Friday, October 15, 2010


15 October 2010

Welcome to the latest edition of SA Today, the weekly newsletter from the Leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille.

SA Today
Helen Zille, DA Leader

The drive to destroy the provinces is purely political

All indications are that the ANC has made up its mind about the future of the provinces. The only question is whether it wants to reduce their number, change their powers, or abolish them altogether. Whatever emerges, there is one objective in mind: to centralize power and prevent a viable challenge to the ANC at provincial level.

I have been interested to learn that this tactic is a fairly common form of power abuse in emerging democracies. It is one of the key reasons why the transition to democracy has failed in other countries on our continent.

At the Democracy and Development conference I attended in Durban this week to discuss the future of provinces, an academic, originally from Ghana, explained how provinces had been undermined in his home country. Soon after independence in 1957 Ghana’s provinces were turned into regions, and their previous powers increasingly concentrated in the central state. When the ruling party sensed a challenge emerging in any region, regional boundaries were changed to pre-empt the challenge. At the same time, more and more regions were established in order to create more paid positions for political associates and to “buy-off” potential challengers.

The use of “regions” for political patronage had nothing to do with fulfilling the functions of government. As a result, the growing number of regions increasingly failed to deliver the services they should have. This sparked political resistance, which was then defused by the central state, through the creation of more regions and deploying more “cadres”. This was one of the key reasons why Ghana did not live up to its early promise of democracy (although there are now signs that the tide may be turning).

From almost all examples of failed transitions to democracy, the root cause of the problem is political patronage – or what we call “cadre deployment”. It is interesting to analyse the ANC’s approach to the provinces within this broader context.

In the discussion paper prepared for its National General Council the ANC states that the “unitary state remains the ANC’s philosophical orientation and point of departure.” It then asks, rhetorically, “Have provinces improved the lives of our people in each province qualitatively and have they addressed the key socio-economic challenges facing communities in each province?”

Of course it is true that some provinces and many local governments have not functioned optimally. The question to ask is WHY NOT? We must diagnose the problem accurately if we want to find the right solution. But the ANC is not interested in finding a solution. The sub-optimal functioning of some provinces is a useful pretext for it to centralise its own control, just as the poor quality of some journalism is a useful pretext for the ANC to try and control the media.

The spurious reasons the ANC gives to reveal its real intentions. I have identified six:

First, the ANC suggests that the provinces are a relic of apartheid. This is deeply ironic. As far as I remember, there was no Limpopo, Mpumalanga or Gauteng during apartheid. And instead of nine independent provinces, there were only four administrative arms of national government. It was a highly-centralised, power-abusing unitary state, which is just what the ANC wants to bring back.

So the question must be asked: who wants to bring back apartheid?

The second argument is that the three-sphere system of government is complicated and often leads to over-lapping roles, unnecessarily protracted decision taking and inefficiency. There is some latent sympathy for this argument among the general public. There are people who believe that removing the provincial sphere, would streamline government, reduce costs, and improve efficiency. But this belief is unfounded. There are Ministries, departments, projects and parastatals under central government control that are more corrupt and inefficient than almost anything governed under concurrent provincial powers. Just think of the Department of Correctional Services and the SABC.

Conversely, there are excellent examples where co-operative governance has worked very well between all three spheres. Preparations for the 2010 World Cup are a case in point. Co-operation happened because there was sufficient political will to achieve results, sufficient competence through the appointment of personnel who are "fit-for-purpose" to undertake the jobs they are required to do, immutable deadlines, and accountability to independent structures.

Where there is a lack of political will, co-operative governance is doomed to failure. The cynical transfer of provincial land from the Western Cape to the National Government on the day before the April 2009 election, for instance, is the kind of political sabotage that prevents co-operative governance from working. It is absolutely deliberate. It has nothing to do with inefficiency or lack of capacity. It undermines the letter and spirit of the constitution. And then, with cynical irony, Ministers blame our three-sphere constitutional system for the problem their power abuse has created. If anything, their actions only serve to illustrate yet again, how vulnerable democratic systems are to power abuse. Democracy requires good faith and respect for the rule of law in order to work.

Thirdly, the argument goes that there would be less corruption if there were fewer spheres of government. This is untrue.

Corruption is not bound by borders or size. It can be rife in a tiny rural municipality or in a centralised government department, or across several departments as exemplified by the Arms Deal.

Corruption proliferates when there is a lack of accountability and transparency, and insufficient checks and balances. In fact, highly centralised systems tend more towards corruption than those that diffuse power throughout the polity and build in effective oversight. And of course, the greatest check on corruption is the willingness of voters to hold their representatives to account by voting them out of office. Only when politicians are really frightened of voters who are prepared to use the power of the ballot to change their government, is it really possible to hold corrupt politicians accountable. The more opportunities for voters to do this, the less corruption there will be.

Fourthly, there is an argument that costs would be saved by scrapping or merging provinces. But this saving would be insubstantial, if indeed there would be any at all.

The services provided by the provinces would have to be continued through decentralised arms of the central state, so there would be no savings in administration and infrastructure. Probably the only savings would be in the legislatures themselves (about 2% of total provincial costs), but even here it is likely that most of the legislators (whose support would have to be bought if the ANC were to prevent an internal revolt) would be re-deployed to other positions in the state.

A fifth argument the ANC uses against the provinces is the large disparity in income and economic opportunities in the different regions. This is true. It is also true that there is a lack of efficiency in most rural provinces. But it is false that these problems would be better addressed by central government.

The equitable share formula enables the national government to distribute resources according to developmental priorities and is designed to offset these disparities. In fact, the formula significantly advantages the rural provinces, even as urbanisation is drawing more and more people into the cities.

A sixth argument is that the provinces are inefficient. But, again, there are remedies available if a particular province is failing. Clause 100 of the constitution sets out the powers the national executive has to intervene in any province that is not fulfilling its obligations or maintaining essential standards. This includes a complete central take-over of provincial functions if it can be demonstrated that provincial governments have failed. It is telling that this has never been done before. If the provinces were so inefficient, why has not one ever been put under administration?

These six so-called reasons are designed to cloak the real intentions – to prevent another party from governing better than the ANC and winning elections.

Our whole approach to government is different. We are focused on job creation through business-led economic growth. We don’t deploy cadres, we apply the principles of “fitness for purpose.” We are holding school principals directly accountable for school performance. We are prohibiting employees of the state from doing business with the state. We are introducing legislation to exercise greater oversight of the police. We have stripped away all the ostentatious symbols of power such as blue lights on ministerial vehicles. We have also put a cap on what Ministers can spend on cars and cut out all lavish perks and parties. We are opening up tender processes for public scrutiny.

The point is that we are doing things differently, which is precisely what the ANC fears. Gwede Mantashe admitted as much in September. The ANC is frightened that we will succeed where it has failed.

In the debate over the future of the provinces, it is crucial that citizens and commentators alike do not simply swallow the ANC's reasoning. The most rudimentary research will demonstrate that the reasons currently being advanced are spurious. This is about power and control – just like the proposals on the table to silence the media.

It is unfortunate that so many people do not see the impact that scrapping or reducing the provinces will have on our democracy. I believe it will do even more damage than a media tribunal or a protection of information bill. It will demonstrate what the ANC is willing to do when it loses power at the ballot box. And if the ANC is willing to get rid of the provinces to prevent another party from governing at provincial level, what will it do to retain power at national level?

Ultimately, democracy depends upon the ability of citizens to change governments. The rotation of power at local and provincial government levels is essential for the maturation of our democracy. If there is no opportunity for parties other than the ANC to rule anywhere, then our democracy is doomed. We will repeat the tragic history that our constitution's founding fathers worked so hard to avoid.

Helen Zille

Comments by Sonny

How ironic, the ANC gave birth to these 'white elephants!'

The time has come for a new ruling party!

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