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Creating new democratic frontiers

The work of the Municipal Demarcation Board ensures local government effectively represents the individuals it serves.

The Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB) is an independent authority responsible for the determination of municipal boundaries. The board's status as a constitutional institution is protected by section 3 of the Local Government: Municipal Demarcation Act, 1998, and various precedent judgments by the High Court and Constitutional Court.

The MDB's mandate, as derived from the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, is centred on the four major aspects of its core business, which are to:

  • Determine and re-determine municipal boundaries.
  • Delimit wards to facilitate local government elections.
  • Perform municipal capacity assessments.
  • Render advisory services.

The introduction of the Local Government: Municipal Demarcation Act in 1998 was an important milestone in the history of a constitutional democracy in South Africa as it facilitated the dismantling of apartheid spatial geography and constructed municipal boundaries based on democratic principles. There were 1 262 municipalities dividing communities instead of ensuring inclusivity and social integration – as envisioned by the Constitution.

Chairperson of the Municipal Demarcation Board, Jane Thupana
Chairperson of the Municipal Demarcation Board, Jane Thupana

Municipal Demarcation Board Staff

The year 2018/19 marks the end of the five-year tenure of the current board, following its appointment by the President of the Republic of South Africa in 2014. We spoke to Chairperson Jane Thupana about what have been the Board's major milestones (successes and challenges) over the last five years.

"One of our greatest challenges emanated from the apparent inability of several municipalities to deliver on their constitutional obligations with regards to service delivery. The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs' (CoGTA) Back-To-Basics programme had established that only a third of the municipalities were viable, a third in need of intervention while the remaining were totally dysfunctional."

"Among other interventions, the minister approached the board to consider amalgamating some of the municipalities – an interesting and challenging exercise that was met with excitement in some instances and disapproval in others. The timing of the minister's request, being too close to the local government elections, raised eyebrows and attracted litigation as some suspected that the project was an abuse of the demarcation process for political gains. In the end, 10 of the 34 cases were approved, and the board advised government that the solution could bring its own complications democratic legitimacy and public participation might be compromised in expanded municipalities – and therefore service centres would have to be established to address the issues of proximity and access.

"The increased demand for public participation in the decision-making process by the board is an indication that our democracy is maturing. Citizens speak out and challenge the status quo, demanding not only to be involved but for their voices to be heard in matters that affect their livelihoods. Major lessons were learnt from stakeholders, particularly the public, which were fed into the demarcation legislative review process that is underway. For example, the frequent changes to municipal and ward boundaries are found to be disruptive to the planning and service delivery efforts by municipalities."

Despite the limited resources and in line with the vision to be the leading demarcation and knowledge hub, the board has, during its tenure, established a research and knowledge management unit and continues to enhance capabilities for research to inform demarcation decisions and equip the MDB for its advisory role. Several studies were conducted, including the development of indicators for categorisation of municipalities into Category A or Metros to ensure consistent application of the demarcation criteria.

"In order achieve the objects of local government in terms of Chapter 7 of the Constitution (which includes pursuing the goal of developmental local government), the board, while maintaining its independence with regards to demarcation decisions, works in collaboration and cooperation with structures such as the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, municipalities, provinces, Houses of Traditional Leaders, Statistics SA, Surveyor General and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA).

"Public participation is a key programme that requires proximity to the people on the ground, to ensure engagements with communities and their networks; getting to understand the fabric of their lives and challenges they face in their lived spaces. This, however, has budgetary implications and requires additional allocations from the fiscus. Establishing regional foot-prints in all provinces therefore remains a priority for which the board continues to lobby funds."

Having elevated public and stakeholder engagement as one of the strategic programmes, the board goes beyond the minimum requirements of the legislation to ensure there is comprehensive representivity through the inclusion of structures such as political parties, traditional leaders and community-based organisations. An extended period of stakeholder awareness and public education (using face to face sessions, social media and traditional media platforms) will start in January 2019 in preparation for the 2021 local government elections.

The end of the board's tenure coincides with the anniversary of the organisation having been established in February 1999. A conference is planned, scheduled to take place on 31 January and 1 February 2019, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the MDB together with the major contribution the institution has made towards reversing the apartheid spatial logic and fostering socio-economic integration. The multiple purposes of the conference include:

  • An opportunity to solicit inputs from thought leaders (including government) to inform the local government architecture e.g. the wall-to-wall municipalities, two-tier system and intermediate cities, thereby defining a context within which demarcation must take place.
  • Share lessons on demarcation trends, challenges and best practices from the international community.
  • Take a reflective approach to identify gaps and possible areas of focus in the next decade.

The event will also mark a period of transition and handover to the new board, whose tenure shall begin on 20th February. The President of the Republic of South Africa will have appointed members by this date.

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