Rural Local Government at the Crossroads

By Stephen Greenberg · 25 Feb 2009

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Picture: Sideshow_NYC
Picture: Sideshow_NYC

Local government is the interface between the state and citizens in any country. In rural South Africa, this interface is extremely weak as a result of the power of sectional interests and a local government system that reinforces accountability to party rather than constituency.

The lack of legitimacy and responsiveness of local government was a weak point under apartheid, and the widespread struggle for democratic local representation was one of the most important factors in the downfall of apartheid. It was no surprise, then, that the democratisation and transformation of local government was a central element of the victorious liberation movements in the early 1990s.

In the rural areas, rebellion against traditional authorities in some parts of the country, and widespread consumer boycotts against white-owned businesses in small towns showed that dissatisfaction was not confined to the urban areas. In other places, lack of overt resistance was not always an indication of satisfaction, but rather of a tight and often violent control of the population.

Popular civil society and community participation in local government decision-making and implementation was central to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). However, compromises during the negotiations limited the possibilities for this before it even started. The ‘sunset clauses’ allowed local government officials to retain their jobs until 1999. The formation of transitional rural councils gave the minority white rural population inordinate power in local government. Together, these ensured that the status quo in rural areas was maintained.

In the bantustans, traditional authorities dominated the undemocratic local structures under apartheid. In a bid to consolidate its support base, the African National Congress (ANC) wooed traditional authorities in the lead-up to the first democratic elections in 1994. The ANC contributed to the formation of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), which systematically encroached on the space of democratically elected local government. The result is a continuing contestation over legitimate authority, including the critical issue of land allocation and use. The difficulties in delivering quality services, already a challenge in geographically dispersed and sometimes sparsely populated rural areas, are deepened because of the institutionalisation of competing authorities. In many cases, the ongoing contest between traditional authorities and elected local government has bogged down development activities. Government favours working ‘in partnership’ with traditional authorities, which in practice has meant an emphasis on control rather than delivery.

The gradualist approach adopted by the ANC to local government transformation may have been the product of the real balance of forces on the ground. Commercial farmers, together with the commando system in parts of the country, retained a lot of power. The sanctity accorded private property gave those with property de facto authority over those living on their property. In the midst of the difficulties of setting up responsive and democratic rural local councils (combined with the compromises already made), traditional authorities were able to present themselves as an already-functioning authority in the rural areas, rooted in the living practices of the population.

History is not static. Processes did not stand still while the sun was setting. The technocratic turn under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki snuffed out the activist spirit in local government. Managerialism and economics trumped politics and social reality. The great potential of the Integrated Development Plans (IDPs) was reduced to bureaucratic procedures and checklists. In the lean years of restructuring following the adoption of GEAR, budgets were slashed. Local governments, without any meaningful tax base, were required to contribute to the national fiscus. At the same time, potential sources of revenue such as surpluses generated from electricity sales came under attack from the central state. Local government was given massive responsibilities for service delivery, but with neither the funds nor the capacity to match.

Government adopted proportional representation as the electoral system. The logic was sound, because it allowed for a fair reflection of support in a geographically segregated population. But it had the unanticipated effect of limiting downward accountability and strengthening upward accountability, i.e. to the party. By the time the sunset clauses expired, local councillors were accountable to the centre for their political survival. That accountability meant towing the technocratic line and adopting policies that constrained spending and reduced active participation of the population to occasional consultation. In many areas, instead of allowing local structures to decide who their candidate was to be, the party parachuted in candidates who were unknown by the constituency. This caused grumbling on the ground, but the ANC’s reputation held sway.

By the time the 2000 local government elections rolled around, community structures were gutted. The once-vibrant civics movement that had led resistance to apartheid in rural areas was no more than a shell. Sporadic service delivery protests were isolated and contained in local areas. The top-down managerialism of the Mbeki-era had singularly failed to meet the development goals the ANC had set itself, especially in the rural areas. There is no coherent plan for rural areas. Rural local government is locked into small towns and reactive to initiatives from the top.

To what extent can this be turned around? The ANC is pledging a new focus on rural development after the upcoming elections. The role of government is also emphasised, including promises to improve effectiveness and accountability of councillors. However, this remains trapped within a managerialist ethos. Instead of councillors being accountable to the movement on the ground, they will be made accountable through signing codes of conduct and performance agreements. Despite a renewed emphasis on popular participation, this is likely to remain within a tightly controlled framework driven by the party and state.

What is needed is a rebuilding of grassroots movements with a progressive, transformative agenda. This is painstaking work that must be carried out in very different conditions from those pertaining at the end of apartheid. From our own history of struggle we can learn the importance of strong, democratic grassroots structures that are effective in holding leadership to account. Active participation of citizens in issues that concern them is crucial, but this should go beyond responding to and participating in government initiatives. Citizens must also set the agenda and determine the issues. The only way to do this is to be organised and have immediate control over leadership. A change from proportional representation to a constituency-based system is long overdue. This requires action from above in the form of changes to policy, as well as from below, in the form of citizen coalitions for more accountability. Councillors can also play a part by adding their voice to local calls for a closer link between citizens and elected representatives, one that allows for real partnerships between local government and citizens rather than a passive vote every five years.

We can also learn that using the state can be a strategy but should not be a principle. The most successful progressive local government experiments in Porto Alegre in Brazil and in Kerala in India have shown that parties that spend some time out of power can use this time to consolidate their organisation and renew their values. The goal should be to build a citizen-based movement that can use the structures of government and engage with government without losing its intellectual and practical independence. The ANC is in danger of becoming dependent on state power for its survival, like Zanu-PF today, or the National Party of years’ gone by. This is not to say the Congress Alliance should abandon its position in the state and government. But it should place this in a broader approach that has as its primary function the active involvement of the poor and marginalised in determining and realising a progressive political agenda.

Dr. Greenberg is a freelance researcher with an interest in food systems, land, agriculture and rural development.

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Glenn Ashton
3 Mar

traditional leadership

Great article - the role of traditional leaders in undermining indiviual rights as far as food security goes has been shown as a real obstacle in some cases. Often thier control of collective land resources as well as thier access to government and officials often undermine grassroots initiatives, at least from experience in the E. Cape this has been the case in a few programmes.
Its fine and well to have and recognise traditional leaders but they must have some sort of democratic sanction to limit abuse of power.

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