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Former Johannesburg executive mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: ALON SKUY​​
Former Johannesburg executive mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: ALON SKUY​​

On November 17 the MEC responsible for local government in the Free State, Mxolisi Dukwana, announced his intention to change the Maluti-a-Phofung municipality from one with an executive mayoral system to one with a collective executive system. He is apparently considering altering the governance structure of some other municipalities in the Free State as well. 

He should be applauded. This is a significant step, and as far as I know the first time a municipality has potentially shifted from an executive mayoral system to a collective executive system.

The Local Government: Municipal Structures Act contemplates two possible governance systems for local government, but only one has dominated over the past couple of decades. 

In the executive mayoral system immense power is conferred on a single individual, the executive mayor. He or she appoints the entire mayoral committee, which has only an advisory function.  Where one party has an overall majority, the mayoral committee is inevitably made up of councillors from that party alone. 

This system, where one political party controls the entire council, naturally facilitates the corruption, patronage, cadre deployment and irregular expenditure that we have seen throughout SA’s municipalities.  It is hardly surprising that only a little over 10% of all municipalities receive clean audits. 

But the situation is even worse when we move into the current scenario where we have hung councils throughout SA, including in five of our metros. This forces coalitions between parties that have little in common with each other and enhances the influence of small parties, which often become kingmakers in coalition talks.

We have already seen how coalition talks generated the situation in Kannaland municipality (Ladismith and Calitzdorp) where the agreed mayor is a convicted child rapist and the agreed deputy mayor a convicted fraudster. In Johannesburg, we are witnessing Herman Mashaba desperately seeking the executive mayoral position when his party has only 16% of the seats, and in Nelson Mandela Bay eight or nine parties needed to go into coalition for a majority vote to be achieved. 

All of this can be avoided if other provincial MECs responsible for local government follow the lead given by Dukwana and alter the system throughout the country from an executive mayoral one to a collective executive system.

Under the latter system overall responsibility for the council lies not with the mayor but with the collective executive committee.  The mayor largely plays a ceremonial role.  The executive committee consists of between three and 10 councillors, depending on the size of the council. Broadly, the political parties will be proportionately represented on the executive committee. 

The council can agree on an alternative system provided it complies with section 160(8) of the constitution, which stipulates that there must be fair representation of the political parties.  So in a council like Johannesburg the collective executive system would result in the ANC having four seats, the DA three, ActionSA two and the EFF one. That fairly represents the Johannesburg voters.

The advantage of the system is obvious. It means that all the major parties are represented in the leadership of the council, while none of the smaller and tiny parties have the sort of influence we have seen in the coalition talks.  It also means there are checks and balances in the leadership of the council, thus limiting the scope for corruption, patronage, cadre deployment and irregular expenditure.  In that way it helps to depoliticise municipal governance, allowing councils to focus on what should be their sole agenda item: service delivery.

Of course the collective executive system can trigger deadlocks. In Johannesburg, if the ANC and EFF were to align and the DA and ActionSA were to align there would be a 5:5 split. But in those circumstances the issue in dispute would then be referred to the full council for a decision.

Generally, under the collective executive system the different parties are forced to work together on a regular basis. If party representatives are mature and committed to service delivery, the debate in the executive committee will be constructive.

I would therefore urge the other eight provincial MECs outside the Free State, hopefully supported by national minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to follow the lead given by Dukwana and consider a significant shift from the executive mayoral to the collective executive system throughout the country.  The change process is uncomplicated and can be achieved within a month to six weeks.

• Evans is a public law partner at Webber Wentzel.


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