Cape Town water crisis: crossing state and party lines isn’t the answer

03 February 2018 - 12:05 By Marius Pieterse
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Democratic Alliance's Mmusi Maimane. File photo
Democratic Alliance's Mmusi Maimane. File photo
Image: Sunday Times / Waldo Swiegers

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, that governs the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Province, now leads the task team to “defeat” Day Zero, the day on which Cape Town’s water is predicted to run out. This is currently set for April 12.

The DA’s plan to keep the taps running comes amid infighting within the Cape Town Metropolitan Council, where mayor Patricia De Lille has been stripped of responsibility for responding to the water crisis.

While many were impressed to see Maimane, Helen Zille’s provincial government and the city’s leadership presenting a united front against the water crisis, others pointed out that this was not Maimane’s show to run, saying that it crossed the “line” between the DA as a political party, and the relevant organs of state.

This is correct. As a Member of Parliament, Maimane has oversight powers that allow him to investigate how the city or province handle the water crisis. But for an MP to head a governmental task team pushes the boundaries of the separation of powers, in terms of which day-to-day running of government should be left to executive officials.

By swooping in from his position in national government to take control of the situation, Maimane also ignored a set of constitutional principles which allow higher-level governments to intervene in running a city only in limited circumstances, such as when a municipality fails to deliver basic services based on national delivery standards.

The DA disagrees. It argues that Maimane hasn’t taken over any governmental offices, but, as party leader, is merely coordinating the actions of the DA-run city and province.

Tensions between party and State

This brings into play the line between political parties and government which, in South Africa, appears to be crossed on a regular basis.

South Africans tend to associate government officials with the political parties to which they belong. For instance, many people simply think of the ANC as being the national government. They don’t distinguish between ANC officials acting in their capacity as party members, or when they’re acting as members of government.

This is problematic, since it undermines the perceived independence of state institutions and diminishes accountability of state officials. It creates the impression that government institutions can be accessed and influenced through party structures. This leads to potentially corrupt situations, such as where a political party’s donors expect to be rewarded with government business.

Some countries, such as the US, have legislation which places a strict separation between party and state to the point where civil servants are not allowed to campaign for political parties or run for election. And state officials are not allowed to wear party regalia or discuss party business in their government offices. This is not only meant to reduce opportunities for corruption, but also to ensure that people feel that government works for, and is accountable to, all citizens, regardless of which party they support.

Since winning the first democratic elections in 1994, the ANC has often been accused of using state structures to further the party agenda. And its MPs are further often accused of placing party loyalty above the national interest.

The most dramatic recent example of this was when the Constitutional Court was asked to direct the Speaker of Parliament to allow ANC members to vote in secret on a motion of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma. The fear was that the party might punish ANC MPs who voted in favour of the motion.

At the time, former President Thabo Mbeki wrote an open letter in which he reminded ANC members of Parliament that they were accountable to the people of South Africa, not the ANC.

The principle of accountability is the most important reason for keeping political parties and the state separate.

While the state is held accountable through a range of institutions and laws, similar measures don’t exist to make political parties act in the public interest.

Shadow governments

The same applies on local government level.

South African cities are run by elected local governments, through legal structures, such as the ward committees established by the Municipal Structures Act. These structures don’t always function well. Where they break down, the provision of basic municipal services suffers and residents’ concerns are not addressed.

But instead of trying to strengthen, fix or change dysfunctional structures, people often bypass them. This weakens them even further. One way in which this happens is when people resort to having their grievances solved through political party structures, such as local party branches.

When party structures become the most efficient way to solve local government problems, shadow governments are created. These shadow governments are not directly accountable to residents.

This means that it becomes easier for internal party politics to infiltrate city affairs. It also creates opportunities for corruption.

A recent book, ‘How to steal a city’ by Crispian Olver, about the last days of the former ANC local government in Nelson Mandela Bay, sets out in detail how this happens. Olver explains how the ANC sent in senior party members to “clean up” governance in the city. But the book also shows how provincial ANC structures tried to prevent the then mayor from acting against corrupt city council members.

Sidelining structures

By taking control of the water situation in Cape Town as leader of the DA Maimane has effectively sidelined the people and structures that are constitutionally supposed to be in charge.

However good his intentions may be, this is a blatant example of shadow governance. His actions have undermined accountability and participatory democracy and weakened the city’s ability to govern in the interests of all of its residents.

No political party should lead a response to an urban governance crisis. The city, provincial and national governments must cooperate as government, across party lines and through the relevant legal and constitutional structures and processes, to ensure effective and accountable service delivery.

Marius Pieterse: Professor of Law, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was first published in The Conversation


The Conversation
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