By Nontshisekelo Shange

Local elections are scheduled to go ahead in 2021 amid the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been calls for the local government elections to be merged with the 2024 national elections due to safety concerns caused by the Coronavirus. The IEC has been in ongoing conversations with the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs with regards to possible dates. But merging these elections can cause issues for some municipalities that require effective change. But why does South Africa have two elections in the first place – and three layers of government?

On  25 November 2020, the University of Western Cape held an exhibition debate to debate the motion: “This house would abolish the second layer of government and keep only national and local.” It was hosted by eNCA anchor Shahan Ramkissoon. 

The university debating format follows the British parliamentary style of proposing a motion, by the government of the day, with the opposition arguing against it. Typically students are given the motion just before they start debating, but for the exhibition debates held in partnership with Accountability Lab, the students and audience were told the topic ahead of time, making for  a rich, researched conversation.

This was the third and final of our university debate series, in partnership with the Danish Embassy, exploring the topic of holding government to account.

Listen to the full debate below, and scroll for more highlights.

Local government serves two purposes. The first being the administrative purpose of supplying resources and services. Local government also serves the purpose of identifying and ensuring public needs are met. Acting in the role of prime minister, student debater Thato Selema argued that using local government instead of the provincial government will allow marginalized communities access to more resources.

This is because local government, unlike provincial government, focuses on smaller, concentrated groups within the community. Selema argued that the provincial government tends to focus on larger cities, leaving the outliers lacking in resources and remaining impoverished because they are “systematically marginalized by the status quo”. He used Cape Town as a case study, analyzing the difference in wealth in the city, where wealthier communities are given preference.

Acting as leader of the opposition, Marylyn Ndlela rebutted this point claiming that eliminating provincial government would saturate the workload of the local and national government – who already struggle to do an effective job in maintaining communities. Marylyn argued that a change in government structures will not change inequality. The provincial government acts as a middle man between the local and national government, allowing there to be a clearer flow of communication and someone to hold various parties accountable.

It was a robust debate. Ultimately both parties agreed that the main issue which needed to be handled was corruption within the country. The best way to do this, according to the opposition, is to ensure “administrative simplicity,” through regulating resources.

In a country where corruption creeps into every facet of government, there is a strong need for voters to understand the relevance of local government when voting for their preferred candidate.