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Update on the dplg policy review of the White Paper on Local Government

The article below appeared on the dplg website ( on 12 December 2007.

Completion of the first phase of the policy review on the system of provincial and local government and the way forward in 2008

The first public response phase of the policy review has been completed

In January 2007, the extended Cabinet mandated the Ministry and Department of Provincial and Local government to develop a white paper on provincial government and to review the white paper on local government by 2008. 

On 31 July 2007, the dplg launched the first phase of the policy review with the intention of promoting a national debate on provincial and local governance. Sixty-five questions about provincial and local government were published and the public invited to submit responses by the 31st of October 2007.

As outlined in the background document that was published, the purpose of the review is to take stock of practice over the past thirteen years, to derive lessons and insights that can inform specific and practical approaches to make the system of provincial and local government more efficient, accountable, equitable, and able to provide a better quality of service to South Africa. 

A wide range of responses were received from individuals, government departments, public enterprises, universities and research institutions, municipalities, provinces, organized local government, non governmental organizations, and political parties. 

All submissions were thoroughly examined, revealing many constructive proposals and interesting insights.  These will be used in shaping the outcomes of the review in 2008.

The print and electronic media showed considerable interest in the process, as well as covering general issues of concern to provincial and local government.

Several non-governmental organizations also held their own conferences or seminars during this period, to which dplg was invited to make an address on the process. Numerous other consultative meetings were held with practitioners and stakeholders.

Research was commissioned and completed, and many organizations made their own research available to the dplg. 

The Ministry and Department would like to thank the South African public for the seriousness with which the process was taken, the media, the donor community for its ongoing support, and everyone who made a submission or contributed to this process. 

The five main sets of issues under consideration

The research and public submissions provided some new insights about the operation of our system of provincial and local government over the past thirteen years.  They also confirmed the findings of assessments undertaken by dplg and other state departments over the past years. 

The policy review will focus on the most important issues emerging from the experience and practice of provincial and local government in our country.  To this end, the dplg has classified the relevant issues and lessons that will be considered further in the process into five main thematic clusters.  These themes form the framework and basis for the policy review, targeted research and further consultation, and will inform the structure of the white paper.  They are substantially informed by research, submissions and experience. 

The five thematic areas are the following –

  1. The roles of provincial government and two-tier local government;
  2. Deepening local democracy, accountability and participation;
  3. Strengthening capacity to meet basic needs and enable sustainable development;
  4. Refining the intergovernmental roles, functions and fiscal frameworks of spheres; and
  5. Making cooperative governance work more effectively and improving oversight, performance management, and the monitoring and evaluation system.

1.      The roles of provincial government and two-tier local government

The roles of provincial government and two-tier local government are under consideration in the policy review.  Of the sixty-five questions, several dealt with this issue.

It is widely accepted that the nine provinces with their own elected governments, collectively constituting a provincial sphere of government, were created during the political negotiations that introduced democracy in South Africa.  The future of this sphere has been debated since 1993. 

There is broad agreement that provincial government has contributed to the peaceful transition to democracy, social delivery and development over the past fourteen years. The submissions are divided on the extent of provinces’ contribution to nation building and the impact of representation and oversight by provincial legislatures.  Further research is required on these issues. 

There is broad agreement that the spatial inequalities created by apartheid remain starkly apparent within and between the nine provinces, with areas in former homelands the most vulnerable.  Research also confirms that complex patterns of migration, economic activity and settlement formation are shaping this spatial reality. The national spatial development perspective illustrated this reality, and confirmed the importance of a spatial understanding of development guiding policy given our country’s history and set of current challenges.   

Several provinces have also begun to investigate new approaches to regional spatial development, within their existing boundaries.  The role of provinces in other words is evolving from within provinces themselves in ways that confirm the importance of revisiting the institutional framework for provincial government. 

The question that arises for consideration in the policy review is whether the state is appropriately organized at provincial and regional scale to engage the different spatial realities of provincial, metro, city, small town and rural South Africa, on the basis of their particular circumstances.   

More detailed research is needed before any conclusions can be reached.  This work will be a prominent aspect of the review in 2008. 

The two-tier system of local government is generally seen to be under pressure, according to research and key stakeholders.  Many factors have been identified as pressure-points in the district-local configuration. These include

  • the number of statutory functions that districts actually perform,
  • the fact that the replacement of the regional service council levy has meant that districts are largely funded by the national fiscus,
  • in many districts there is a mismatch between staff, budgets and functions performed, and
  • the process of adjusting powers between locals and districts causes uncertainty and instability.


The review will therefore examine the implications of these pressures, and consider the appropriateness and merits of options for overcoming the problems at this level, including re-defining the role of districts in relation to locals or establishing single tier local government.  Detailed research and modeling will underpin any proposals.  This work will take into account the current functional arrangements between district and local government, as well as the relationship between provincial functions and local government. This aspect of the review may have structural implications, and will feature prominently in the review.

2.      Refining the intergovernmental roles, functions and fiscal frameworks of spheres       

Because Government is established as three distinctive, interdependent and interrelated spheres of government, an effective system of intergovernmental relations is a crucial measure of overall state performance. 

The intergovernmental system in South Africa is founded upon two basic principles of democratic accountability enshrined in our constitution.  The first is that there must be certainty about which sphere is accountable for delivering a particular service.  When there is certainty about this, the public then knows who to hold accountable for non-performance.

The second is that the three spheres of government must closely coordinate their plans, budgets, and delivery programs in order to achieve efficient, equitable and sustainable service delivery throughout the country as a whole.

The system of intergovernmental relations is underpinned by a fiscal system based on revenue-sharing, with a significant national responsibility for redistribution between the spheres.   

During the first phase of the policy review, the department commissioned several studies on these aspects of intergovernmental relations, and several submissions addressed the workings of the system. 

The main lesson is that the intergovernmental system is well-established and generally sound, but some uncertainty appears to exist with respect to particular functional areas.  In most (but not all) cases, the uncertainty arises because it is unclear whether provinces or municipalities are responsible for a particular function.  In other cases there is a question about which level of government should be responsible for certain services in order to enhance access, efficiency, equity, and accountability.

While provinces have in the past been responsible for social services, their regional social and economic development function has begun to emerge, and this role requires clarity in light of the fiscal structure of provincial government.

Areas of apparent uncertainty that have emerged repeatedly in the research and submissions are - the optimal long term revenue structure for local government; housing; libraries, museums, arts and culture; public transport; district roads; municipal health; primary health care in metros and secondary cities; and the regional planning function of provinces;

In the next phase, the dplg will work with relevant sectors, the National Treasury and other partners to examine these issues, and further detailed research will be undertaken so that any changes that are proposed are practical and well-considered. The policy review will further examine which level of government is best placed to perform a function in cases where location is a key consideration in providing a better quality of service to the public and improving accountability.

3.      Strengthening capacity to meet basic needs and enable sustainable development

The recently released Community Survey shows that access to services has improved across the range of indicators for free basic services and millennium development goals. Expenditure on social services such as education, health and social development shows improvement and stability, though outcomes are still skewed geographically.

Backlogs in municipal infrastructure and services remain substantial, asset maintenance is a concern and the shortage of technical skills an acute problem in many municipalities. 

Deployments of technical expertise into some municipalities through Project Consolidate has had a positive impact on municipal capacity and performance over relatively short time horizons, but it is clear that an institutional solution to skills shortages in the most vulnerable municipalities will be required in the long term.  Various options will be examined.

Attention needs to be given to the appropriate scale for regional and local development planning given the spatial realities of South Africa.  In this regard the regulatory framework for land use, settlement establishment and environment impact assessment emerge as pressing.  Several submissions have also raised the possibility of simplifying the requirements for municipal planning and drawing closer linkages between plans, budgets and performance contracts. The need for innovative models for capital and settlement planning, including new incentives, will be examined in detail in the review.

4.      Making cooperative governance work more effectively and improving oversight, performance management, and the monitoring and evaluation system

The lesson is that the institutional framework for intergovernmental coordination is adequate, but there is evidence that intergovernmental institutions are under utilized, oversight can be improved and the monitoring and evaluation system must be strengthened.

Amongst the issues under consideration in the review, special attention will be given to whether additional measures are needed to improve intergovernmental coordination, the adequacy of the support provided to local government and the representation of local government in policy-making and in intergovernmental processes, particularly with respect to infrastructure planning at national and provincial levels.

Public and municipal finance legislation have introduced a variety of measures to improve oversight of public expenditure and transparency, including budget and accounting reforms, annual and in-year reporting requirements, and independent auditing procedures.  Compliance varies between provinces and municipalities.

Although regulations were issued to regulate the performance contract system for municipal managers, the number of vacancies at this level and unsigned performance contracts remains too high.

A government-wide framework for monitoring and evaluation was also recently introduced.  Accurate data on performance impact, capacity for early warning monitoring and reporting, and replicating emerging good practice elsewhere in the system remain challenges for the effectiveness of the monitoring and evaluation system. 

Consideration will be given to all of these issues, as well as to developing a select set of national outcome indicators for local government that reflects the differing circumstances of municipalities, establishing appropriate early warning monitoring and strengthening the overall performance environment of municipal management.   


5.      Deepening local democracy, accountability and participation

Local democracy is established and legitimate and a major new force in the development of our country, but the overall quality of accountability and participation must be enhanced.  A very large number of submissions addressed this point.

Mechanisms such as ward Committees, Community Development Workers, IDP Forums, Community-based budgeting, and Imbizo have become established practices and are having a positive impact on public access to the state and to participation.

Measuring the quality of participation, more organized forms of participation, improving day to day responsiveness and communication and better management of existing processes are concerns affecting the quality of participation. Additional measures may need to be introduced to strengthen municipal accountability to communities. 

The research that was commissioned and the many submissions in this area confirmed this finding, and identified specific pressure points, notably leadership and skills development, relations between council and administration, clarifying institutional roles where there is uncertainty, communication between council and community, and examining how existing participatory mechanisms can be made to work more effectively to improve the quality of participation.  Greater attention needs to be given to implementing practical models for empowering poor communities to become economically active in their own right, which is a cornerstone of local economic development.

Further research and consultations will examine these and other issues under this theme to determine whether additional measures are needed.

The way forward in the next phase of the review

Further work will be undertaken under each of these areas, leading to the release of a draft white paper in mid 2008 for further public consultation.  Comprehensive geo-spatial modeling for clusters one and two is underway and will enjoy priority in 2008. The dplg will publish on its web-site selected research undertaken during the first phase.  It should be stressed, and the public is requested to take note, that the views expressed by the researchers in these papers belong to the authors, and should not be attributed to the dplg or government.

The overall process will culminate in early 2009 when a white paper is submitted to cabinet.

For more on the policy process, click here.

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