Developmental Local Government in South Africa: Institutional fault lines

Jaap de Visser


This paper provides a brief introduction to the recent history of, as well as the legal and policy framework for, local government in South Africa. It discusses the transformation of local government from a racially configured, illegitimate arm of the apartheid government into a system designed to produce developmentally oriented municipalities. The progress made by South African municipalities towards realising the vision of developmental local government is remarkable and unprecedented. Over the last 13 years, municipalities have embarked on the extension of infrastructure and development, whilst absorbing fundamental changes to their internal governance and management arrangements, financial management systems and intergovernmental responsibilities. The new local government system offers great potential for the realisation of a better life for all citizens, facilitated by a new generation of municipalities. However, the challenges remain huge and some of these can be attributed to institutional fault lines. These include challenges that come with large, inclusive municipalities, new executive systems and the political appointment of senior officials. The paper also identifies the downside of overzealous institutionalisation of community participation. With regard to intergovernmental relations, the paper highlights the need for a clearer definition of local government mandates and a greater recognition of the role of big cities. The current insistence on comprehensive intergovernmental alignment of policies and budgets is questioned, and suggestions are made to substitute this with an approach of selective alignment around key national priorities.

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