Imperfect transition – local government reform in South Africa 1994-2012
Local government is a mirror of the larger political and economic forces, cleavages and problems that are shaping South African society. It is these deeper fault lines in society, rather than the Zuma government’s turnaround strategy or the 2011 local elections result, which will drive future policy and determine its effects. This is the first lesson of local government reform in all four terms of national government examined in this chapter. In each term, national policy reforms were moulded by shifting political and economic circumstances and larger national interests, not simply by the unfolding logic of the original blueprint for local government in the 1998 white paper. The outcome of eighteen years of policy reform, however, was not the new society imagined in the white paper, but an imperfect transition that is local government today: where peaceful electoral competition coexists with violent public protests, racial group areas endure in fact, even if not in law, pockets of good governance survive amidst systemic corruption and mismanagement, and national policy goals consistently exceed local government’s capacity to deliver them and the economy’s skills base. The second lesson flows from that reality – due to the fact that the problems of local government are so nested in the broader problems of our society, further local government policy reform and sweeping national turnaround strategies are likely to have imperfect impacts on ‘the problem of local government’ in South Africa.