Local Government Accountability and Competence: A New Era?

Marius Pieterse

The realities of urbanization mean that cities and towns are increasingly the sites at which, and the means through which, civil and political, as well as socio-economic rights are actualized.  This is sparking a shift in focus in development and governance studies, with increased research being conducted on the role played by local, rather than national or provincial, governments in realizing the goals of democratic developmental states.

It would seem that, in many states, local governments are increasingly being saddled with the responsibility of satisfying urban residents’ socio-economic needs.  But this responsibility is often not fully accompanied by the constitutional power, autonomy and resources required to carry it out effectively. 

My own research into the constitutional powers of local government in South Africa has confirmed this to be the case, despite the South African Constitution being fairly unique, in that it recognizes the competence of local governments over various aspects of urban service delivery and development.  It seems to me, however, that the South African Constitutional Court is recognizing the shift in emphasis from national to local government in the urban development context.  The Court’s judgments on urban service delivery, urban housing and the competencies of local government vis a vis provincial and national government in fields of, for instance, town planning and environmental regulation, shows not only an increased judicial tendency to vest primary accountability in this regard with local governments, but also an increased willingness on the part of the Court to uphold local government’s vision of the shape and form of the city, in the face of competing visions by the ‘higher levels’.

This means that citizens’ input into decisions by local governments, which, in South Africa are more directly elected than their national or provincial counterparts (where a “party-list” system remains operative) becomes crucial, especially when attempting to reconcile the realities of modern-day urban governance with the principles underlying the right to the city.

Is this judicial trend mirrored elsewhere?  Is it indicative of the further retreat of the nation state as source of public power?  Perhaps more controversially, are we witnessing the gradual re-rising of feudal, city-states?  Whatever the answers to these questions, it is clear that increasing attention needs to be paid to whether constitutional structures of governance, and the flow of resources that enable them, adequately reflect the shift in responsibility and accountability that, in keep with the principles underlying the right to the city, makes city managers primarily accountable to the people that they are supposed to be serving.

These ideas are developed fully in the author’s recent article “Development, the Right to the City and the Legal and Constitutional Responsibilities of Local Government in South Africa” (2014) 131 South African Law Journal 149-177.

Urban Law Lab