New phase of democracy questions the nuts and bolts of how cities are run

While local government’s shifting political landscape has been met with a period of introspection by the ANC the realities and implications of a more pluralistic make-up have already become evident in two local government spaces. The first is Gauteng where the ANC runs provincial government but a DA coalition controls two of the province’s three metros. The second is organised local government which is currently represented by the South African Local Government Association (Salga).

There is a delicate balance of power in both cases. When it comes to what have been disparagingly termed "stokvel" coalitions (by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe) the DA has been put under pressure after chaotic scenes unfolded a fortnight ago in Tshwane’s council chambers leading to (premature) speculation that provincial intervention was imminent.

Fortunately Gauteng co-operative governance MEC Paul Mashatile clarified that there would have to be a far greater degree of dysfunctionality for such measures to be implemented. Nonetheless the undignified spectacle showed up growing tension and misunderstanding about the role of provincial government in local government matters. Some went so far as to allege that the chaotic council meeting had been orchestrated to facilitate intervention. Instead Mashatile met Tshwane executive mayor Solly Msimanga as well as other stakeholders to obtain an undertaking that violence would be averted in future disagreements.

The conspiracy theory that a case is being built that Tshwane is in a state of paralysis is founded on a warning by Premier David Makhura that he would be willing to intervene when and if this transpired although in the same speech Makhura also sent a strong message of his intent to co-operate with all councils in the province. It is also important to note that while Mashatile was dealing with the Tshwane crisis Makhura was looking to build bridges with Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba.

So what are the parameters for intervention and intergovernmental responsibility? In terms of the Constitution national and provincial government must provide a framework for municipal capacity-building and supporting municipalities (sections 154 and 155) as well as monitoring and overseeing performance (in terms of functions listed in schedules 4 and 5 as well as the objectives of section 152). If necessary intervention is an option and is primarily the responsibility of provincial government which is also tasked with co-ordinating co-operation between municipalities.

Powers of intervention are intended to safeguard delivery and democratic functioning financial sustainability public faith in local government and to curb corruption and maladministration. This context of public confidence is perhaps the most important at this stage. Mashatile remarked that "the conduct that has been portrayed in the media is a serious indictment against those who were elected to carry the hopes of the voters ... [and] are now betraying that trust. This behaviour is an affront to the recent successful local government elections."

Certainly one violent meeting would not be grounds for arguing dysfunctionality but Msimanga is also under more direct fire from his predecessor and chairman of the ANC in Tshwane‚ Kgosientso Ramokgopa‚ who has labelled him a liar who has appointed officials irregularly — the issue that sparked the council furore. Ramokgopa has also criticised Msimanga’s pronouncements on blue-light brigades a provincial ordinance saying that this exposed a "glaring shortcoming of the mayor on the operations‚ powers and functions of the municipal council‚ since neither the executive mayor nor a decision of the municipal council can give effect to such a decision as it falls within the competency of the provincial government to regulate such matters".

Msimanga’s blue-light pronouncement was arguably more of a reflection of his recent transition into the public service than an intent to deceive but it does show up the careful scrutiny that he is likely to face. One source of this scrutiny may come from Parks Tau former Johannesburg mayor who is now chairman of Salga. The appointment has prompted speculation that an alternative organised local government body might be constituted by opposition-controlled councils raising questions about the future face of organised local government.

Organised local government is an integral component of the intergovernmental architecture in SA providing a mechanism for consultation as well as lobbying on issues of national importance such as the funding of local government and the restructuring of electricity distribution. It is also the sector’s employer body and trains councillors — a particularly pertinent responsibility after recent elections. But the question periodically raised is: while organised local government is constitutionally recognised (in terms of section 163) need it be Salga?

The latest kickback against Salga stems from Tau’s appointment. While his track record in local government is arguably impressive (with roles on the advisory board of the World Resources Institute and leadership of the United Cities and Local Governments in Colombia) it is unprecedented for someone who is not a sitting mayor to be appointed to chair Salga. What is consistent though is that the leader of Salga is always a senior ANC person.

For some Tau’s appointment was read as an ANC-motivated attempt to keep control of the sector with speculation now rife that DA-controlled municipalities might follow Johannesburg’s shock exit from Salga. Not only would this imply a financially devastating loss especially in Gauteng but more ominously compromise Salga’s credibility. Mashaba justified Johannesburg’s exit by accusing Salga of being top-heavy and wasteful.

Of course municipalities leaving Salga would need to establish an alternative organisation for collective bargaining so the move is not likely to be one that would be taken hastily or without a critical mass. A worrying precedent for Salga is to be found in the South African Cities Network from which Cape Town is conspicuously absent suggesting that DA-controlled municipalities will exclude themselves from collective organisations they consider politically compromised.

Salga may well live to regret what amounts to an imprudent move to appoint Tau as its chair. The pressure is now on for the organisation and Tau somehow to demonstrate not only nonpartisan motives but also value for money with DA leader Mmusi Maimane already questioning Salga’s value: "DA representatives will ... move substantive motions that are aimed at ensuring that Salga fulfils its mandate in a nonpartisan and effective manner. The DA will not allow it to be abused by the ANC and for ratepayers’ money to be wasted on simply talk shops."

In this instance it is the DA that holds leverage to influence Salga’s commitment to a nonpartisan representative of local government.

Together these two recent and still unfolding developments suggest seismic shifts in local government in an era in which the ANC is no longer a monolithic majority party. It is pertinent to consider how local government’s role and relationship with other spheres needs to be reflected on and reconsidered. Arguably this is a positive outcome. However for the stability of the sector it is imperative that political maturity prevails to ensure intergovernmental co-operation and sustained service delivery especially in Gauteng despite the conspiracy theories. Millions of provincial residents rely on this for housing healthcare transport planning and policing to be rolled out.