By Nontshi Shange 

The year 2020 marks a year that no South African will forget. In the face of a pandemic, we as a nation have had to rely on all levels of government to lead us and place us as citizens first. Many have been in hopeless situations due to the effects of the Covid-19 virus and the associated lockdown. 

So South Africans were crushed to hear that  R500-billion in Covid-19 social relief funds were allegedly looted. As voters prepare for the 2021 local government election, how can we as a country elect civil servants who will serve with integrity and begin to rectify the corruption of the previous local municipality?

On 9 December 2020, renowned broadcaster Cathy Mohlahlana moderated the final Conversation Lab panel of 2020, focusing on the topic of “Fixing Local Government”, ahead of the 2021 election. The panel included political experts: Dr. Thina Nzo, Dr. Crispian Olver, and Miyelani Holeni. 

Listen to the full conversation here: 


Dr. Crispian Olver, an author of two highly acclaimed books on local government, says that as a country, we need to focus on two issues: the legacy issues caused by apartheid and political meddling.

More than 25 years after apartheid, “we have a huge legacy problem in the way that South Africa was divided up and segregated racially. People [were] forced into different parts of the country and governed by very unequal municipalities and that legacy still hangs over us,” says Dr. Olver. 

Continuing Dr. Olver’s points, Miyelani Holeni, who works in the consulting space with municipalities, said that financial constraints and institutional arrangements need to be considered when looking at municipalities’ functionality, and how these legacy systems have caused these issues. 

The second issue is a set of political problems caused by the overbearing political meddling in the various administrations. These lead to bad policies and changes taking place without acknowledgment of the opinions of the bureaucrats. Dr. Thina Nzo, a senior researcher from the Public Affairs Research Institute, says the partisanship nature of local elections has allowed local governments to be corrupt; local municipalities are compromised due to the loyalty of citizens to their political incumbents.

“What are these audit outcomes and declining quality of services really telling us about the quality of representative democracy?” asked Dr. Nzo in her critiques of the partisan nature of local elections, noting this has left the local government bureaucracy decapitated. 

Local government is in a state of flux due to the multiple reconfigurations throughout the five-year appointment, which Holeni believes places them at a disadvantage. He states that most municipalities don’t have the economic base to fix themselves due to the poor funding model that exists to take them forward.  

It was an incredibly engaging session, with host Mohlahlana covering a range of issues, and the panelists – Dr Olver in particular, engaging individually with audience members with advice on how to hold their local leaders toa ccount.