Why mayors of SA metros are in premier position


Duma Nkosi, the executive mayor of the Ekurhuleni metro, was recently replaced by Helen Mekgwe, the speaker, in what is widely understood as a change in politically aligned (African National Congress) ANC leadership in the metro. There is also speculation that the regional ANC had grown tired of Nkosi’s protection of police chief Robert McBride’s ever more embarrassing exploits.

Media headlines have, however, been filled by the high-profile departures of premiers aligned to President Thabo Mbeki, Western Cape’s Ebrahim Rasool and Eastern Cape’s Nosimo Balindlela, in what is also viewed as political fallout from the ANC’s December Polokwane conference.

By contrast, the departure of Nkosi received only passing media attention as a local Gauteng development. This, in large part, reflects popularly held perceptions surrounding the status of provincial premiers versus local mayors — one that should be understood as a misreading of the effective constitutional and fiscal powers of both. Mekgwe was argued to be an able candidate for Ekurhuleni, on the back of 14 years of experience in local government, including the post of mayor of Nigel. This is important, as South African cities have significant budgets.

The City of Johannesburg recorded actual expenditure of more than R17bn in the municipal financial year that ended in the middle of last year. Cape Town and eThekwini (Durban) came in next at just over R13bn, while the major Gauteng metropolises of Ekurhuleni and Tshwane followed at just over and under R10bn, respectively. For a far smaller metro, Nelson Mandela (Port Elizabeth) recorded actual expenditure in excess of R5bn. Mangaung (Bloemfontein) recorded actual spending in excess of the R2bn mark during the same period, while Buffalo City (East London) spent slightly more than R1,8bn and Msunduzi fell just shy of the same mark. These budgets are in large part sculpted by the policy priorities made by executive mayors, who oversee the implementation of budgets through the powerful micro-cabinet structures of mayoral committees.

To understand why the scale of these budgets is so significant, it should be pointed out that South African local government is highly decentralised in comparison with almost all other countries — empowered in the execution of a wide range of functions, as well as responsible, at an aggregate level, for almost all of its own revenue collection.

Smaller municipalities are of course more reliant on national transfers than metros and large cities to execute their basic service delivery mandates but, even so, are reliant on their ability to collect revenue and leverage local tax bases as much as possible to ensure the financial survival of municipalities. Provinces, on the other hand, collect a marginal portion of their revenue (about 3% on average), receiving a large portion of nationally collected revenue (especially in comparison to local government). Some provinces, such as Western Cape, have mooted increasing their own revenue collection through fuel taxes, for instance, but there is an inherent limit to how much more taxation is feasible at the provincial level (given rates and user charges at the local level and nationally levelled taxes, most importantly via income tax and VAT).

To put local government’s fiscal muscle into concrete terms, it is instructive to compare metro budgets to provincial budgets. It is clear that the mayor of Johannesburg oversees a larger absolute budget than the newly appointed Western Cape Premier Lynne Brown, and, in Johannesburg’s case, with considerably more discretion as to its allocation. Brown, on the other hand, does little more than channel 75% of her budget to the major sectors of education, health and welfare in her province. Furthermore, Gauteng’s three metros spend more than the province itself, as budgeted this year.

While provinces are responsible for the major budgetary items of education, health and social welfare, the financial allocations themselves and policy directives for these are determined nation-ally and many argue that, to this end, provinces are simply “post offices” for the national government.

It should be recalled that the constitution’s intergovernmental system provision for provinces was primarily designed to represent minority parties at a regional level, even if this role has now been lost as a result of ANC dominance in all provinces (one that would erroneously be assumed as guaranteed after next year’s elections).

By contrast, SA’s version of decentralisation at the local government level is highly advanced, founded in the concept of three equal but autonomous spheres of government. The axing of premiers should then probably be read for its symbolic rather than its practical significance. Take nothing away from the fact that premiers are significant role players in overseeing and co-ordinating provincial functions. A good premier can drive major projects, such as the Gautrain, while a poor one can play a marginal role, as did Balindlela in the Ukhahlamba water crisis in Eastern Cape in which dozens of children are suspected to have died from drinking contaminated water.

But for an individual politician wanting to yield true power with a significant role in shaping budgetary priorities and overseeing their implementation, there is little that can beat the role of an executive mayor. Little wonder then that Helen Zille fought to retain her position as executive mayor of Cape Town when she became the leader of the official opposition party. Whether this is yet understood or not by those in the Jacob Zuma camp will become more evident over the next few months as further sackings occur.

  • Allan is Municipal IQ’s Managing Director, while Heese is Municipal IQ’s economist. Municipal IQ is a web-based data and intelligence service (www.municipaliq.co.za), specialising in the monitoring and assessment of SA’s municipalities.