The African National Congress has a vision for local government that extends far beyond the effective delivery of services. For it is in local government where the demand of the Freedom Charter that the people shall govern finds its greatest resonance.
It is through effective, democratic local government that people are able to take decisions that directly affect their lives and shape their communities.
It is through capable, participatory local government that we can remake our country and achieve the better life that our people so richly deserve.
To truly understand local government in South Africa, its challenges and its development, there is probably no better point of reference than the report of the Stallard Commission of 1922.
This Commission, which was set up the Smuts government to investigate the presence of Africans in cities and towns, said:“The native should only be allowed to enter urban areas, which are essentially the white man’s creation, when he is willing to enter and to administer to the needs of the white man, and should depart therefrom when he ceases so to minister.”
That one statement explains so much of our country. It explains why there are huge impoverished settlements far from any economic activity and which – until the advent of democracy – were without any decent social infrastructure or services.
It explains why, in 1994, nearly half of all South African households didn’t have access to sanitation, 40% of households didn’t have access to potable water, and only half of all households had electricity.
It explains why even today the poor spend so much of their income on transport and why so many people are essentially still migrant workers. The cities and towns of this country were not designed and were never intended to be home to the majority of our people.
With the advent of apartheid, the Department of Native Affairs under Verwoerd undertook the task of implementing apartheid social engineering and spatial geography with a special fanaticism.
The Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act, the Bantu Authorities Act were among the crucial pieces of legislation that not only deepened racial segregation, but also entrenched tribal identities.
Urban space became racialised and ethnicised. Rural areas became dumping grounds for surplus labour. Local authorities became instruments of control and repression.
As a consequence, the process of transformation at a local level has been both most difficult and most essential.
In 1994, we inherited a fragmented and unaccountable governance system consisting of Bantustan administrations, national and provincial administrations, local councils, as well as separate administrations for different racial groups.
The Bantustan administrations were poorly organised and resourced, largely without local government, and the services they provided were determined by the requirements of the apartheid state. Those municipalities that were well capacitated were mostly in the urban areas and served the needs of the white minority.
It is therefore a great achievement that we succeeded in amalgamating these discordant apartheid-era institutions into a single, non-racial, democratic system that serves all South Africans.
In doing so, we introduced a new vision of capable, efficient, developmental local government. It was a vision of a local government that works with communities to meet their social and economic needs; of councillors working to improve the lives of the poor and marginalised.
After 16 years of truly democratic local government, we can say without any doubt that we have improved the lives of our people. We have made remarkable strides in meeting the basic needs of the residents of our cities and towns and rural areas.
There are few other countries in the world that, in the course of just two decades, could have built – as we have – 3.7 million housing opportunities for the poor, providing homes for around 12.5 million people. Few other countries in the world have managed such a dramatic expansion of electricity provision.
Shortly after the advent of democratic local government in 2000, the proportion of households that used electricity for cooking was 51 percent. The 2016 Community Survey shows that this has increased to 83 percent.
At the time of the 2001 census, 3.6 million South African homes had piped water in the house. Today, that number has increased to 7.5 million.
Municipalities have prioritised the needs of the poor. There are now over 11.8 million households that receive free basic water. Nearly 200 municipalities now have community works programmes, with a total of 200,000 participants.
There are many other statistics that illustrate the socio-economic progress that has been made since the advent of democracy in 1994, and more particularly since the advent of democratic local government in 2000.
In each of these instances, progress has depended not only on effective local government, but on the ability of municipalities to work with other spheres of government, parastatals and other state institutions.
But these statistics only tell part of the story.
Our vision for local government extends far beyond the efficient delivery of basic services. It extends beyond building houses, connecting lights and water, and collecting refuse.
Our vision for local government requires the fundamental transformation of the spaces where our people live and work. It requires determined action to rapidly grow sustainable, inclusive local economies.
We seek municipalities – in metros, cities, towns and rural areas – whose central purpose is to enable job creation, sustainable livelihoods and successful human settlements.
That work with each other and with other spheres of government as dynamic implementing agents of the National Development Plan (NDP). We seek municipalities that understand the shifting social and economic landscape of our country and plan accordingly.
Over the last 16 years of democratic local government, for example, we have witnessed significant movements of people into cities and metros, and even into some rural towns. We know that 60% of South Africans live in urban areas, and that this is expected to rise to about 70% by 2030.
This poses challenges and opportunities. It is easier and cheaper to deliver better services in urban settings.
Greater concentrations of knowledge, skills, ideas and labour encourage economic growth and social development. At the same time, a significant influx of people – most of whom are poor and unskilled – can place a significant strain on infrastructure, services and social cohesion.
Throughout history, the growth and development of cities has been crucial to economic and social development. But we must make sure that we do not neglect rural areas.
It is for this reason that the ANC’s 2016 local government election manifesto focuses specifically on the role of municipalities in forging successful local economies.
It pays particular attention to the creation of jobs and training opportunities for young people. As a consequence, all municipalities will be expected to develop special programmes targeting youth cooperatives and enterprises, and work with local companies to promote youth employment.
There is also significant scope for municipalities to use their procurement spend to increase local production and encourage the growth of SMMEs and cooperatives.
It is necessary for cities and towns to look beyond their municipal boundaries to opportunities for regional economic integration. We are encouraging the development of city-regions, particularly where there is a significant flow of labour and goods between adjacent municipalities.
Transport networks are an important area of focus, complimenting more integrated residential, industrial and commercial development. Through the provision of safe, reliable and affordable public transport, we are hoping to encourage a move away from private cars, which carry a far higher economic and environmental cost.
We have significantly improved the alignment of housing provision with other public investments and service provision, including schools and health facilities. There is a major push to develop township economies and support informal businesses as these present important opportunities for absorbing new arrivals into the urban economy.
Beyond that, municipalities need to be making use of advances in information and technology to improve their efficiency, effectiveness and impact. Through better data collection and management, municipalities will be better able to design, plan and manage development.
The transformation of local government is critically dependent on improving the skills base of local government. Municipalities struggle to attract and retain a high calibre of appropriately skilled people.
The NDP suggests the introduction of mechanisms to improve the recruitment of graduates, including through a nationally coordinated programme, and the standardisation of remuneration levels to help municipalities with fewer resources to retain vital skills.
As we fundamentally transform the spaces where people live and work, we need to ensure local government is a real instrument for people’s power. Residents need to be actively involved in decisions about their ward, zone, town or city. They need to be part of the planning and design of interventions. This may be particularly challenging in a municipality of a million or more people, but it should not serve as an excuse for not using every means at our disposal to ensure greater citizen participation and accountability.
Over the last few weeks, we have visited communities across the length and breadth of this country. We have listened to people as they have described how their lives have changed for the better over these last 16 years, what challenges they face, what disappointments they have experienced. They have told us about their needs and their hopes, and about what still needs to be done to build successful cities and towns and rural communities.
Having listened to a multitude of voices, we are confident that our vision of local government as articulated in our 2016 Manifesto speaks to the aspirations of the people of this country.
It is true that our achievements over the last 16 years have been remarkable.
Yet more remarkable still will be our achievements in the next 16 years.
CDE. CYRIL RAMAPHOSA IS THE DEPUTY PRESIDENT OF THE AFRICAN NATIONAL CONGRESS