Complications of democracy and municipal performance

Issued by Mandela Bay Development
Johannesburg, Jul 13, 2021

Citizen engagement with municipalities is informed by the needs of the race, class and gender in relation to the services being offered. It is more likely that a person from the suburbs with a plan in hand is seeking approval for an extension to a house in the suburbs, whereas the person from the informal settlement with plan in hand is at the same office wondering when her RDP house is to going to be delivered. Each day, all citizens claim the rights to which they are entitled. In the public service, that all comes together in municipalities.

In a single day, a mid-level municipal official could be dealing with land invasions, rolling out public housing projects, assessing the capacities of large-scale infrastructure with respect to urban expansion, deal with domestic overcrowding, domestic violence, illegal land uses, warring neighbours and approving building plans. Municipal officials deal with many competing demands at the same time because besides the usual requirements for municipalities to provide basic services such as sanitation, water, energy, and roads, they are also responsible for community functions such as housing, libraries, clinics and social-economic development generally. Many of the functions municipalities are responsible for are influenced by the competence of national and provincial spheres of government, as well as the national social-economic challenges prevalent in municipalities. For example, the housing delivery system is a function of race, location, structural unemployment, a largely dysfunctional intergovernmental system and a rigorously used democratic processes that ensures that the services are accessed.

These take place within accountability systems, which include financial, internal performance and extent of services delivered. Incidentally, how this is done is what the Auditor-General investigates each year. All of these are subjected to public debate and democratic accountability that are embedded within the DNA of the state accountability.

In a discussion on the implications of political-administrative relationships on local government performance recently, a colleague wryly wondered if South Africa does not have too much democracy. Together with other national programmes such as free housing and services, public health and education systems that have patchy success, it might be tantalising for municipal officials to have frustrations with democracy. When the state fails, people will use their inherent rights to express their dissatisfaction with the state. The part of the state closest to citizens is local government.

Overcoming South Africa’s income and racial disparities requires different sets of skills because people express their constitutional rights in different ways. To understand the complexity within which municipal officials work, I’ve established a framework to understand the logic which makes South African public service complex. Following on from the Constitution, the South African state is based on core values which some might consider nonsensical.

The constitutional goals are informed by Nordic social democracy, which is expensive. Contemporary economic policies are derived from the so-called “Washington Consensus”, which has exacerbated unemployment and inequality. The physical structure of the state is a hybrid of indigenous, Westminster and Commonwealth systems. The overarching participatory democratic system within which all policies are implemented is Cubanesque.

All of these are seemingly contradictory and give rise to policies and programmes that are often at odds with each other. A perverse example of this is the National Treasury Regulations, which forbids as anti-competitive the extra points allocated in a tender to locally based businesses; whereas such incentives are core to local economic development. In other words, state structure, policies and performance are contradictory and confusing.

The contradictions within each of these policies, systems and structures are expressed where public expressions are most visceral – in the democratic interaction between communities and municipalities. Democracy is a messy and argumentative undertaking and in our new democracy, requires time to establish itself. The challenge lies in understanding what needs to change if municipalities are to perform their constitutional roles. Ironically, contradictory policies and state incompetence tied to a nascent but active democracy provides opportunities for municipalities and agencies such as the Mandela Bay Development Agency.

In undertaking its programmes to make a meaningful contribution towards a different society, the team tries to perform through navigating the complexities and contradictions. What makes this MBDA team special is that it contains individuals with specialisation in criminology, cleansing, cultural heritage, architecture, quantity surveying, local facilities and logistics management, project management, programme administration, financial management, risk management, supply chain, stadium management, natural sciences, trade unionism and communication. It is a small team relative to its performance, which is what makes it remarkable. The challenge to leading such a team is to understand the logic of what it wants to do in pursuit of a different society. Working in a participatory democratic system enrobed by contradiction and intergovernmental incompetence is hard. That does not mean that democracy is the problem, it merely means that municipal officials need to find ways in which to imbibe it as an essence of their development work.