Address to the SANC Local Government Conference, Johannesburg – 1999/07/30

30 July 1999 Johannesburg

Master of Ceremonies
SADC Secretary General, Dr. Kaire Mbuende
SADC Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Local Government
President of the International Union of Local Authorities, Mr. Patrick Wanyeraw
President of the African Union of Local Authorities, Colonel Max Ngwandwe Mayors Delegates
Distinguished Guests Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am pleased to be here to address this important occasion. This conference on local government within the SADC community is a truly landmark event, and I would like to congratulate the Ministers and their delegations from the Southern African region for coming together to discuss ways to promote regional cooperation on local government matters.

In the narrow sense of the word, and to some people, local government refers to a municipality like Johannesburg or London or New York which has a high tax base and a functional economy.

In the broad sense of the word, local government refers to people at the local level, a locality, be it a cosmopolitan town or a remote village where there are rules and regulations governing spatial development, economic activity, law and order, and people-to-people relations. Local government relates to any society where people reside and interact and have rules dealing with transactions.

In every local authority area, there should be democratic systems of governance, the genuine empowerment of the people, wherein all people decide who their leader are, where people participate actively in matters affecting their daily lives, where there is a social contract of service delivery and payment thereof.

Perhaps the most appropriate understanding of local government is that it should be a dynamic system of governance whereby power resides with the people of that locality and the municipal authorities are themselves the hands and feet of government as a whole.

Affirming the developmental vision of local government, Bennington and Hartley make the following observation:

There is a growing recognition of the fact that a democratically elected local authority can have a wide range of direct and indirect impacts on its area if it consciously harness and uses three distinct roles:

  • its traditional social role in distributing, administering and delivering services to its users;
  • a more active economic role in stimulating and developing the local and regional economy;
  • a political role in representing and giving voice to diverse needs and interests within the local economy.

In recent times, our continent and our region, have made a great deal of progress in terms of democracy and the deepening thereof. This is laudable, because, in this way, we give voice to these diverse needs and interests within a local economy. But the acid test will be the extent to which ordinary people at local level are able to take decisions on the manner in which their streets, their blocks and their entire areas, as well as their schools, clinics and farms are run and managed.

For that we should ensure that people at a local level are so empowered that no person, however powerful, can come and impose undemocratic decisions, that we need to create new, confident, hardworking and enthusiastic local government activists who will be catalysts in the reconstruction and development of communities.

This African renaissance, that we have so often talked about, must reach the most remote areas of our countries, such that it is owned by ordinary people. Then we would create truly humane cities, towns and villages in the process, places in which we will be proud to say we live here; this place belongs to all of us.

We forget that even in earlier times structures of local governance existed here in Africa. In studies carried out by Meyer Fortes and E.E. Evans-Pritchard, two main types were identified:

One group, which we refer to as Group A, consists of those societies which have centralised authority, administrative machinery, and judicial institutions – in short, a government – in which cleavages of wealth, privilege and status correspond to the distribution of power and authority. This group comprises the Zulu, the Ngwato, the Bemba, the Banyankole, and the Kede. The other group, which we refer to as Group B, consists of those societies which lack centralized authority, administrative machinery, and constitutued judicial institutions – and in which there are no sharp divisions of rank, status, or wealth. This group comprises the Logoli, the Tallensi, and the Nuer. Those who consider that a state should be defined by the presence of governmental institutions will regard the first group as primitive states and second group as stateless societies.

(African Political Systems, 1940: 5)

In a more recent study, W. Ole Ntimama comments that African societies had a system of governance which brought communities together, which encouraged “common needs, common aspirations and a common purpose”:

“Most African societies were ruled by groups of elders who were usually elected by consensus and who were entrusted to making major decisions on political and social affairs that affected the community. It is important to understand that modern democratic institutions use consensus as a method of choosing their leaders. Consensus means the cooperative decision reached by all: it does not mean that everybody is completely satisfied with the final outcome, but, rather, that they always agree to agree. In most African societies, these elders met at regular intervals to regulate and coordinate the way the society should be governed. They passed laws, administered justice and had a system of punishment for members who broke the law.

The Maasai community had a council of elders which was elected through the process of consensus. It was the parliament of the community. The elders formulated the laws which regulated the activities of everybody who was a member of that society. The Maasai had a well organised miltiary system which took care of the community’s security. The moran regiments were under the direct authority of the council of elders who could order the morans to raid cattle from the enemies in order to replenish livestock, which was the basis of their economy. The women and the youth were allocated specific functions which they performed for the general welfare of that society. It is important to emphasise that African societies were democratic before colonialism and that most of these societies could be called nations.” (Traditional and Contemporary Forms of Local Participation and Self-Government in Africa in Traditional and Contemporary Forms of Local Participation and Self-Government in Africa: 1997: 25-26)

Need I remind you that these democratic forms of governance were largely dismantled by colonialism and replaced with an authoritarian system of governance, whereby Africans were not given a say in their socio-political and economic life.

Part of the colonial legacy was the local system of control and separation of the people from the exercise of power through indirect rule exercised by the colonial power. These structures were imported from the colonial home countries, but were applied as mechanisms to strengthen the system of colonial power and entrench the inequalities that were fundamental to the exploitation of Africa and her people.

So it was that we have inherited the particular systems that make up the separate traditions of local government in Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries. As the tide of liberation has swept through the sub-continent, so we have each had to grapple with the task of transforming these structures of local oppression and control into new tools of liberation and upliftment of our people.

It is this task of transformation which binds us together in a historic duty.

How do we turn the wide variety of local and distinct municipal structures we have inherited from the colonial era into dynamic institutions of local democracy which can address the impoverishment and disempowerment of the African people?

Many of our SADC neighbours have been grappling with this task for two or three decades, and your experiences and accumulated wisdom will enrich those of us who have come to this task later in the century. But one thing is clear from this experience, and that it that the task of transformation is both long and arduous.

There is a renewed interest in local government sweeping across the African continent. This is informed by a common recognition that the system of local democracy enriches the overall project of national liberation and democratisation, and that decentralisation of government power to the appropriate local level actually strengthens government through rendering it more effective. There is also a common commitment to the notion of developmental local government, with a focus on the strategic role of local government in promoting social and economic development at a local level.

We have, I believe, a large number of local government initiatives in the Southern African region which have highlighted the potential impact of this new approach to local government. Partnerships with communities, NGOs, private developers, international development organisations and traditional leaders are amongst the rich body of experience from the Southern African region which have steered us in this direction.

These partnerships have taught us that through mobilising the resources of communities and the private sector, we can, even with limited resources at our disposal, make a significant impact on addressing poverty and service backlogs. In this way, on the basis of these innovations and best practices, we can make a firm commitment to the partnership approach as a central pillar of our local government strategy.

In line with this new approach to partnerships, there is I believe a paradigm shift taking place in the way we view tasks of infrastructure delivery. While we are all too familiar with the lack of basic services and infrastructure which characterise our countries, we are also acutely aware that some of these infrastructure projects have collapsed because they were not properly operated and maintained. Sustainibility has to be the watchword in all our enterprises.

The shift towards fiscal decentralisation, wherein we create the environment for municipalities to take responsibility for financing and operating their own infrastructure investments, is gaining ground.

At the regional level I am aware that there are a number of SADC member countries in partnership with development banks, augmented by the work of the African Development Bank. We can now contemplate the possibility of a network of development finance institutions in the region being able to facilitate the financing of municipal service delivery.

Innnovations in service delivery mechanisms also allow us to present bankable projects to the market. In

South Africa we have been able to craft new partnerships at local level in municipalities such as Nelspruit and the Dolphin Coast that have involved significant private investment in meeting basic needs and delivering infrastructure to poor households.

Through the work of the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Unit, we now have approximately forty projects in the pipeline, which will fundamentally transform the way we deliver infrastructure in the future.

I know that many of you here today have projects in the pipeline which you are here to share with us. Sharing information between African countries, between us and our neighbours, is crucial to our individual and collective successes. Let us never under-estimate the wealth of our own experience and let us use the tools in our own hands for sustainable development at local and regional levels.

As our pre-colonial past has also shown us, as our recent history demonstrates to us (and as our present demands of us), good governance belongs as much to Africa, is as much at home here as it is in other parts of the world.

No-one needs to teach us about mechanisms for empowering the poor or how to deal with corruption that eats at the fabric of governance.

This is why the deliberations at this conference and this meeting are so important. The concrete projects and initiatives will enrich the way in which we build our local government systems. The building of structures of organised local government, such as the African Union of Local Authorities, is an important task. In South Africa, the South African Local Government Association has done excellent work in organising local government and looking after its interests.

I am truly excited by the SADC Local Government Information Centre which was launched at this conference yesterday, and must commend the SADC member countries and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum for making this initiative possible.

I wish you well in your deliberations today. The development of our continent is dependent on you. May the common needs, common aspirations and a common purpose of our people – these democratic ideas that also shaped our pre-colonial ancestors in their systems of governance – guide all of us as well as in our endeavours to strengthen local and national government in our region and throughout our continent, as we strive to build a better life for all our people, a truly people-centred world in which everyone can flourish and live a creative life, in which the collective dreams of a people can and dare come true.

I thank you for your time.

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