This week’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) presents President Cyril Ramaphosa with an opportunity to set out a decisive agenda for this parliament’s final full calendar year. The next SONA will occur on the eve of our 2024 general elections, constraining its governance impact. In his address, the President should prioritise two issues, local government effectiveness and the energy crisis.
Improving Local Government
The crises engulfing local government councils across the country have not been ameliorated in the new year. On the contrary, myriad problems in high-profile metros like Johannesburg, eThekwini and Tshwane have proliferated. These problems are hardly confined to 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 South Africa’s 44 district municipalities and 8 metropolitan municipalities. Subsequent SONAs have only mentioned the issue in passing. This pattern should not continue with this week’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 R20 billion, 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.
Resolving political instability
Another problem plaguing local government is political uncertainty within municipal councils. As we see in Johannesburg, for instance, rising political uncertainty impedes the basic functioning of government, 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.
Coalitions will soon become the dominant arrangement at the local and provincial levels and, subsequently, at the national level. So, 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 in any comprehensive manner. Nevertheless, important stakeholders have started to recognise that political parties cannot be the only ones who have a say in how coalitions form and subsequently function.
For instance, the South African Local Government Association sought to fill this gap before the 2021 local government elections by publishing a framework for local government coalitions. Some of their recommendations included publishing coalition agreements and introducing dispute-resolution mechanisms into these agreements. Despite the record number of multiparty councils in South Africa 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 which thoroughly reviews the functioning of coalitions and their effect on local governance outcomes, especially service delivery, in the democratic era. By 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, then 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, civic society and the media can help shift parties’ incentive structures toward a more productive, governance-orientated approach.
The energy crisis
The provision of services and the availability of electricity are closely related. The ability of municipalities to collect revenue and provide specific services, like water, is directly impacted by the availability of electricity. Therefore, Ramaphosa’s core focus in his 2023 SONA address should be South Africa’s energy situation.
In a letter dated 23 January 2023, Ramaphosa acknowledged that load-shedding has disrupted both businesses and private citizens. Notably, the President drew attention to how load-shedding has harmed small businesses, even forcing some of them to shut down.
Small businesses play a major role in boosting the economy and tackling unemployment in South Africa. 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 twelve months.
Sluggish implementation of structural reforms designed to improve energy availability persists across government departments. In recent days, there have been numerous proposals from experts, civic society, business, and political parties 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 week’s SONA.
There, a number of potential approaches were discussed, including transferring Eskom from the Department of Public Enterprises to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy; distributing unspent funds from other government departments to Eskom; and that the President declare 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 the government made. Should the President announce a national state of disaster on energy, lessons need to be learned 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 bind the government.
Speaking in 1996 as the chairperson of the deliberative process which birthed our democratic constitution, Ramaphosa emphasised that a core constitutional objective is creating a “framework for sound and effective government in South Africa”. Starting with this week’s SONA, President Ramaphosa can play a decisive role in ensuring that 2023 sees South Africa advance by realising this goal by prioritising improving local government, providing an avenue to enhance political stability and implementing the necessary correctives to resolve our energy crisis.
A version of this article is also appearing in Business Day.