President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke about a "new dawn" in his state of the nation address earlier this year. Since then, the new dawn has been repeated as a positive mantra of change in SA’s politics and governance.

But every dawn needs to break — which usually means a battle between the night and the rising sun. If we trust the metaphor, we must recognise widespread protests, in Mahikeng, North West, as indicative of issues in governance across provinces around the country. And when considering how to deal with these, the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) has to tread carefully around political and administrative actions, and ramifications that may follow.

Political actions

Protesters in the North West have taken to the streets in dissatisfaction with the provincial leadership of Premier Supra Mahumapelo. Protesters’ concerns are rampant corruption in the province, while unions cite lack of service delivery in the provincial health and education departments. Ramaphosa demonstrated decisive action by cutting short his UK trip to be in the North West with the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) to resolve the issue.

By Friday evening, the President stated that although they were working hard to resolve the issue, it had to be carefully thought out. It requires "that we are able to get all the information that will enable us to make a decision going forward … a rational decision … [based on] evidence, proper analysis, proper evaluation". And there is good reason for this.

In 2010, Limpopo was facing similar claims about a lack of service delivery and a general collapse in provincial administrative structures. The official cause was that departments, such as education, did not have the cash flow required to continue to meet their service delivery mandates.

The alleged political cause of the collapse, however, was that the provincial ANC leadership at the time was not going to support then-president Jacob Zuma at the coming elective conference. It was politically expedient for the Zuma faction to remove the Limpopo leadership and put the province under administration. The EFF’s Julius Malema spoke about this at a press briefing. And those au fait with the provincial politics in Limpopo have reiterated political interference as the cause of the collapse and subsequent administrative challenges in the northernmost province.

Additionally, journalist Ranjeni Munusamy implied that Mahumapelo, along with current Deputy President David Mabuza and Ace Magashule, formed a "premier league", as three of the most powerful premiers of provinces in the country. Their power in their jurisdictions, and their ability to rouse support for ANC causes and leaders, made them a formidable force, both within the ANC and nationally.

Indicatively, Mabuza was able to galvanise Mpumalanga to vote for Ramaphosa at the ANC’s elective conference in December 2017 — a voting power that determined the country’s presidency.

Given Limpopo’s collapse in 2011, Ramaphosa has to be careful about collapsing the leadership of the North West.

Of course, the concerns of the residents of Mahikeng are valid, and require immediate attention. Mahikeng is, in fact, an area in the North West where many people depend on public services.

But, if a political decision such as the one involving the leadership of a province is not taken carefully, the immediate result is that the administration and governance of departments in the province will continue to suffer, and further jeopardise the services and rights of residents.

Administrative actions

Some years ago, the Limpopo education department was put under national administration and went through difficult changes that affected service delivery to the public. When putting a department under administration, it is difficult to strike the balance between restoring service delivery — executive obligations — and respecting the semi-autonomous status of provinces. Both of these are protected in the Constitution. And by the time a province or a department is under administration, there is little room to manoeuvre out of the decision.

National administration is enshrined in the Constitution under Section 100, but this process is neither clear nor smooth. In the case of the Limpopo education department, it created confusion and angst between nationally appointed administration teams and the department.

One source of opacity is that Section 100 is a clause in the Constitution that requires further legislation and guidance to be implemented. There have been guidelines, some issued by the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta). However, there is no legislation to cement the process of administration under Section 100. Draft legislation awaits formalisation, and without it, the movement of leadership and accounting authority in provinces and departments under administration is unclear.

Another reason to tread carefully, is that nationally appointed teams in provinces are not always well received. Although the Constitution allows for co-operative governance — where the three spheres of government work together — this does not guarantee that provinces or provincial departments agree with such action, nor that they will quickly adapt to the changes that are implemented. Because of how provinces view their authority and autonomy, this can lead to long-term shocks within the provinces and departments under administration.

The break before the dawn

Realistically, political changes should be expected, and we have learned to manage that expectation through democracy — we participate in the processes that influence decisions and who makes those decisions.

But there are cases like Limpopo’s collapse and the question of leadership in the North West: if not carefully considered with the required legal and provincial backing, we risk moving from one crisis to another.

Chilenga is a PhD candidate and associate lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, and a fellow at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI). Her PhD research focuses on decentralisation in SA’s governance. The views expressed are her own.