Scrapping the provinces a bad idea - Helen Zille

DA leader says ANC proposal is motivated by desire to control levers of power

Scrapping the provinces threatens our democracy

The debate on the future of the Provinces has been simmering on the backburner since July 2007, when the Minister responsible for Provincial and Local Government Affairs, Sydney Mufamadi, announced a comprehensive "review" of the Provinces and their role.

As soon as the ANC lost the Western Cape to the DA on 22 April this year, the issue acquired a new urgency.  Turning up the heat, Minister Sicelo Shiceka (who succeeded Mufamadi) asked:  "Do we need provinces?"  South Africa is one country, he said...and "nobody is expected to be out of tune".  Shiceka announced that the ANC would decide on the future of the provinces by March 2010.

The ANC seems to be considering three options for the future of the provinces:

1) Turning provinces into administrative arms of central government.

2) Reducing the number of provinces through mergers.

3) Scrapping the provincial sphere of government altogether.

The reaction to the ANC's renewed threats to further centralise control over all spheres of government, has been surprisingly lethargic.   Some commentators (such as Xolela Mangcu) have supported the move.  But criticism has been muted.  Even normally staunch defenders of the Constitution have been unusually ambivalent.

Why is this?  At least part of the reason is the erroneous belief that Provinces have very few powers, and that it would make little difference if they were changed or scrapped. This myth has become so firmly rooted that even informed commentators such as Tony Leon, conclude that provinces' sole jurisdiction is limited to matters such as "abattoirs, ambulances, and culture and veterinary services"  and that in "concurrent matters"  Provinces are subservient to national policy and law.

This is wrong.  Provinces have substantial powers. Provinces are a sphere of government with the power to make policy and pass laws on a range of issues, including education, housing and health.  Even in "concurrent matters" in which jurisdiction is shared between national and provincial spheres, national policy and law can only trump provincial policy and law under specific and limited circumstances.

It is true that, since 1994, no province has used its powers. But this does not imply these powers do not exist.  And throughout the recent election campaign, the DA made it clear that if we won at provincial level, we would use provincial powers to put our policies into practice.  I have little doubt that this has given impetus to the ANC's plan to curb the powers of the Provinces.  They are determined to prevent the DA from translating our policy platform into a coherent legislative and delivery programme.  If the DA succeeded in doing this, we would be able to demonstrate our alternative approach to governance, and show that it benefits everyone.  This would rob the ANC of its last remaining weapon against the DA  -- to cast us as a party of racists.

The ANC's real motive is to control all levers of power and prevent the DA implementing our electoral mandate where we win elections.  The arguments being advanced as reasons for changing or scrapping the provinces are mere fig-leaves.  These include the contention that:

1) Provinces are too expensive.

2) Provinces lack capacity to do the job they are supposed to do.

3) Provincial governments are often corrupt.

4) Provinces are a legacy of colonialism and apartheid.

These are spurious reasons.  Even if provincial legislatures were scrapped, decentralised administrations would still be necessary.  This would require the retention of most staff, their infrastructure and operating expenses. At most, it would be possible to scrap provincial legislatures.   If saving money was an honest rationale, why has the national Cabinet been expanded to 62 people, at an estimated cost of R1-billion a year?  All the provincial legislatures together cost about half of this!

It is true that many provincial administrations lack the capacity to do their jobs.  But this will not be fixed by centralising control.  National departments (ranging from Home Affairs or Correctional Services) and parastatals (such as Eskom and SAA) show that centralisation can lead to as much mismanagement, corruption and inefficiency as provincial or local administration.  The solution is to appoint people who are fit-for-purpose in each job, whether in local, provincial or national government.  This would require scrapping the ANC's cadre deployment policy.  But the ANC will never admit that this policy is the real problem.  They would rather pretend the problem is the provinces, and scrap these instead. This will treat the symptom, not the cause.  This will predictably exacerbate centralised mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption.  It will also remove the space for any other sphere of government to offer the alternative of clean, effective and efficient government.

The argument that provinces are a legacy of colonialism and apartheid is entirely contrived.  The provincial sphere of government, and its powers, were not forced upon us, or inherited by us.  They were a home-grown product of the constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s, that required compromise from all parties.  And their primary purpose is to diffuse power throughout the body politic, through a system of checks and balances that prevent too much power being concentrated in too few hands.  The main architects of our new constitution understood that the essence of democracy is limiting the power of politicians not concentrating it.  But the ANC has never accepted this outcome.  They are removing checks and balances one by one, through extending control over independent institutions of state (from the Judiciary to the Public Protector) as well as other spheres of government, such as Provinces.  In doing so the very essence of our constitution is being subverted.

The Provinces are not the only target.  The 17th Constitution Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament, targets the powers of local government and enables the national government to usurp local government powers, functions, infrastructure and assets. 

The battle for the Constitution has been joined.  The voters wisely denied the ANC the two thirds majority it needs to change the Constitution alone.  A key question in this session of Parliament will be whether all opposition parties stand together to reflect the voters' mandate, or whether some back the ANC's drive for untrammelled power, and the power abuse that inevitably follows.  The answer will determine the future of our democracy.

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance, July 10 2009

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