Borders to municipal protests

The protracted and increasingly violent Malamulele protest was suspended two weeks ago until August when redemarcation proposals for the area are to be considered.

For residents of the Limpopo region the suspension of weeks-long protest activity is clearly good news — services and commercial activity can resume and of crucial importance pupils can start school.

For local government it is also cause for cautious optimism — negotiation and sensitivity to local demands appear to have staved off Malamulele residents’ demands for a municipality separate from Thulamela which they claim unfairly favours the Thohoyandou area where it is headquartered.

Their demands for a separate municipality go as far back as 2009 with a particularly violent protest flaring up in late 2013. Protest action earlier this year reached unprecedented levels resulting in a lock-down of the area bordering the Kruger National Park. But it was only at the end of last month that the Municipal Demarcation Board released a report finding that the area could not constitute a viable municipality.

Critical to its decision the board pointed to Thulamela’s financial viability reflected in surplus funds and cost coverage ratio — which are also perversely indicators of underdelivery — which would not apply to a carved-up Malamulele.

The case should be of interest to local government stakeholders; not only does it mark a tentative breakthrough in a complex crisis situation but it also suggests that there may be acceptable alternatives to redemarcation (at least in the short term).

It is also a feather in Co-operative Governance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s cap. By convincing a profoundly inflamed community that there are delivery solutions to deal with intramunicipal sensitivities his department’s new policy thrust towards the consolidation of unviable municipalities is emboldened. But this conclusion is tentative.

While the breakthrough in Malamulele is a relief it cannot be celebrated yet as some residents are decrying the suspension of the shutdown. Tensions are still high — a school was burned down after the announcement of the suspension.

After months of mobilising behind the rallying call for a new municipality a portion of residents is unlikely to be satisfied with anything short of a new one for the region and its Xitsonga-speaking people.

What is encouraging however is that the community’s influential Malamulele Task Team appears to have been persuaded that its demands for better service delivery can be met in the interim with more sensitive area-management solutions targeted investment and the undertaking that their demarcation demands will be more rigorously considered than in the past.

So what lessons can be learned from the experience? In an interview last week Gordhan Co-operative Governance Deputy Minister Andries Nel and Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs director-general Vusi Madonsela highlighted the following issues:

• The minister stressed that demarcation is the responsibility of the Municipal Demarcation Board and he has no role in determining municipal boundaries. As such the board had to be given an opportunity to complete its report on the viability of Malamulele as a separate municipality and the recommendations of this report will be independent of the ministry and the department;

• This legal consideration and negotiating parameter are significant given the popular perception that political pressure can force boundary lines to be redrawn. Key precedents were arguably set in Khutsong in 2007 where provincial boundary demands materialised and in Zamdela in 2013 where an outcry against a metro proposal saw its shelving. This position is also strategically significant as it means the minister will focus his energies on issues of delivery rather than structural change.

The minister undertook to discuss with all stakeholders concrete solutions to the problems in Malamulele and avoided speaking in "broad generalities". The hands-on approach to the negotiations appears to have been key to the breakthrough — by offering concrete solutions to problems in the area;

• Notwithstanding the fact that the Municipal Demarcation Board’s report recommended that Malamulele should not be redemarcated as a stand-alone municipality there was an undertaking by the minister that the issue of boundaries in the area will be reviewed as part of the work of a national project identifying nonviable municipalities which may be redemarcated. It is unclear how much the Malamulele Task Team is banking on this process as being another bite of the demarcation cherry and whether failure here may reignite protests;

• The demarcation process was one of a number of key concrete agreements forged with community representatives as part of a plan of practical measures programmes and initiatives to improve delivery throughout the municipality as well as various inter-governmental structures;

• Key to the plan a joint provincial-national task team is to be established to oversee the implementation of a range of infrastructure projects identified by the community the municipality and the province. Municipal and provincial funding of R500m has been earmarked to fund priority projects.

Intergovernmental involvement by departments including agriculture education higher education rural development public works and co-operative governance and traditional affairs — and the Expanded Public Works Programme and Community Works Programme — is likely to prove crucial to meeting the community’s needs.

• The minister stressed the importance of stability and social cohesion in the area. To this end the agreed plan also hinges on dialogue among different language groups driven by traditional leaders and the Malamulele Task Team.

• Finally community participation appears to have been fundamental to reaching an acceptable delivery solution. Sustained negotiations are needed to ensure that concrete community needs are expressed through prioritised delivery projects including the priority areas of road repairs a library a fire station bridge repairs and effective water reticulation.

Notwithstanding this progress the crisis is not yet fully resolved. It cannot be overstated enough that delivery must be seen to be taking place. It will need to be underpinned by a model for better communication participation regional differentiation and feedback to overcome the historical sense of neglect evident in Malamulele and other regions.

Given the level of intervention required multipronged development solutions will need to materialise through concerted co-operative governance. This level of support will not be feasible in every potentially expanded municipality.

In all amalgamation proposals could result in the disestablishment of 17 municipalities many of which are typified by unique circumstances that are to be considered by the Municipal Demarcation Board. If Malamulele can be better serviced albeit with significant intergovernmental support it could come to represent a new model of local government — one with larger boundaries that ensure economies of scale and financial viability but within those boundaries keenly understood local divisions where service delivery is carefully demonstrated to residents and informed by them. The model is therefore not just one of financial necessity but of good governance.

However outcomes are fundamental to the success of this model. It cannot result in the Thulamela scenario where the headquarters become the much-loathed centre of municipal spending with salaries hogging half of the municipality’s operating expenditure.

To this end the Malamulele experience will be important to watch not only for residents but for all similarly precarious largely rural underserviced communities that are increasingly likely to be serviced by large municipalities.