question is whether those who are assigned with the responsibility to run municipalities are inducted and capacitated appropriately to upskill them before and after assuming their positions. Lastly, are those in COGTA capacitated enough to play their oversight role over these dysfunctional municipalities? If some of the responses to these questions are in the negative, then the country should brace itself for more turbulent.

What is of serious concern with this situation is that voters are innocent victims. Political squabbles in Municipal Councils and fights over positions halt service delivery. As the saying goes, ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.’

What is also clear in the discussion about the state of the country’s municipalities is that at times the problem is not even lack of skills but shear corruption. Municipal funds are misappropriated, thereby leaving citizens without services that are described as ‘human rights’ in Chapter 2 of the Constitution.

Interestingly, even after having failed to provide services to the people in their previous term of office, political parties in general and councillors in particular still avail themselves to be re-elected. The question becomes: to do what? This is a disgrace!

In conclusion, most of our municipalities are in a bad state. They are unstable and fail to deliver the necessary services to the people. COGTA needs to up its game in order to reverse the fortunes of our municipalities. For these municipalities to be stable and to deliver on their mandate, they need visionary leadership at COGTA. If current legislation is the hindrance, then it must be amended. Voters cannot be held hostage by dysfunctional municipalities.

Professor Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela University

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