When local government fails

I BELIEVE I can say with some level of certainty that as South Africans, we seem not to take local government seriously as a sphere of government.

It is with sadness that I observe how we have quickly become accustomed to local government being a place where anything goes; where we don’t expect much from those who are in charge.

The subject of the impending collapse of municipalities has moved to the bottom of the list of priorities in the national discourse. Our public discourse is firmly focused on the land issue, which has replaced the debate on state capture.

Another new hot topic is the “new” state capture, allegedly perpetuated by those who are close to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

As new fancy topics of interest emerge and preoccupy the public forums, the old problems, such as the collapse of municipalities, are no longer sufficiently interesting to stay in the headlines. The ongoing failure of municipalities is something we have become so desensitised to that we do not realise the risk posed by the failure of this critical sphere of government. The financial collapse of municipalities poses a serious risk to democratic consolidation in post-apartheid South Africa.

When municipalities fail, democracy also collapses, or at best, becomes a very poor quality of democracy. The role of local government is not only to provide material basic services that are required by the people, but also to serve as a sphere for growth and the harnessing of democratic attitudes. If municipalities are in a state where they are unable to demonstrate, on a local basis, how communities can thrive and improve their surrounding conditions, then it is difficult for people to relate to democratic institutions as instruments capable of resolving challenges in society.

The performance of national government in implementing policy also depends on the stability of municipalities as entities capable of performing basic functions such as implementing a programme.

What makes the situation even more dire at local government level is the reality that there exists a high concentration of leadership contests across different parties. For example, the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal has lost party members to local leadership contests.

The other weak link in the picture is the provincial sphere of government. Imagine the North West provincial government having to intervene to assist a municipality in a dire state in that province. The situation would lead to further contagion; how can an ailing provincial government go to the rescue of a collapsed municipality?

In a situation such as this, the national government would have to intervene to stabilise the municipality, while it is at the same time battling with the provincial government which needs urgent intervention.

It is from this point of view that I believe that the biggest risk to South Africa’s democracy is the collapse of municipalities. It will create an institutional vacuum that is dangerous to democracy and may allow for the emergence of lawlessness and chaos as society battles to find ways in which to survive in a situation where the government is nowhere to be seen. The problem is nature does not allow a vacuum. Therefore, when municipalities fail as institutions, other opportunistic organisations will emerge with the pretence of providing services, ultimately harming the societal order.

When the institutional mechanism through which residential flats were managed and regulated in Hillbrow and other parts of downtown Johannesburg failed, opportunistic elements filled the vacuum by hijacking the buildings and renting them out under a new regulatory regime. When the government fails to provide a functioning regulatory order, someone else will.

If a democratic local government fails in South Africa, it will leave a vacuum that will be filled by those with sinister motives. The situation will render local government a lost sphere, where it will be “war of all against all”, as Thomas Hobbes wrote.

Already, the chaos that exists in our society, including the areas that are known as “ganglands”, is attributable to the absence of the state and its institutions in those areas. The state should not withdraw from local government

• Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the South African Research Chairs Initiative: African diplomacy and foreign policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa’s Turn.