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Thursday evening’s state of the nation address presents President Cyril Ramaphosa with an opportunity to set out a decisive agenda for this parliament’s final full calendar year. The next state address will occur on the eve of the 2024 general elections, constraining its influence on governance.

In his address the president should prioritise two issues: local government effectiveness and the energy crisis.

The crises engulfing local government councils across the country have not ameliorated in the new year. On the contrary, myriad problems in high-profile metros like Johannesburg, eThekwini and Tshwane have simply proliferated. These problems are hardly confined to the metros, and it is equally important that the president address governance issues in smaller local municipalities too.

In June 2019 the president outlined plans for a district-based approach to local government. This was meant to integrate core responsibilities at the level of SA’s 44 district municipalities and eight metros. Subsequent state of the nation addresses (Sonas) have only mentioned the issue in passing. This pattern should not continue with Thursday’s speech.

A series of events, including Covid-19, the July 2021 riots and the 2022 KwaZulu-Natal floods, exposed the deficiencies in local infrastructure and service delivery systems, the gaps in local law enforcement capacity and flagrant corruption. The most recent auditor-general municipal finance report, indicating that only 16% of municipalities received clean audits and that annual irregular and wasteful expenditure consistently exceeds R20bn, validates this analysis.

Making progress in resolving long-standing governance issues takes time. But without a robust update on the current state of the district development plan it is difficult to hold the government accountable for the promises that have been made.

Another problem plaguing local government is political uncertainty within municipal councils. As we see in Johannesburg, rising political uncertainty impedes  basic functioning, particularly when a motion of no confidence is more likely to pass than a municipal budget. Coalition fragmentation also obstructs normal decision-making over resource allocation, with maintenance and investment coming second to political opportunism, further harming citizens.

Electricity pylons are shown on the Highveld. File photo: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS
Electricity pylons are shown on the Highveld. File photo: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS

Coalitions will soon become the dominant arrangement at local and provincial level, and subsequently at national level. Finding a way to make them function consistently is a priority. In his recent January 8 statement to his party, Ramaphosa indicated that the ANC “will implement a coherent and principled position to local government coalitions”. However, this pledge is insufficient so long as it remains entirely constrained by the ANC’s political interests.

Coalition building is a political process, making it hard to legislate for in any comprehensive manner. Nevertheless, important stakeholders have started to recognise that political parties cannot be the only ones that have a say in how coalitions form and subsequently function.

For instance, the SA Local Government Association (Salga) sought to fill this gap before the 2021 local government elections by publishing a framework for local government coalitions. Some of its recommendations included publishing coalition agreements and introducing dispute resolution mechanisms. Despite the record number of multiparty councils in SA right now, there is little evidence of political parties implementing these measures.

The president can facilitate greater coalition stability by convening an independent expert panel that thoroughly reviews the functioning of coalitions and their effect on local governance outcomes — especially service delivery — in the democratic era. Through identifying what has worked here and abroad such a panel could then publish recommendations designed to augment coalition stability and effective local governance. Should the panel deem a basic legislative framework for coalitions necessary, its work will be invaluable in informing the drafting of that legislation.

Recommendations alone will not bind political parties to a framework for stable coalitions. Supplementing them with sustained pressure from citizens, business, civil society and the media can help shift parties’ incentive structures towards a more productive, governance-orientated approach.

The provision of services and the availability of electricity are closely related. The ability of municipalities to collect revenue and provide specific services such as water, is directly affected by the availability of electricity. Therefore, Ramaphosa’s core focus in his 2023 state of the nation address should be SA’s energy situation.

In a letter dated January 23 Ramaphosa acknowledged that load-shedding has disrupted businesses and private citizens. Notably, the president drew attention to how load-shedding has harmed small businesses, even forcing some to shut down.

Small businesses will play a major role in boosting the economy and tackling unemployment in SA. To support them the president should outline a targeted implementation plan underpinned by areas of intervention as they grapple with the multiplier effects of load-shedding. What we then require is swift implementation over the next 12 months.

Sluggish implementation of structural reforms designed to improve energy availability persists across government departments. In recent days there have been numerous proposals on how to accelerate this implementation process. The topic was also prevalent at the governing party’s lekgotla in January, which might pre-empt some measures introduced in this address.

There, a number of potential approaches were discussed, including transferring Eskom from the department of public enterprises to the department of mineral resources & energy; distributing unspent funds from other government departments to Eskom; and the president declaring a state of national disaster over the energy crisis.

The last proposal is sweeping in scope and warrants rigorous examination. In a democratic society states of disaster should not become the norm when dealing with governance problems. They tend to encourage forceful imposition that is politically difficult to reverse. In theory, making this declaration could help speed up the purchase of vital spare parts and permit the state to make more targeted responses. But the most recent state of disaster proves a cautionary tale on the limits of this approach.

During the Covid-19 national state of disaster there was a pronounced lack of transparent consultation over critical decisions made by the government. Should the president announce a national state of disaster on energy, lessons need to be learnt from this experience. Strengthening consultative processes will help arrive at positions that are shared by stakeholders and are democratically accountable. The government also needs to incorporate strong guardrails to prevent the handing out of corrupt contracts.

Beyond this, if we do enter a state of disaster over the energy crisis it will be imperative that the president and government emphasise that it is a temporary and not a permanent solution to the problem. Any announcement of a state of disaster must be accompanied by an explicit exit strategy, to which citizens can bind the government.

Speaking in 1996 as the chair of the deliberative process that gave birth to our democratic constitution, Ramaphosa emphasised that a core constitutional objective is creating a “framework for sound and effective government in SA”. Starting with this week’s address, the president can play a decisive role in ensuring that 2023 sees SA advance towards this goal by prioritising improving local government, providing an avenue to enhance political stability, and implementing the necessary correctives to resolve our energy crisis.

• Zondo is a researcher, and Desai a senior data analyst, at Good Governance Africa.

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