SA cities need leadership

Professor Ivan Turok, executive director, Economic Performance and Development programme, HSRC

In conversation with Professor Ivan Turok

Leadership needed for SA cities to emerge from the malaise
Whether in sport, the economy or politics, competition is a powerful force for change. However, in some environments it can incite short-term, opportunistic behaviour just as readily as it can spur creativity and long-term development.

Competition provides a selection mechanism whereby parties that lose voter confidence decline, while those more in touch gain power. There is an added incentive for victors to govern well in order to consolidate their position, and a discipline for the losers to renew and regenerate themselves or disappear.

The recent local elections herald a more vibrant political environment which could shatter the complacency and rural predisposition of the established regime. The existence of hung councils in four of the metros and 28 other municipalities promises a period of energetic rivalry and heightened scrutiny of each party’s actions.

Whether or not this leads to better policies and improvements in conditions on the ground will depend on the nature of the ongoing competitive process and the quality of political management by the main protagonists. Governing large fractured cities like Johannesburg or Tshwane is a far more complex undertaking than managing a business or social movement, especially with a minority administration.

So will the new political leaders and temporary alliances develop the vision, maturity and institutional capacity to match the magnitude of the task? And will the previous incumbents focus on holding them accountable for their big strategic decisions, or will they get distracted by interminable ploys to disrupt proceedings?

If the ongoing political contest is dominated by tactical considerations, with politicians intent on gaining some short-term advantage over their rivals, the result may be entertaining, but ultimately draining and debilitating. The governing parties could end up emasculated and fresh elections may be required.

If every inherited commitment and pre-existing plan is threatened by the new leadership, there will be chaos and instability. In most metros there have been some positive achievements and worthwhile initiatives in recent years that should be sustained rather than abandoned.

Likewise, if every new project or budget proposal by the new administrations is called into question by the opposition, municipalities will grind to a halt and public services will be paralysed, with ordinary citizens the casualties.

If the ongoing contest is dominated by parties positioning themselves for the 2019 national elections, the underlying problems of each city are unlikely to feature prominently. Political grandstanding will take precedence over the sustained effort required to build stronger institutions and lay solid foundations for future prosperity and social cohesion.

Early indications from the inaugural speeches of the metro mayors and national party leaders suggest that the new regimes will have two priorities: service delivery and good governance. These are pragmatic rather than inspired.

There is no doubt that extending household services to poor communities is part of the core business of municipalities. However, creating vibrant and viable human settlements requires more than rolling out basic services. In a context of constrained public finances and intensified international competition for trade and investment, the metros also need to prioritise economic development and growing the rates base.

In terms of good governance, ensuring that senior officials are appropriately skilled, and that tender procedures are clean and transparent, are also matters of essential housekeeping that have often been neglected. But once again, this is too narrow an agenda for cities to break out of their current predicament and unleash their potential.

The metros need to embark on an outward-looking, collaborative style of leadership that is more responsive to marginalised communities, that reaches out and engages with the private sector on job-creating partnership projects, and that works hand-in-hand with other spheres of government whose support is vital to achieving integrated urban development.

How will national and provincial governments respond to the hung councils? Will they engage constructively and give them the scope and flexibility required to experiment with new policies and institutional capabilities? Or will they restrict their discretion and burden them with red tape to prevent rivals from getting the credit for new ideas and innovations?

SA’s new political landscape opens the door to city-level issues getting the attention they deserve. The metros are too important to be the playgrounds of national political pastimes. They face unique challenges and opportunities requiring ingenuity, risk-taking and commitment to meaningful change. In short, they require credible, capable and courageous leadership.