Local governments face a tricky balancing act in this election year, with protests likely to be one mechanism residents will use to ensure they are heard. Picture: SOWETAN
Local governments face a tricky balancing act in this election year, with protests likely to be one mechanism residents will use to ensure they are heard. Picture: SOWETAN

There is little doubt that 2019 will be an important year for SA and its municipalities. General elections will likely alter the political landscape in many provinces, either within or between party representation, and this might filter into councils’ political factions.

Communities are also likely to use elections as leverage —consider protests during the voter registration weekend in late January. In addition, municipalities face pressing financial priorities: to settle debt and raise revenue.

There are five core priorities that will need to be attended to if local delivery is not to be overly compromised, namely:

  • Stability and delivery 

This will be local government’s biggest challenge over the course of 2019. It is critically important that politicians embark on their respective election campaigns without hampering local service delivery programmes, and provide support for programmes already under way in a nonpartisan spirit.

Early financial indicators for the 2018/2019 financial year, however, suggest that underspending remains pronounced in the sector —a curious but consistent pattern in SA public finances. Rather than overdelivering on large ribbon-cutting projects, politicians tend to focus on door-to-door campaigning, with delivery, especially of large, local capital projects, typically neglected in election years.

  • Insulating coalition-led administrations

It is likely there will be profound instability in DA-EFF-controlled coalitions, with a strong possibility of collapsed Johannesburg and Tshwane arrangements, as has already been seen in Nelson Mandela Bay.

EFF leader Julius Malema has argued that while he was in favour of coalitions as a way of holding parties to account, “at the centre of anyone going into a coalition with the EFF is the land situation [nationalisation]. We have to agree on the land situation. To the EFF, the land situation is non-negotiable.”

The DA has campaigned strongly against land expropriation and the nationalisation of land, and it will be difficult for its local coalitions to survive the rising temperature of electioneering.

The only way residents of affected coalition-run municipalities can be protected will be through the insulation of senior managers from political ruptions, which will require, on their part, a focus on professional, nonpartisan delivery. This will herald a new but critically important era for local government, with senior managers needing to be protected from political change in order to ensure institutional instability.

  • Deepening democracy 

As with other political tensions, communities unhappy with service delivery are likely to up the ante by staging even more protests in 2019 than in record-breaking 2018, in order to secure the attention of politicians.

January’s voter registration weekend has suggested as much, with communities using their votes as leverage to gain attention, affecting more than 100 polling stations across SA. Perennial demarcation hotspots such as Vuwani in Limpopo are particularly prone to such action.

The only antidote to such rising tensions will be a concerted effort to ensure that democratic channels of engagement (such as petitions processes and ward committees) remain focused and engaged, empowered with information and channels into administration and their programmes. Ideally, these processes need to take place within local government to ensure delivery and accountability, and not involve provincial or national politicians who might muddy the water with unrealistic promises or time frames.

  • Tackling Eskom and water debt

If the challenges of institutional and social stability were not enough for local government during this election year, ballooning debt to Eskom and water boards needs to be settled, both in the interests of the service providers’ sustainability, but also to avert a debt trap, as seen in top defaulters such as Maluti-A-Phofung in the Free State.

  • The revenue-raising imperative

Linked to the financial pressure of settling ever-rising bulk utility tariffs in a recessionary climate (that is adversely affecting consumers), and a squeezed fiscus, it is critical that municipalities raise revenue as a priority. But how? Politicians are unlikely to want to tackle unpopular initiatives such as prepaid meters.

One avenue that is becoming increasingly evident as an option, if the Zondo commission is anything to go by in its scrutiny into public sector contracts, is cracking down on corruption around billing.

Johannesburg’s Operation Buya Mthetho appears to be yielding some fruit. Such initiatives will require political will, but savvy politicians would be wise, whatever their affiliation, to be seen to be cracking down on corruption that has likely disgusted the majority of South Africans.

The year 2019 may be one of local government’s most challenging, even though it does not face elections itself. It will require a careful balance of listening and responding to communities, insulating professional delivery from the politics of the day, and astute, frugal and savvy financial management.

• Heese is Municipal IQ’s economist, and Allan its MD.