It is accepted that sound governance encompasses elements such as effective leadership, integrity, honesty, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, responsibility, respect for the rule of law, promotion and protection of the inalienable human rights and dignity, etc. The primary purpose of all these principles is to deliver sustainable services to the people, be they citizens in a community or clients and customers served by a corporate entity. In the context of the local government, services ought to and are provided by institutions managed through public policies, programmes and projects. Therefore, sound local governance is critical in implementing the developmental programmes of the government.

Notwithstanding the calls from the anti-globalisation critics, who reject everything associated with what is called “global agenda”, the role of local authorities or governments both nationally and internationally is increasingly fortified, albeit with some exceptions. Regarding the latter, Tunisia is a case in point, where local government is still treated as an unwelcome illegitimate progeny of the national or federal structures. In the first quarter of 2023, the Tunisian Head of State made an announcement of his intention to dissolve the elected local government councils and replace them with “special councils”. The rationale behind the dissolution of the elected councils, is patently politically motivated, with political intentions and objectives. The dominant role, power, and authority of the national, federal or central government structures, has long been a characteristic feature of African body politic since the attainment of independence from former colonial powers. However, with the globalisation of democracy, intensification of global advocacy for the promotion of human rights and growing interconnectedness of the global economy, national governments are incrementally recognising the critical role of local government in delivering on national and internationally agreed public policy priorities. The United Nations has also pulled its weight behind the recognition of the role of local government in not only preventing disparities, inequalities and promoting human rights but also as a critical stakeholder in the attainment of targets set in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Agenda for Development.

It is of utmost importance that, national and international formations advocating for the autonomy and constitutionally protected authority of the local government, bolster their cooperation mechanisms to entrench and guarantee constitutionalised independence of local government. More importantly, they should also regularly share best practices in open platforms and develop information banks for ease of access to such information globally. The regional, continental and global organisations ought to have these information banks thereby creating a community of practice in all aspects of governance insofar as local government is concerned. There are numerous international organisations promoting the interests and role of local government, these include the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities under the European Union, World Organisation of United Cities and Local Government (UCLG), to mention just a few.

The UCLG prides itself as an organisation that is at the forefront of ‘ensuring a future for humanity from the local sphere, which guarantees public services and that brings transformation by our communities’. Clearly, this is a noble mission that elucidates the significant role of local government in delivering public goods and services to the people. By their very nature and operational proximity, local authorities are the first point of call for government services required by the communities. However, in many developing countries, particularly on the African continent, there are perennial challenges confronted by local authorities, including but not limited to, a lack of professional administration skills from office administration to finance and project management; inadequate financial resources and lack of capacity and authority to generate revenue; trust deficit between the local government structures and the citizens; financial mismanagement; unstable political governance structures; etc.

In the context of South Africa, the 1998 Local Government White Paper defines what is called “developmental local government”, as the governance structure ‘committed to working with citizens and groups within the community to find sustainable ways to meet their social, economic and material needs, and improve the quality of their lives’. Furthermore, the South African national government, outlined four interlinked features of the developmental local government, namely:

  1. Maximising social development and economic growth.
  2. Integrating and coordinating development planning.
  3. Democratising development, empowering (through the involvement of citizens and communities in the design and delivery of local government programmes) and redistributing (by inter alia, subsidising public services to the poor and vulnerable groups such as women, children and persons with disabilities.
  4. Providing leadership and learning opportunities, thereby creating social conditions that propel the advancement of the development agenda.

At the heart of the envisioned developmental local government in South Africa, lies the critical task of “building the kind of political leadership that is able to bring together coalitions and networks of local interests that cooperate to realise a shared vision”. As much as this sounds glorious, the 2021-2022 Auditor-General (AG) Report delivered audit findings that indicated that instead of scaling up the positives, some of the local government authorities registered worsening governance performance. South Africa has 257 local authorities divided into metropolitan (8), district (44) and local (205) councils. In the 2021/22 report, the AG called on local authorities “to provide courageous, ethical, accountable and citizen-centric leadership to overhaul a local government characterised by accountability and service delivery failures, poor governance, weak institutional capacity and instability”. The latter has been the most observed characteristic feature of the local government structures in South Africa, particularly after the last local government elections held on 1 November 2021.

The 2021 South African local government elections did not deliver outright winners in 66 municipalities. Consequently, this created what is called “hung councils” wherein political parties had to negotiate with each other on the formation of political governance structures. Instead of using the election outcomes to champion the well-articulated political goal in the 1998 Local Government White Paper, that is, the creation of coalitions that work for the advancement of the interests of the citizens and communities to realise a shared vision, South African political parties exploit the prevailing circumstances to further their narrow political ends, at the expense of ensuring sustainable service delivery that improves the lives of the people. In some local councils such as the City of Johannesburg, a mayor, who is the head of the executive authority, has been changed seven times since November 2021, a clear indication of political instability. The paralysis in some local councils such as in the City of Johannesburg, City of Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Councils, has contributed to the derailment in the implementation of the agenda for development, not only within a national context but also negatively affecting the realisation of objectives and targets set in international agreements such as the SDGs.

National governments and senior political leaders across ideological persuasions, ought to shift their thinking toward local government, from viewing it as a pseudo governance structure whose sole raison d'être is to execute their political agendas and serve as a sparing platform for political novices. The local sphere of government is the cardinal delivery machinery for an efficient and effective state to realise the priorities of a shared national vision and implementation of the global development agenda. The desired paradigm shift entails first and foremost, instilling a servant-consciousness to political leaders that local government exists to primarily serve the people and to improve their living conditions on a nonpartisan and sustainable basis. More authority and decision-making powers on service-delivery programmes should be transferred to the professionally trained personnel who would put the interest of the people first and above any other issues in the corridors of political power. The frustration of citizens due to the lack of service delivery across the country, influenced the South African citizens in both urban and rural settlements to resort to violence which, regrettably, included destruction of public infrastructures such as government buildings, roads, and rail networks.

Equally important is citizen education, which is centred on cultivating a culture of civic duty on the part of citizens as individuals and groups. Ordinary people, especially the youth, must learn, know, and more essentially, understand not only their rights and privileges in their relationship with the state but also their responsibilities and duties to their nation, particularly their local communities. Institutionalised and mandatory citizen education in institutions of learning both public and private, at all levels in basic and higher education, is critical in shaping and cementing the role of local government in development. Citizens ought to exercise their rights which in some countries are enshrined in the national constitutions, not only to demand accountability from the elected and appointed officials at the local government level but also to invoke their rights as indispensable stakeholders in setting the agenda for their own development. Local authorities and citizens alike, ought to be restlessly concerned about the fact that mid-way to 2030, only 15% of the roughly 140 targets were on track at the time of the sitting of the United Nations General Assembly Summit on SDGs in New York, on 18-19 September 2023.

The SDGs are an international blueprint on global needs and priorities for development addressing the very issues the local authorities strive to deliver on such as reducing poverty, providing education, quality healthcare and well-being, water and sanitation, employment creation, liveable and quality human settlements, provision of sustainable energy, and many other services. Critical issues such as the financing and capacitation of the local government should be among the apex priorities of the national governments and their international partners. SDG 17 calls for global partnerships and the strengthening of the means of implementation of all the goals. The local government is the main vehicle through which the real impact as well as the benefits of the partnerships can be realised and maximised.