Bemoaning the inconvenience of a 24-hour power cut that began in a corner of Johannesburg on Christmas Day – following several days without water – the response from a friend recently returned from West Africa was, “well, at least here we have a schedule; in Nigeria there is no notice [of cuts].”  

Small mercies. In a grossly unequal city like Johannesburg, blighted by crumbling infrastructure and local government unwilling or unable to keep the taps flowing and the lights on, there are far too many citizens for whom even an intermittent supply of either water or electricity remains unattainable.  

As contributor Stuart Mbanyele notes in this issue, in an article arguing for the professionalisation of the civil service, local government is a complex environment with demands that include financial resources management, implementation of technical deliverables and the balancing of complex legislative requirements.

At the forefront of debates about the functioning of local government should be the question of whether municipalities have the administrative capacity to fulfil their responsibilities. It is with this in mind that this first issue of Africa in Fact for 2024 takes a broad sweep in examining the role and responsibilities of local government in Africa, as well as the related emergence of coalition politics.

The publication, as usual, takes a pan-African view, seeking to understand the status quo at local government level, noting the challenges and opportunities implicit in decentralising government and proposing frameworks to create stable, viable coalitions.   Several of the articles, however, pay special attention to South Africa, where a pivotal national election takes place later this year amidst public rage at government corruption, the disintegration of basic services in cities and towns, all on the watch of a ruling party seemingly paralysed by internal power struggles and the prioritisation of vested interests.  

The outcome of the election, which could see the ruling ANC’s already reduced majority eroded further, has geopolitical implications for the SADC region as a whole. And while the articles published here acknowledge that coalitions can represent an opportunity for a more inclusive democratic process, representing diverse constituencies, the South African example of how the ANC’s reduced majority has led to paralysis and instability in South Africa’s major metropoles serves as a cautionary tale.   

Good Governance researcher Mxolisi Zondo puts it succinctly in his article: “The unresolved issue of unstable and unregulated coalition administrations, mainly prevalent in local municipalities, becomes more concerning as the 2024 South African general elections draw near. However, South African political parties and politicians have demonstrated that they lack the wisdom and political maturity the constitution assumed when it predicated a multi-party system of democratic government as one of its values.

In addition to the existence of a multi-party system of democratic government, the constitution specifically lists accountability and responsiveness as some of our foundational values. Testing these values against the works of the most recent coalition governments exposes the cracks within the system as we know it. They are not responsive, at least not to service delivery needs, and perhaps this is due to the reality that these coalitions have also been unable to shield the bureaucracy from political developments.”

Coalitions aside, Adio-Adet Dinika writes that decentralisation reforms have swept across modern Africa as countries seek to devolve decision-making power, resources, and service delivery responsibilities from central bureaucracies to provincial, district and municipal bodies. Decentralisation impacts on welfare, rights and inclusion remain mixed across African countries, he adds, but there are notable gains.

For example, evidence shows Ethiopia’s rural immunisation rates have improved faster than in urban areas after decision-making devolved to so-called woreda councils, which enabled marginalised pastoralist communities to directly voice needs for mobile clinics during annual planning meetings, leading to a 28% increase in outpatient visits from 2008-2015.

Regular contributor Raphael Obonyo points out, however, that the transformative role of decentralised government systems is undermined in Africa by multiple challenges, including limited resources, weak institutional capacity and accounting and accountability mechanisms. “Administrative inefficiency, gaps in policy, weak laws and collusion between unscrupulous local government officers and cash collection firms and leakages have conspired to deny decentralised units much-needed revenue,” he writes.

“Indeed, the fundamental problem confronting most local governments, especially in developing countries, is the widening gap between the availability of financial resources and spending needs.” As the articles in this current issue illustrate, the intricate web of revenue generation mechanisms – reliance on central government transfers, grants, taxes and fees – poses a major challenge for local governments as they battle to juggle financial sustainability and their citizens’ ability to access and afford essential services. 

But there are other factors, too. Significant levels of corruption that divert resources from service delivery, central government interference in local affairs, disparity in service delivery between rural and urban areas due to various factors, including geography and inadequate infrastructure, are also challenges to good governance at the local level.  

Unfortunately, the spectre of corruption in all its forms casts a shadow across most of the 19 articles in this issue. Terence Corrigan’s contribution dissects how and why corruption and political appointees have dealt a savage blow to the hope of economic upliftment for millions of Africans“In fact, in South Africa’s townships and informal settlements, the inability of municipalities to perform their duties and the consequent sense of alienation has sparked a protest culture that bears some resemblance to the anti-apartheid urban uprisings of the 1980s,” Corrigan writes. “This is a critical problem for South Africa, even an existential one. The crisis in South Africa’s municipalities is an expression of the broader dysfunction in the South African state.”  

Author and investigative journalist Greg Arde, meanwhile, uncovers the dynamics behind the assassination of local councillors and people connected to them in KwaZulu-Natal. Arde, who lives in KZN and has worked with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), says, “In KwaZulu-Natal, the province where I live, 21 local councillors have been murdered in the past year (2023) alone.”   

Most of the victims, he points out, were members of the ANC, killed in power struggles over patronage, although politics and organised crime are becoming increasingly intertwined in an environment where violence has become institutionalised, ANC cadre deployment allows state capture, and corruption hobbles government service delivery.  

Given the challenges to functional local government, is it any surprise that, across Africa, communities and towns are looking at running themselves? Using examples in Angola, South Africa, Western Sahara and Somaliland, Michael Schmidt’s article looks at the varied forms and degrees of autonomous municipalism that have arisen across Africa, asking the question: can self-management deliver?  

While space does not allow for even a brief synopsis of each article in this issue of AIF, it is fair to conclude that as the continent grapples with decentralisation efforts and the emergence of coalition politics, the question of whether local governments possess the necessary administrative competence looms large. The South African example serves as a cautionary tale, emphasising the potential pitfalls of reduced majorities and unstable coalitions. Despite the complexities, decentralisation has shown promise in some areas, with tangible gains in service delivery; the Ethiopian example cited above is but one of many. 

However, obstacles like limited resources, weak institutions, and corruption hinder the transformative potential of decentralised systems, making it clear that the way forward lies in robust and accountable local governance committed to equitable service provision, fiscal responsibility, and prioritising the needs of citizens.  

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Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.

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Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.

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