South Africans will go to the polls on November 1 to elect thousands of representatives to govern in the country’s 270 municipalities and thousands of sub-divided wards. Campaigning is in full scale, with most parties focusing on service delivery, crime and corruption, but proposing different solutions to deal with these issues. However, this has not led to much change over the past 20 years, with the Auditor General reporting that only 9% of municipalities are running optimally, down from 11%, five years ago.
Speaking to Radio Islam International, Dr Imran Baccus, Director of Research at Asri, argued that this is not only a South African problem. He said that politicians across the world often make promises, much of which remain unfulfilled. He noted that generally it was the politicians that remain connected to the community between elections, who mostly retain their power and seats. This did lead him to caution against the many smaller parties that have popped up, many of whom having not yet built that connection with the community.
In relation more specifically to South Africa, he posited three main factors influencing the lack of service delivery. First is the lack of state capacity, both in relation to finances, and more importantly in terms of skills. He argued that many good politicians are often deployed at a national and provincial level, losing their skills and abilities to govern at a local government level, where it is most needed.
Second is the problem of corruption, which has beset South Africa and much of the global South. Dr Baccus argued that the problem has become so endemic that in some Asian countries, stopping corruption would actually be detrimental to service delivery.
Last is the problem of lender conditions, what many refer to as ‘conditionalities’. This mainly arises since many developing countries are reliant on financing from international institutions, such as the International Monitory Fund and world Bank. Although terms have altered in the past decade, previously many of these institutions required structural adjustment as a condition for dispersing these finances, contributing to a systemic hamstringing of government’s ability to provide.
A caveat according to Dr Baccus, is the cross-subsidization, wherein often wealthier municipalities are charged higher rates and taxes, which is then used to subsidize poorer municipalities. Further, the profits accrued from the state’s provision of services is often used to enhance services in other areas. This means that there is some rationality, according to him, regarding the EFF’s promises about free services to indigens. This, however, is a populous pronouncement, and may overburden the cross- subsidization that is already occurring.
Dr Baccus promoted more citizen involvement in the participatory processes of local government. He, however, cautioned about the sophistication, and sometimes over bureaucratic, nature of local government, arguing that it needed to be simplified.