Whether ANC or DA rules, expect local service protests

The elections a fortnight ago were highly significant in that they reconfigured the political landscape. But what do they mean for local government?

Local government is in the unusual position of already being familiar with its likely minister, Sicelo Shiceka. Of course, provincial MECs for local government are all likely to be new faces. But whoever the national and provincial ministers are, there will be a consolidation, shuffling and appointment of key officials to drive through the interests of the new political leadership of the Department of Provincial and Local Government.

It is still unclear what exactly this leadership is likely to represent but key promises have been a removal of political and business elites, greater focus on poverty and employment through honest service delivery and, where possible, expanded state spending.

One of these officials’ key tasks is finalising the white paper dealing with intergovernmental relations. Before the election there was speculation that if it achieved a two-thirds majority, the African National Congress (ANC) would consolidate national power by stripping away some local government functions, especially in areas of underperformance. But with the Democratic Alliance (DA) taking the Western Cape and the ANC missing the two-thirds that would allow it to make constitutional changes unilaterally, it is far less likely that provinces would be entrusted with any more power than they already have, for fear of the regional consolidation of minority parties.

Setting up less-political, administrative regional structures, such as regional electricity distributors , would be far less threatening, especially if wresting power from local government is perceived to be necessary to ensure the delivery of key services such as electricity and (possibly in the future) water.

This aside, the DA victory will herald greater pressure on the Western Cape’s delivery record. The ANC has said it will challenge the DA at every turn should its delivery discriminate against the poor, and the DA will look to prove it is more capable than other parties of delivering.

It will be hard to prove either case in the short term, and financial data on performance in Cape Town certainly do not prove definitive under- or overperformance relative to similar cities.

But there will be intense scrutiny on performance in the province, and given this focus and debate, service delivery protests are more likely. Helen Zille will, however, have the advantage of being able to align provincial and local priorities in projects such as the controversial and politically bedevilled Gateway Housing project in Cape Town, and, to this extent, ensure enhanced delivery in areas of intergovernmental overlap.

Given the history of service delivery protests, other provinces would be foolish to consider themselves immune simply because they are controlled by the ANC. Either those involved in service delivery protests in the past chose not to vote (which voter turnout suggests was not the case), or marginalised communities continued to support the ANC at the polls (as suggested by the party’s extensive support). If disenchanted communities voted for the ANC in the hope that the party is still the best bet for the poor, they are even more likely to continue to voice dissatisfaction at failures in service delivery on the streets given their ballot box endorsements. This dissatisfaction is likely to be more pronounced after the promises for improved service delivery and removal of corruption that were made before the elections.

However assessed, last month’s elections heralded a new political leadership that will have the most profound reverberations through government — local government included — since 1994. Municipal elections in 2011 will provide more illumination on local patterns but the trends of greater populism, giving rise to a greater likelihood of protests where delivery is compromised by inevitable capacity and resource constraints, will pervade the period until then.