Re-Imagining Local Government for Citizens

Twenty-four years after the birth of local government, we have reached a point where there are more questions than answers regarding the functioning and performance of this crucial sphere of government. Frustrations are certainly reaching boiling point from all quarters of society. Things have deteriorated to the point where there are challenges with each and every aspect of municipal function, whether it’s refuse not collected on time, delays in solving queries, irreparable infrastructure, mismanaged finances or no service at all. The truth is that the current state of South African local government system is totally different from what was envisaged when the system transitioned from the pre-1994 regime to the democratic dispensation. The assumption that municipalities will be able to depend mainly on their own revenue to finance the delivery of basic services, underpins the Local Government White Paper of 1998.  With benefit of hindsight, it has now become apparent that the assumption was wrong. Municipalities are struggling to fund their budgets, other challenges about their governance notwithstanding.  

Another assumption made by the White Paper was that municipalities would be able to play a key role in local economic development without the powers to create tax incentives and other legislative powers necessary to facilitate the same.  It has to be accepted that these assumptions were made using data that was collected before the dawn of democracy.

The failures that were caused by these incorrect assumptions notwithstanding, there is a silver lining, after all. The fact that we have endured twenty-four years of post-apartheid local government means we have at least collected relevant data points to re-imagine, re-purpose and resource local government for the next twenty-five years. We must now use this statistical data available to inform changes to the statutes enshrined into our Constitution and other legislative instruments such as the MFMA, DORA (Division of Revenue Act) to henceforth govern local government in pursuit of cities of the future.

We should infuse into this new legislative undertaking lessons and principles from successful cities around the world.  Even as we adopt the lessons, we must aim to build a local government regime that will create cities with an African characteristic and cater to the needs of us Africans in Africa. In line with the African Union Agenda 2063, the new cities must look, feel and behave differently from the past that was characterised with the collapse of governance and infrastructure, and incessant financial crisis.

To achieve the above and more, the rewriting of legislation should also be accompanied by design and implementation of programmes to build state capacity and capability as envisaged in the National Development Plan. The capacity and capability must be built across citizen, council and administrative levels to be able to tackle the complex problems that will inevitably come with building cities of the future.

We have a golden opportunity to build new cities, Future City is perhaps an apt name for these new engines of growth for all African countries. Future City is citizen-driven and customer-centric; it must be characterised by integrated thinking and planning, allowing for co-creation with societal stakeholders, coherent with provincial and national governments, and has solid governance. Future City has its citizens actively involved in governance and accountability value chain. It is characterised by functioning technology infrastructure that ensures that there is ease of communication and active engagement with it through digital or virtual platforms. Future City is relentless in customer centricity by having multiple platforms that customers can communicate, receive feedback and pay for their services. In fact, Future City is open for 24 hours to deliver services to all its stakeholders without prejudice.

In Future City, nothing happens by accident nor luck but through careful design of every facet of the system! Integrated thinking and planning are mature and institutionalised to the point where all the master plans have been developed and taken through feasibility studies. The master plans are not just on paper but have been digitised in an interactive digital platform where citizens have access, financiers can identify projects that require financing and work is done overnight to deliver the promises in the new day. This has resulted in heightened appetite for co-creation between all stakeholders that have a role in developing solutions through transparent and intentional consultation processes. Smart use of intellectual capital among private sector entities and across private and public sectors is contributing towards an uninterrupted provision of socio-economic services which motivates customers to pay for services that they consume.

As a stakeholder in local government, we believe everyone has a duty to drive the conversation about how we fix and re-imagine local government for the sake of posterity. Our Future of Cities campaign is our small contribution and with it we encourage all the other stakeholders to join the conversation and hopefully create the critical mass of voices we need to press the reset button.

Miyelani Holeni is a Group Chief Advisor at Ntiyiso Consulting Group and a Local Government Expert.

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