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Issued by Daniela Ellerbeck and Ismail Joosub on behalf of the FW de Klerk Foundation on 14/06/2024



The Constitution divides South Africa’s government into three spheres – national, provincial and local (section 40). These three spheres are distinct from one another, yet they are interdependent and interrelated (section 40). In fact, they are mandated by the Constitution to cooperate with one another (section 41). In other words, neither the national nor the provincial government may “pull rank” and infringe upon a municipality’s right to govern its community (section 151). Rather, they must assist municipalities to manage their own affairs (section 154(1)), although they may regulate municipalities’ exercise of their executive authority (section 155(7)).

Municipalities are South Africa’s form of local government (section 151). Unlike the national or provincial spheres of government, the executive and legislative authority in municipalities is combined in its municipal council (which is elected in local government elections). Service delivery is the core function of local government: Municipalities are tasked with striving to meet the basic needs of their community, promoting economic development and ensuring a safe and healthy environment, etc.


Local Government Elections and Coalition Formation

The Constitution and the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act, 1998 (“the Act”) govern how municipal councils are elected and composed.

Election Process: Section 157(1) of the Constitution mandates a mixed electoral system for local government elections, combining direct elections of ward councillors with proportional representation by political parties. This ensures both constituency-based representation and broader party representation. Section 24(1) of the Act specifies that the term of municipal councils is no more than five years, determined by the Minister. In addition, elections must be held within 90 days of the expiry of the council’s term.

Composition of Municipal Councils: Section 18(1) of the Act stipulates that each municipality must have a municipal council. The number of councillors is determined by the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (section 20(1) of the Act). This is based on a formula considering factors like the number of registered voters. It also allows for the designation of full-time councillors by the Minister.

Coalition Formation: While not explicitly outlined in either the provisions of the Act or the Constitution, the need for coalition governments often arises due to no party obtaining a clear majority of votes (i.e. 51% or more). This necessitates negotiations and agreements among political parties to form governing coalitions.


Coalitions Government’s Impact on Service Delivery

The impact of coalition governance on service delivery in municipalities can be powerful: For example, in Knysna’s municipality with its ANC-led coalition, service delivery has suffered greatly, with a decline in basic municipal services. The same is true in Plettenberg Bay, also governed by an ANC-dominated coalition. Moreover, political infighting and questionable decision-making further compounded these issues, leaving residents disillusioned and calling for urgent intervention.


The Role of Committees in Strengthening Coalitions

Committees, particularly section 79 and section 80 Committees, established under the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act, can play a crucial role in stabilising coalitions. These committees are designed to enhance oversight and ensure the effective implementation of coalition agreements. By focusing on specific portfolios, committees provide a platform for coalition partners to engage constructively and monitor the execution of agreed-upon policies. Municipal council members responsible for the various service delivery aspects need to be held to account if the wheels come off in that municipality for their portfolio: Job security needs to be dependent on delivering the basic services required and non-performance needs to be met with unified action from within the coalition. This allows the entire electorate (i.e. all voters across the voting spectrum) to know that all the political parties in that coalition put their community first and political party second.

The South African Local Government Association (“SALGA”) advocates for smaller, more focused committees to act as the engine for oversight and scrutiny within coalitions. These committees can serve as instrumental mechanisms for coalition partners to ensure accountability and adherence to coalition agreements, thereby fostering stability and effective governance.


Is New Legislation the Solution?

The proposed Local Government: Municipal Structures Second Amendment Bill aims to address the challenges posed by coalition governments at the municipal level in South Africa. In response to the increasing prevalence of hung municipal councils following the 2021 local government elections, the Bill seeks to establish clear rules and procedures for coalition governance.


Key Provisions of the Bill Include:

  1. Formalisation of Coalition Agreements: Coalition agreements must be documented in writing, rather than relying on informal agreements or handshakes. These written agreements become legally binding and aim to provide transparency and stability in coalition governance.
  2. Electoral Threshold: The Bill proposes introducing an electoral threshold for proportional seat allocation in metropolitan, local and district councils. This measure aims to prevent smaller parties with minimal voter support from gaining disproportionate influence in coalition negotiations.
  3. Extension of Deadlines: The Bill suggests extending deadlines for councils to appoint district representatives and for the initial council meeting post-election. This extension allows more time for the election of key positions, such as the mayor, deputy mayor, speaker and whip.
  4. Show of Hands for Removal of Officials: The Bill proposes changing the process for removing council officials such as the mayor, deputy mayor, speaker, whip, or executive committee. Instead of a secret ballot, removal would occur through a show of hands, two years after the official’s election, except in cases of serious misconduct or constitutional infringement.


By establishing clear guidelines for coalition governance, the Bill aims to prevent political instability, promote transparency and ensure effective service delivery in municipalities across South Africa.


Call for Constitutional Unity

Despite the challenges associated with coalition governance, it is essential to recognise its potential benefits in representing a wider array of citizen interests.

Coalitions can enhance democratic inclusivity by ensuring that more voices are heard in the decision-making process. However, this inclusivity must be balanced with the need for stability and effective governance.

The Constitution must remain sacrosanct, serving as the guiding principle for all levels of government. Political leaders and parties must prioritise the will of the electorate and adhere to principles of accountability and transparency. In this regard, new legislation can play a pivotal role in enforcing these principles and ensuring that coalition agreements are honoured.