Cadres, incompetence and collapse: South Africa’s local government malaise - Africa in Fact

“They’re useless, all of them,” hissed Sam (not his real name) across the table. “Messed it up completely.”

Terence Corrigan

“They’re useless, all of them,” hissed Sam (not his real name) across the table. “Messed it up completely.” 

Sam and I were at a popular Rosebank eatery, catching up after not seeing each other for some years. We’d first met back in the 1990s. He’d come of age in the 1980s, during which time he had been a youthful anti-apartheid activist (he was “coloured”, though vociferously rejected that moniker). He had joined the ANC shortly after its unbanning in 1990. 

You wouldn’t think so now. His assessment of the state of Gauteng’s cities was laced with venom. He described one municipal employee who barely leaves his house – “literally, always at home”. He reeled off a list of the quality-of-life failings that plague urban South Africa. Sam is fortunate: a successful career as a governance consultant (whose advice is not always heeded) means that he can afford to buy himself out of some of this mess. So do large parts of South Africa’s hard-pressed middle class. Others are not so fortunate. 

But this is a painful situation for Sam; he’s always had a belief in the importance of a competent state, something that attracted him to the ANC’s policy offerings in the first place. For the most part, that is just not an option anymore. 

Members of #StandUpSA and #NotInMyName movement fix potholes symbolising the failing maintenance by Eskom during a march to Eskom Megawatt Park, the headquarters of Eskom power utility company, in Johannesburg on February 2, 2023. Photo by Maria Giulia Trombini/AFP
It’s not just disaffected suburbanites like Sam and myself who see things this way. The most recent report from the country’s Auditor General for 2021-2022 put it in these words: ‘For years, local government has been characterised by deteriorating standards of living, service delivery failures, dysfunctional municipalities, council and administrative instability, financial mismanagement, service delivery protests and crumbling municipal infrastructure. Citizens continue to express their dissatisfaction and frustration through the media and other platforms, calling for urgent attention to address their plight.’ 

In fact, in South Africa’s townships and informal settlements, the inability of municipalities to perform their duties and the consequent sense of alienation have sparked a protest culture that bears some resemblance to the anti-apartheid urban uprisings of the 1980s. 

This is a critical problem for South Africa, even an existential one. The country’s governance system accords a key role to local government, even providing for it in the country’s constitution. The ANC, despite a hard bias against government devolution, was in favour of strong municipalities. These would be the prime agencies for the provision of day-to-day services and socio-economic development and would be fora in which ordinary people (organised through the party, of course) could participate in their own governance and upliftment. In 1995, its slogan for the local elections was “Let’s make it happen where we live.” 

So, what went wrong? The crisis in South Africa’s municipalities is an expression of the broader dysfunction in the South African state. For years now, South Africans have spoken with cynicism about failings in public administration (“poor service delivery”) and with mounting trepidation about comprehensive state failure in the future. Former editor Brian Pottinger’s 2008 book The Mbeki Legacy was a prescient early discussion of this. 

South Africa’s municipal system was constituted atop enormous structural challenges. Because of historical segregation at both community and national levels, the economic foundations on which sub-national governments would depend were wildly unevenly distributed. Many of the municipal jurisdictions that emerged lacked a robust revenue base. Even in the more developed cities, past planning had been geared at separation rather than economically rational integration. The latter was split between competently administered cores (serving predominantly white communities) and deeply contested, sometimes effectively ungoverned, black townships and expanding shack lands. All of this called for extraordinary prudence and skill in managing the newly formed entities, ensuring they would not only meet their administrative responsibilities but perform the developmental mandate that would sustainably improve people’s lives. 

A resident stands next to a burning barricade in a street during a protest to vent out their anger against ongoing water and electricity outages for long periods in Soshanguve township, north of Pretoria, on February 1, 2023. Photo by Dinky Mkhize/AFP 
As Pottinger notes, the seminal criteria for doing this was skills. While the ANC paid lip service to this reality, it rapidly set about rearranging the personnel profile of the public service to ensure that people it trusted would manage the administration and that the public service would “reflect the demographics” of society. State positions were also a ready source of reward for party members. The administrative consequence, inevitably, was a considerable loss of expertise at a time when it was sorely needed. 

But in 1997, something more profound took place. Secure in power, the ANC turned to building its “hegemony” over society. Central to this was cadre deployment. This would involve placing loyal party activists in positions of power on the instruction of “deployment committees” within the party. These deployments were not limited to elected offices or to inherently political roles (such as spokespersons or political advisors), but were to cover positions South Africa’s constitution intended to be meritocratic, career-oriented, and dedicated to the service of the country’s people as a whole. 

Few people have spoken as extensively about cadre deployment as Paul Hoffman, advocate, author and director of the NGO Accountability Now. For him, this lies at the root of the malaise confronting local government and directly contradicts South Africa’s constitution. 

Hoffman notes that cadre deployment is in flagrant violation of South Africa’s constitution. In addition to Section 197, which requires that “no employee of the public service may be favoured or prejudiced only because that person supports a particular political party or cause,” Hoffman points to Section 195, which demands “good human resource management and career development practices, to maximise human potential, must be cultivated.” 

By subjecting appointments to an opaque party process, both are undermined. “By relying on an exclusive party gene pool, you were always going to get the mess you got,” Hoffman remarks. 

Surprisingly, the introduction of cadre deployment attracted little condemnation. Most commentators dealt with it extremely cautiously, avoiding discussion of its full implications 

But by 2008, South Africa was rapidly running out of room to manoeuvre. The global financial crisis severely shrank fiscal space, and unlike its emerging market peers, economic growth did not recover. Added to this were the general corruption and mismanagement of the Jacob Zuma era. Local government, always a prized source of employment and patronage, especially for those in South Africa’s impoverished hinterlands, became even more valuable. 

The ANC itself, despite its external appearances to the contrary, was never an especially coherent or well-run organisation, further undermined during the Zuma era by brazen corruption and personal loyalties. This created the perfect environment for regional and local barons to build their own fiefdoms. The ability to deploy was essential for local notables, and the benefits were critical for local supplicants. The consequences for the administration were catastrophic. Kevin Allan, Managing Director at Municipal IQ, a consultancy, summed things up in a recent newspaper column: “Cadre deployment is the real problem in local government and has run for years like poison through the sector. It is not only that cadres are deployed to political positions, but also in senior administrative positions, a role for which they have, mostly, little or no qualifications or experience.” 

Residents of Bhambayi settlement raise their fists as they protest for water and electricity services while closing off the M25 highway in Inanda, north of Durban, on April 13, 2022. Photo by Phill Magakoe/AFP 
This has an especially sinister side, as journalist Greg Arde has illustrated in his book War Party: How the ANC’s Political Killings are Breaking South Africa. Focusing largely on KwaZulu-Natal, it details how a combination of crooked business, political patronage, and a violent political culture is steadily corroding governance. And while the province has a long history of violent political conflict between the ANC and its rivals, contemporary violence tends to take place within the party, over the spoils of office. Politicising the state has become a lethal matter. 

Cadre deployment has created a severe threat to the integrity of democratic governance. In its conception, the idea tacitly assumed that the ANC would rule indefinitely. Politicising the state was seen as a means to ensure permanent alignment between the administration and the party. This was no longer plausible by the 2016 local elections, as the ANC began to lose its majority in some cities. By the 2021 local elections, it was in visible retreat, and polling points to an ongoing slide in its fortunes. 

So, what comes next? In 2021, for a period, the centrist opposition, the Democratic Alliance was able to form coalition governments in Gauteng’s three large metropolitan areas: Tshwane, Johannesburg, and Ekurhuleni. (Subsequently, it lost control of the latter two, holding on now only in Tshwane.) In each case, it complained about an obstructive civil service. 

Africa in Fact spoke to Benjamin (not his real name), who worked in an administrative position in the Ekurhuleni municipality during the DA’s incumbency. He details gridlock and inaction. Some of this, he says, was clearly intentional sabotage. Equipment would mysteriously be damaged and not repaired, or repairs would be delayed for weeks as invoices languished in in-trays.

Was this about political hostility towards the DA and loyalty to the ANC? In other words, was this cadre deployment in its full glory? “It’s nuanced,” Benjamin says. “At some level, let’s say the lower-level workforce, the sort of people represented by ANC-aligned unions, there was some open antipathy to the DA. The DA are the bosses and the capitalists; this is what they’ve been indoctrinated to believe, and you get to know it. 

As you move up the food chain, things become more complicated. Here’s where the money is. It’s swinging contracts to connected comrades, and maybe taking a cut for themselves. These are people who have a lot to lose, even their lives. Their careers are built on fiddling with the rules, and some of them are tied up with criminal syndicates. It’s not even really recognisably political for some of them anymore. And some are just chronically lazy, entitled and incompetent. There hasn’t been much consequence management; a cushy council job has meant a great salary for minimal effort, and if that depends on political contact, then that’s a contact they want to keep sweet.” 

A resident of Bhambayi settlement holds up an umbrella as he runs past burning tyres and police vehicles during their protest for water and electricity services while closing off the M25 highway in Inanda, north of Durban, on April 13, 2022. Photo by Phill Magakoe/AFP
Governance in South Africa is lurching from crisis to crisis, and the absence of an able public service is universally acknowledged as a centrepiece of the issue. South Africa’s National Planning Commission laments the ‘rejection of meritocracy’ in the country’s public institutions. President Cyril Ramaphosa and his administration have made the creation of a “capable state” a key priority; a plan for the “professionalisation” of the public service has been adopted, and recent legislation passed will restrict the ability of party office-bearers to hold a municipal job. But Ramaphosa has explicitly indicated that cadre deployment will continue. 

Declining ANC support raises the possibility that South Africa might turn away from this noxious practice; however, this possibility is qualified by the fact that the ANC will remain a significant player for the foreseeable future, able to veto reform in many instances. 

However, there may be grounds for some cautious optimism. Africa In Fact reached out to veteran DA politician Athol Trollip (he is now with Action SA) about his experience as mayor of Nelson Mandela Municipality between 2016 and 2018. 

Discussing his incumbency, Trollip says that an “obstructive, truculent civil service” was the incoming administration’s greatest concern. In practice, it was a mixed experience. Lower-level workers could be a headache. A particular problem was that work crews would turn off water to townships over weekends, reinforcing the narrative of an uncaring, racist administration. 

“But on the positive side,” he said, “mid-level and senior staff are middle class. We found that they wanted to live in areas without potholes. They wanted the life they had earned. Our feedback from them was that they had had enormous interference in their work. Now they could express themselves professionally. I used the metaphor of railroad tracks to explain my position. I would stick to my track and I wanted them to stick to theirs; if we did that, things would function and we’d deliver. They could express themselves professionally, and it worked well for all of us.” 

But South Africa’s local governments need a great deal more of this. The ANC has dispensed with professional, skilled managers in the name of political control at the great cost of the country and its people. And as long as cadre deployment persists, so will the failures of South African local government. 

Meanwhile, Sam, myself and millions of other South Africans will continue to seethe with anger at the burdens this imposes on our lives. 

Terence Corrigan is an independent researcher, political consultant, writer, editor and illustrator. He is currently a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in its Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism Programme and a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).