What ANC shake-up means for SAs city bosses

LOCAL government in SA is incongruous. On the one hand, it is empowered by the constitution as an autonomous sphere (a devolution of power intended to bring municipalities closer to communities). On the other, there is a de facto centralisation of leadership, through the selection of political representatives at a national level within party structures.

This system of so-called proportional representation has been criticised for distancing local politicians from their constituencies by making them, in effect, accountable to national party structures rather than the communities for which they purportedly speak.

But after the recent African National Congress (ANC) conference in Polokwane, the political landscape that gave rise to the appointment of local politicians has shifted immensely and given a new perspective on the implications of this centralised influence on decentralised structures.

By far the most significant of the local government appointments are those of executive mayors, many of whom are known to have been hand-picked by President Thabo Mbeki.

Running powerful mayoral committee structures, these politicians have become crucial players in the delivery of services in SA’s largest cities, breaking from the traditional figurehead role of mayors. In effect, executive mayors act as local “presidents”, supported by a local-level cabinet (the mayoral committee) comprised of a political team overseeing portfolios such as finance, health or housing, which enables close, meaningful and robust engagement with council officials and departments.

The executive mayoral model is thus a powerful, centralised version of local governance and one that has been criticised for superseding the role of local legislatures in guiding a local council’s programmes. Broad participation by all members of a council, especially a politically diverse one, is therefore less feasible under executive mayoral systems, with minority parties typically favouring executive committee systems of governance, where their interests are more meaningfully represented and served as a consequence of a more representative, but arguably less efficient political model.

There are instances where the executive mayoral model has been praised for rapidly and decisively affecting a closer link between councils and administrations and this is where the efficiency tradeoff comes into play. Interestingly, one example that is often raised in support of the mayoral system, that of the City of Johannesburg, is characterised by a strong mayoral committee team rather than a single mayoral figure, mitigating concern somewhat around the executive mayoral system promoting a “cult of the personality”.

Nonetheless, what does a power shift in the ANC mean for the credibility of the political appointees of local government, when none of the powerful executive mayors of SA’s largest ANC-controlled cities — Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela and eThekwini — appear on the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC)?

Ironically, the very reason for the opposition to executive mayors — that they are appointed by one single figure at an opaque, national level without the local input envisaged by models of decentralisation — is exactly the reason that they are currently so politically vulnerable. As a consequence, ANC local politicians are faced with an especially challenging period, during which it will become crucial for them to prove their credibility as knowledgeable local government stakeholders, attuned to popular opinion, especially given that they may not be directly elected by either community or party structures, or in fact have any support base at all among local communities. It is crucial to this extent, that they start to look less like lame duck political appointees and more like servants of the public, with valuable local government expertise.

Aside from the highly significant power reshuffle of Polokwane, one of the key themes and primary resolutions of the conference was that of accelerated delivery of social services via a developmental state. It would be a pity for local government to lose competent leadership, where this is the case, purely as a consequence of political alignment. The further professionalisation of the sphere remains a priority if the service delivery challenges outlined at Polokwane are to be met at the local level. The considerable work by the national treasury to promote technical competence in politicians overseeing strategic and budgetary processes, in compliance with the Municipal Finance and Management Act, should come into play in furthering this much-needed capacity building.

At a policy level, while the ANC’s new president, Jacob Zuma, has underlined the importance of unity and supporting existing deployments to government structures, it will be difficult for executive mayors to undertake any unpopular initiatives.

Hence little bold action by ANC mayoral committees is likely to be evident for the rest of the local government term, unless directed to do so by the NEC. But the rise of strong local politicians is not set to disappear completely. Ironically, one of the greatest opponents of the executive mayoral system in the past, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which argued that the system transferred excessive amounts of executive power to senior municipal politicians, is likely to present the most formidable amalgam of this political-cum-executive leader in the form of Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille.

But outside of Cape Town, the biggest concern remains that the risk of policy inertia will become pronounced, especially given that current local politicians will be associated with the looming above-inflation hikes in utility bills, caused by Eskom’s proposed increase in electricity tariffs, as well as already unpopular increases in property rates.

Rising rates are of especial concern should current proposals by the provincial and local government department to cap rates bills for government bodies imply greater levels of cross-subsidy by residents.

No doubt, balancing popularity within communities, party structures, and municipalities that represent possible future employment avenues will make for interesting times for the country’s local politicians.