Testing democracy at local level

2017-10-15 00:00
Rural life: Is local government the litmus test for democracy? In Mogalakwena municipality service delivery has halted, while politics takes centre stage over the running of the council

Rural life: Is local government the litmus test for democracy? In Mogalakwena municipality service delivery has halted, while politics takes centre stage over the running of the council

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Municipalities should not be considered peripheral elements of the state. Rather, they are jewels in the crown of political groupings and central elements in broad strategies of power, write Mosa Phadi and Joel Pearson.

The Mogalakwena Local Municipality in Limpopo made headlines in 2014 when an ousted mayor forcibly reinstated himself with the assistance of armed police and a contingent of bodyguards, resulting in basic operations grinding to a halt.

This event marked the culmination of a years-long conflict that divided councillors and officials in the administration along factional lines. The mayor’s violent return heralded shutdowns in the administrative and political wings of the municipality – events from which it has struggled to emerge.

But these seemingly simple expressions of parochial issues were actually tied to broader contests at multiple levels of party and state.

The dispute centred around the municipal manager and consecutive mayors, each embedded in different networks of the ANC in the province and region. What would result in a complete rupture of the local state began with the deployment of a new municipal manager by then premier Cassel Mathale’s provincial executive in 2009 – at the height of his power, having just campaigned for President Jacob Zuma’s ascent to the presidency.

Subsequently, Mathale’s relationship with Zuma frayed. He and his allies in the provincial government and executive of the ANC were the target of removal by the party’s national executive committee (NEC). The Limpopo government was placed under administration, and Mathale was finally forced to resign as premier and provincial chairperson.

At local level, this purge rendered Mogalakwena’s municipal manager bereft of the support he previously received from Mathale’s executive or government. Instead, the incoming provincial faction actively sought to remove him.

In response, the isolated municipal manager exploited every mechanism at his disposal as administrative head to protect himself and those councillors who rallied to his defence. The ANC caucus in the council eventually split over the issue of the municipal manager’s position. While some supported the renewal of his contract, others supported the mayor’s bid to remove him.

Insecurity deepened. Each faction launched court challenges against the other. Each hired security guards for their own protection. Councillors supporting the municipal manager voted with the opposition to expel the mayor and his supporters in council. They were barred from entering the municipal premises, and held parallel council meetings at a nearby hotel.

But the mayor’s faction received the backing of the provincial government and ANC executive. The provincial disciplinary committee imposed charges on the municipal manager’s councillors for voting with the opposition. The NEC confirmed their expulsion, but they refused to vacate their positions.

As one senior official put it: “Mogalakwena was just an island, another country in South Africa, isolated from everybody.”

In late 2014, the mayor, alongside the police, security guards and Umkhonto weSizwe veterans, entered the municipal premises under a cloud of teargas and a barrage of rubber bullets. Officials and councillors were removed from the building and new councillors were sworn in.

The resulting split of the municipality’s political wing found officials picking sides between the pro-mayor and pro-municipal manager factions.

Damage to the municipal administration

Intensified disputes permeated the administrative fabric of the local state and officials were torn between competing instructions from opposing factions. Increasing portions of the budget went to hiring private security guards and advancing lengthy court battles. Basic service delivery processes were obstructed and finally shut down with the mayor’s return.

Interviewed officials shared a deep-seated paranoia, fear and pessimism, and many were looking for alternative employment. Their workload was immense and the basic routines of administration had been derailed.

Those who failed to report for work during the shutdown faced disciplinary hearings and some were demoted. Many reported bullying by the returning mayor’s faction, who now dominated the political wing of the municipality. Several senior managers were suspended, and most departments were headed by acting managers who brought unpredictability and intrusive demands.

Crucial basic processes were deferred – for example, submitting necessary reports to the National Treasury, processing tenders and issuing electricity accounts. While there were pockets of functionality, they remained threatened in an atmosphere of high securitisation and occasional violence.

Several interventions by the provincial government and ANC could not restore stability after the political meltdown – the appointments of a “peacemaking” mayor and an acting municipal manager proved to be temporary fixes.

Mogalakwena is still experiencing a leadership crisis. Since the 2011 local government elections, it has had five mayors. And since the exit of the embattled municipal manager, more than seven acting municipal managers have been appointed. This has meant chronic uncertainty for officials – and basic service delivery has deteriorated dramatically. Politically charged protests have become a frequent spectacle outside the municipal premises.

Is local government the litmus test for democracy?

The institutionalised factionalism entrenched in the ANC has destructive consequences, and Mogalakwena is a case in point.

Local government is not situated outside of national dynamics. It is a theatre for an array of competing, collaborating and shifting alliances across party and state, and local officials and politicians are directly implicated in these broader networks.

As such, developments in local government offer glimpses into the nature of the South African state. Sharpening intra-ANC rivalries are transferred to state institutions with destructive effect. It shows how the central ANC and structures of government have lost control over these processes as they are themselves hostage to perpetual splintering.

And it demonstrates how the administrative machinery of government can provide weapons for factions to fight political battles, resulting in deepening fractures and instability in the organs of state – like the once peaceful Mogalakwena municipality.

The latest fissures in the ANC around the competing presidential campaigns of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa are already being keenly felt at local government level. Whether this will yield fresh sources of crisis for municipalities remains to be seen – and it should not escape our attention.

Phadi and Pearson are researchers at the Public Affairs Research Institute and authors of the upcoming report The Mogalakwena Local Municipality in SA


Will municipalities be able to weather the current factional fighting in the ANC?

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Read more on:    politics  |  service delivery  |  democracy

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