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Since our launch in January 2013, Corruption Watch has received a high volume of reports uncovering corrupt activities at local government level. As local government is the sphere of government that is the closest to the people and provides services to communities, it is important to understand what this level of government is all about.

When local government fails, the results can be devastating. The spate of service delivery protests that have swept the country in recent months are linked to corruption – a 2012 study by the South African Water Research Commission confirms the link between water scarcity, an important component of service delivery, and civil unrest.

Our new series will explain the powers, duties and responsibilities granted to local government by the Constitution of South Africa. If you know how local government is supposed to work, you will find it easier to identify when it is not working, or when something is wrong.

In part one we identify the different aspects of local government and the duties assigned to it by the Constitution. In part two we talk about the officials and role-players in the municipality, and in part three we profile a municipal councillor who has the people’s interests at heart.

In part four we examine the legislation that defines the functions of local government. Part five will show us how a municipality manages its finances, and part six deals with procurement in local government.

What is local government?

Local government is one of the three spheres of government established by our Constitution – the other two are national and provincial government. These three spheres are distinctive, but interdependent and interrelated. Local government is regulated by Chapter 7 of the Constitution and although it has the powers to make and enforce its own laws, local government is still supervised by national and provincial government.

Local government consists of municipalities, each of which is an organ of state with executive authority to administer its own affairs. Municipalities also have the authority to make their own legislation – such a piece of legislation is known as a by-law.

A municipality is more than simply a geographic area or the people who live in and work for the municipality. It consists of a municipal council made up of elected councillors, the administrative component of officials appointed and employed by the council, and the community of people and businesses based in the municipality.

South Africa’s municipalities

Before 1994, South Africa had over 2 000 municipalities but today, with a population of approximately 52-million people, South Africa has 278 municipalities with an average of 172 000 people per municipality.

Municipalities are divided into three categories: metropolitan, local and district municipalities. There are eight metropolitan municipalities, 226 local municipalities and 44 district municipalities in South Africa. Section 155 of the Constitution gives metropolitan municipalities exclusive authority over their jurisdictions, while local and district municipalities share authorities over their jurisdiction.

Metropolitan municipalities are densely populated, with busy movement of people, goods and services. A metropolitan municipality is responsible for delivering services to the whole city.

Areas that fall outside the metropolitan areas are made up of district municipalities, which comprise between four and seven local municipalities each. While district and local municipalities are jointly responsible for the municipal affairs in an area, district municipalities must also co-ordinate the development of the entire district and ensure the delivery of services in that district.

The name of a municipality is not necessarily the geographical name of its main city or town – for example the Tlokwe Local Municipality is seated in the city of Potchefstroom.

Duties and responsibilities of municipalities

Municipalities are governed by municipal councils, which are made up of councillors elected by members of the community. Councillors make decisions on behalf of the municipality and oversee the administration of the municipality. Local government is obliged to consult with communities and must involve them in its decision-making, as the community is affected by its affairs.

Section 152 of the Constitution sets out the five basic objectives of municipalities:

  • to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities;
  • to promote social and economic development of their communities;
  • to promote a healthy and safe environment;
  • to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government by consulting with the community and letting the community participate in the decision-making process; and
  • to provide basic services to communities in a sustainable manner – services such as water and sanitation, electricity, refuse removal, health and fire-fighting services, public transport and roads and parks.

However, when corruption creeps into the running of a municipality, these essential services are threatened and can even be interrupted, leading to dissatisfaction and protests. Look out for part two of our series, which explains the roles and responsibilities of the various entities of the municipal management team.



Our new series explains the powers, duties and responsibilities granted to local government by the Constitution of South Africa. If you know how local government is supposed to work, you will find it easier to identify when it is not working, or when something is wrong.
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