Perils of the District Development Model

ANTHONY BUTLER: ANC plan to align three spheres could save it from electoral disaster

The ‘district development model’ could make local government defer to national authorities

First published in BusinessLive and Business Day


The ANC’s recently concluded national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla was filled with virtual excitement. It addressed Covid-19, expropriation without compensation, the Zondo commission and many other hot issues. It was easy to overlook the body’s endorsement of the tedious-sounding district development model.

Yet district development is rare in that it is personally endorsed by our policy-reticent president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Importantly, it has also been championed by his erstwhile rival, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, now co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister.

Early in his presidency Ramaphosa set out his vision of “synchronised planning” by all three spheres of government. He hoped the district development model might help municipalities enhance the reach of national investment programmes, co-ordinate economic development and job creation schemes, and improve household service delivery.

The co-operative governance department catchily summarised the model as, “One District, One Plan and One Budget”. Local, district and metropolitan spheres of governance would together produce “a single strategically focused One Plan for each of the 44 districts and eight metropolitan geographic spaces in the country”.ADVERTISING

This policy sailed through cabinet subcommittees, traditional leaders’ forums, the president’s co-ordinating council and cabinet in the space of just seven months. Pilots were implemented in the OR Tambo district, eThekwini metro and Waterberg district in late 2019.

Sceptics brushed aside the importance of the initiative. After all, previous iterations of a co-ordination model have included the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programme, the Urban Renewal Programme and the Integrated Urban Development Framework — none of these has transformed our society.

Moreover, the idea that national, provincial and local government representatives would sit together with traditional leaders, churchmen, local business people and labour representatives to agree 54 spatially targeted budgets simply defied belief.

However, Covid-19 has brought fresh impetus to the project. In mid-2020, when national leaders fanned out to the hardest-hit provinces to assist local authorities, this deployment of “ministerial talent” was attributed to the new model.

Dlamini-Zuma claimed national government had profiled all 52 districts and metros and deployed ministers to “contribute to vertical and horizontal integration of government planning and implementation”. (Thank goodness.) Enthusiasts claimed such deployments, co-ordinated by the national coronavirus command council, might provide a model for a post-pandemic national planning system.

A few months later, the spectre of local government elections has made this approach even more attractive to some of our leaders. After all, the ANC knows it will have many dreadful candidates and it may be heading for an electoral disaster.

The flexible concept of the district development model could help the ANC in any one of three ways. First, as the chair of the ANC’s legislature & governance subcommittee — and notorious patronage baron — Phumulo Masualle has recently argued, the model can be used to justify a change to municipal architecture. “Do we really need all of them [municipalities] as they are? The answer is certainly not.” The “urgent need” Masualle sees for municipal rationalisation might yet be used to try to scupper the elections.

Second, the development model proposes that the three spheres of government “operate like a single unit” in relation to “developmental objectives and outcomes in district and metropolitan spaces over a multiyear period and over multi-term electoral cycles”. This means losing local elections will no longer matter so much for the ANC — so long as it controls national and provincial governments.

Finally, the model addresses the ANC’s greatest fear: that pandemic procurement scandals in ANC metros — where the “Good ANC” rather than the “Bad ANC” has supposedly been in charge — have destroyed public trust.

It is not clear why metros fall under the district development model regime at all. But while they do, the ANC may hope it cannot fully lose control of them.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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