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The Journey to Transform Local Government | Former Statistician-General of South Africa (Stats SA), Pali Lehohla.

Posted: 03 November 2020

There are many technocrats inside and outside of government who are able to track the journey to transform local government in South Africa, but perhaps no one does it better than a statistician with first-hand knowledge of how the data reflects the lived experiences of the people it represents. 

This is why the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), sat down with former Statistician-General of South Africa (Stats SA), Pali Lehohla, to map the major milestones of the country’s local government journey through a 25-year lens.

“Materially, the transition over the first fifteen years up to 2011, revealed significant breakthroughs in poverty reduction. Targeting of rural nodes brought about significant reduction in poverty in particular.  

“This was from 29% to 14% over ten years.  But more generally poverty was reduced as a consequence of extending access to water, electricity, sanitation, housing and schooling,” Lehohla explains.

And so some among the poorest of the poor experienced the dividends of a much anticipated democratic local government dispensation. A democratic order which was ushered in South Africa as a result of the first municipal elections held on November 01, 1995.

The agenda for this new order saw the abolition of a fragmented, undemocratic, unaccountable and racially-based local government system, and its replacement by a modern local government system with clear developmental objectives aimed at enhancing the welfare of all South African citizens. 

Transforming local government
Securing a democratic non-racial system of municipal governance was far from smooth. It emerged from a period of deteriorating conditions in township areas, which became the rallying points for mass mobilization during the 1980s with violent protests, widespread rent and consumer boycotts against the distorted system of apartheid local government.

In light of the above, change became inevitable. By 1990, coinciding with the release of Nelson Mandela, the Soweto accord was signed, which among others, led to the establishment of the first Local Government Negotiating Forum (LGNF). The LGNF was regarded as the first step towards the democratization of local government.

These negotiations contributed to the enactment of the Local Government Transition Act 209 of 1993, which set out three phases for the establishment of democratic local government in South Africa.

“At the time when we had transitional local government, it was a very busy time. It brought together disparate groups of people who had been at each other's throats over the years to try and work on the transitional local councils,” Lehohla recalled.

The first phase of local government reform began with the Local Government Transitional Act of 1993, when negotiating forums, also referred to as “local governments of unity”, became an important mechanism for creating some stability at the local level before the first democratic national and provincial elections held in 1994, and the local government elections which took place in 1995 and 1996.

The second phase was marked by the election of transitional councils from November 1995. Although not fully democratically elected, a total of 843 transitional councils were established throughout the country from the over one thousand disparate and racially defined local municipal units.

Lehohla needed no reminding of the significance of this step in the process of establishing local government anew: “When that day finally came, I think there was a very strong promise around delivery through those local governments as well as exercising a vote to freedom by freely choosing your representatives. So that phase of 840 local governments was very important.” 

In the third phase, the first fully democratic non-racial local government elections took place on 5 December 2000, in terms of the 1996 Constitution. The Constitution required the establishment of three categories of wall to wall municipalities: namely, category A (single tier municipalities), category B (local municipalities) and category C (district municipalities which contain two or more local municipalities). 

This system of local government was finally established in December 2000.

Service delivery- successes and challenges
Over the past two and a half decades, remarkable achievements have been made in increasing access to a basic level of essential municipal services, especially for millions of people who did not have them before 1994. 

The 2018 Stats SA non-financial census of municipalities report bears witness to this. The report revealed that the number of households receiving basic services from municipalities had increased significantly compared to the previous year.

The highest percentage increase was recorded in the provision of water (3.7), followed by sewage and sanitation (3.6%), electricity (3.1%), and solid waste management (2.4%).
The report further emphasized that 13.3 million consumer units receive water services from municipalities in South Africa, 11.9 million receive electricity, 11.7 million sewage and sanitation and 9.9 million receive solid waste services. 

Although there has been significant progress, the 25-year journey has also had its fair share of challenges. There are a range of concerns, including community protests, increasing access to services, the quality of those services, and more broadly, a local government system that is responsive, accountable, effective and efficient.

“There were stagnations including possible losses that municipalities have had,” Lehohla acknowledged. 

Action required to fix local government problems.
The National Development Plan (NDP) offers a number of solutions essential to strengthening the ability of local government to fulfil its developmental role, and ultimately placing local government on a positive trajectory to achieve its goals for the 2030 vision.

Lehohla also shared a few actionable insights on what can be done to improve local government performance.

The professionalization of local government and closing the technical skills deficit were among those identified.

“The biggest assets that we have are people and investing in their capacity to comprehend and empathize is very important. It’s one thing to get people to empathize, it’s another to empathize with knowledge. You’ll get better results says Lehohla.

“One of the things that’s very important, is for local government to actually understand the tasks that are at hand.”

Throughout the month of November, SALGA will be taking stock of the progress made and the challenges that local government has faced over the last 25 years. More importantly, the organization will use the opportunity to also prepare for the challenges ahead. 

This with the aim of gaining new insights that will enable the sector to find new solutions to age-old problems.

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