One Step Back, Two Steps Forward: Is It Time To Make Provinces History?

By Dale T. McKinley · 11 Jul 2011

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Picture credit: www.SACarRental.co.za
Picture credit: www.SACarRental.co.za

If there is one thing that history has regularly taught us, whether at the individual or collective level, it is that what might seem like a good idea at the time often ends up becoming something very different when put into practice. With the benefit of seventeen years of democratic hindsight, nowhere is this lesson more applicable than in respect of South Africa’s provincial tier of government.

During those heady days of constitutional negotiations in the early 1990s, despite the liberation movement’s historic demand for a unitary state, hardly anyone raised serious public objections to the idea of including a provincial layer of government, sandwiched between the national and local. Besides the fact that some geographically-defined provinces already existed, the idea was clearly informed by a desire to placate those still powerful apartheid-era political and social forces who demanded an ‘autonomous’ provincial tier of government as a federalist bulwark against the ‘centralising’ power of an ANC-controlled national government. 

Simply put, the constitutional enshrinement of provinces and their associated provincial governments across nine ‘units’ was the result of a political compromise that had little to do with considerations of the most effective and efficient form of democratic governance in a post-apartheid South Africa but everything to do with closing the negotiated ‘deal’.

It did not take long for the ‘price’ of this compromise to become apparent. Constitutionally granted ‘co-governance’ competency status alongside the national and local tiers but bereft of meaningful legislative and executive powers, the role and character of provinces quickly turned into that of an institutional ‘in-between’ sponge, sucking up ever-increasing amounts of human and material resources flowing from national downwards. Added to the historic infrastructural and socio-economic unevenness across the provinces as well as the ANC’s early adoption of a neo-liberal macro-economic framework, the practical impact has been to further entrench apartheid-induced spatial, racial, ethnic and class divisions.

Confirmation of this comes from none other than our own national statistics agency.  During the period 2006-2010, the average life expectancy of women in the rich provinces of Gauteng and the Western Cape was 60 years but in the much poorer provinces of the Free State and North West, a mere 47 years. For the same period, figures on inter-provincial migrancy reveal large-scale movements of people from poor to rich provinces (with all the attendant political, social and economic consequences on both ‘sides’). In this respect, 211,600 people left the Eastern Cape, Limpopo lost 141,000 inhabitants, while all the other poorer provinces registered substantial emigration. Not surprisingly, the only two to record net gains are Gauteng with 364,000 ‘immigrants’ from other provinces and the Western Cape with 94,000.

As the provincial governments (inclusive of their legislatures) have grown, so too have they absorbed ever-increasing numbers of experienced and skilled politicians and bureaucrats as well as public monies that could be put to far better use at both the national and local levels of government. The added layers of bureaucracy, taxation (provincial levies, surcharges and duties)  and the duplication of functions - with each provincial government having departments such as health, education, safety and security and transport – have acted as a major institutional and developmental drag. The possibilities of more efficient planning and implementation of public services, effective political oversight, intra-government communication and redistributive spatial development have all suffered serious blows as a result. 

Crucially, provincial governments have become a major barrier to effective public regulation and the pursuit of socio-economic equity and justice where most needed (at the local level) and for those most in need (the poor). The rapid implementation of neo-liberal technocratic managerialism and its associated ‘cost-recovery’ agenda at local government level can largely be ascribed to the provinces receiving the bulk of institutional, infrastructural and developmental funds from national government. Even if recent municipal legislation has formally increased the power of local government and attempted to provide for a more effective and equitable system of governance at the local level, the provincial sponge has ensured that local government has been left mostly to its own revenue-raising and regulatory devices. The practical results have produced an ongoing cyclical crisis of political legitimacy, institutional impunity and untold human misery.

What is also now more than apparent is that provinces have become the prime incubators and catalysers of political warlordism. Besides the obvious examples of the Northern Cape’s John Block and Mpumalanga’s David Mabuza, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that the Free State’s Ace Magushule and Limpopo’s Cassius Mathale are not far behind. Combined with the large numbers of political ‘deployees’ and associated private business-people who fill the ranks of the respective provincial ‘armies’, it is not an exaggeration to say that South Africa is facing a situation where many provinces are in danger of becoming the ‘organic’ breeding grounds of institutionalised criminal enterprises. While those like the Helen Zille, DA-controlled Western Cape might trumpet their ‘clean governance’ credentials, they are no less representative of the provincial warlordism, whatever its racial and/or ethnic hue, that blots our political landscape.

Given these realities, it should be more than obvious that something needs to change. There has been some intra-party, and to a much lesser extent public, debate around the future of provinces. Besides their abolishment, other ideas put on the table include reducing the number of provinces as well as changing their powers and functions to enhance regional oversight of local government.   

In considering the options, we all need to ask ourselves whether or not provinces are relevant to the dominant needs of the vast majority of those who live in South Africa? Several, more specific questions should follow: Do provinces and their associated structures enhance democratic participation, representation and inclusion? Do they improve or hinder direct accountability, the effective use of public sector capacity and the delivery of basic services? Do they exacerbate and deepen past and more contemporary spatial, class, racial and ethnic divisions? Do they constitute a meaningful vehicle for the positive decentralisation of power and governance?

Asking and engaging these (and other) questions, does not mean that there are easy, ready-made answers and solutions or that substantive change on the provincial front will address all the fundamental problems and challenges that confront our collective polity. Yes, there will be sustained resistance and political hysteria from those who have much to lose. Yes, meaningful and formal changes to the present set-up will necessarily involve a difficult constitutional amendment process. What it does mean is that retaining the status quo is not an option. 

Sometimes there is the need to take a step back in order to see the way forward. Let a real public debate begin.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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