Beyond boundaries

The politics of demarcation

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Boundary demarcation has always been an area of high emotional tension. In a recent meeting hosted by the Isandla Institute, participants were given an opportunity to unravel aspects of that contestation.

South Africa has a long history of boundary demarcations drawn to fulfil a particular political position or to reflect the needs of a dominant group. Boundaries were drawn during colonial times, redrawn under apartheid to reflect the Group Areas Act and redrawn to accommodate the Bantustans. The Commission on the Demarcation/Delimitation of States, Provinces and Regions created in 1993, pieced the country together again, reconfiguring South Africa into the nine provinces we know today.

The process of contestation has continued, as Mirjam van Donk, Isandla Institute Director, pointed out. “Boundary demarcation remains a contested issue in the democratic South Africa, and generally speaking, contestation is something that current day South Africa doesn’t appreciate or manage very well,” she said.

The issues are complex, with public participation, the influence of political parties, the public’s perceptions of the value of ‘belonging’ to one region as opposed to another and service delivery and governance concerns all having a role to play.

In the roundtable, delegates from civil society, academia and the media sought to unravel the complex issues around demarcation. In particular, they looked at contestation about boundary demarcation, especially the process of investigating decision-making and reporting as well as the interpretation and weighting of seemingly objective proposals for boundary changes.

In the spotlight was the functioning of the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB), whose mandate is to review, determine and revise municipal boundaries and ward boundaries within municipalities in the democratic South Africa.

“Our discussion aimed to generate a better understanding of the nature of contestation with regards to municipal demarcations in general, and the MDB in particular,” said Pamela Masiko-Kambala, Isandla Institute policy researcher. “We were concerned with the role of public participation and influence on decision-making; the role of political parties, and service delivery and governance concerns.”

Masiko-Kambala, in her discussion paper, pointed out that for the communities who are affected by demarcation decisions, public participation is very important, but the concept of having a say is not clear cut. Contestation arises around who has the final say and whether all the voices, the perspectives, the desires and the ambitions of the communities are sufficiently expressed and acknowledged.

“The MDB needs to be seen to be transparent and accountable when it reaches its decisions,” she said.

Landiwe Mahlangu, Chairperson of the MDB, commented that one of the difficulties that the board faced was that the public was not always aware of what did, and did not, fall within the ambit of the Board.

“Demarcation is about spatial transformation,” he said. “It is a key to local government reform. The provincial boundaries were negotiated as part of the democratisation of this country. They fall outside what we as a Board can do.”

The issue of the independence of the Board is something that Mahlangu feels very strongly about. “We are accountable to parliament and are not affiliated to a particular political party,” he said. “This is particularly important given our history of how boundaries were used.”

This is in contrast to countries like Uganda where the President is able to declare new districts by decree, often influenced by the strongest lobby. Mahlangu did, however, admit that the MDB in its current configuration and composition has certain institutional limitations particularly around its ability to engage fully with the public.

There was some criticism from the floor that the MDB does not have the capacity to run public engagement processes itself, but tends to call for help from the municipalities – a process which was described as asking the patient to help with his diagnosis.

Mahlangu explained that the Board’s level of demarcation is in the wards of local government. “The key aspect of the redetermination of municipal boundaries is to deepen democracy. It is at this level of government that the electorate is able to exercise its right of voting for representatives that are close to them.”

The previous mayor of Midvaal, Timothy Nast, challenged Mahlangu on issues of refragmentation, asking whether it “is not the ultimate sign of transformation in South Africa if Soweto can be seen as a viable and independent municipality which has its future determined in Orlando, not Braamfontein?”

Mahlangu replied that the MDB receives many applications, and a key in its decision has to be if dividing a municipal area would result in two viable municipalities.

“We cannot create problems by allowing unviable municipalities,” he said. “Some areas, even with the best of intentions, can never be viable municipalities.” He added that the MDB has never lost a case when there have been challenges to its decisions.

Former Minister of CoGTA, Richard Baloyi, appointed a task team in 2012, and although its report was completed early this year, it is yet to be made public. Shanaaz Majiet, Deputy Director General of Provincial and Municipal Government Support, said that her department is currently in the process of assessing necessary amendments to the Municipal Demarcation Act. The Demarcation Board has recommended changes and the task team is being asked to consider any amendments to the Act that it would like to propose.

Majiet also felt strongly that as vacancies in the MDB were filled, they should be done so with an eye to the future. “It is important to reflect on what is working well, as well as on what is not working as we move into the next 20 years of our democracy,” she said.

In terms of the legal framework of demarcation, boundaries and politics can become enmeshed in the ward delimitation process. Jaap de Visser, Professor of constitutional law at UWC, pointed out that “the number of registered voters, divided by the number of ward councillors, gives you an average, and you can’t deviate more than 15% from that.

“Does that mean that when you have a community where the numbers don’t add up, you have to go over the hill to find more people to make up a ward, with the result that you do fragment communities? Is this an area where the law should be clarified?” he asked.

Paul Berkowitz, a journalist for Daily Maverick and head of Citydex, a division of Empowerdex which focuses on municipal government analysis, commented that apartheid was a dam wall that held back a lot of the changes that were happening naturally in the rest of the world. As an agent for socio-economic change and redress, the MDB is playing catch up.

The MDB has come under a lot of criticism when it comes to municipalities like Zamdela, where riots erupted early in 2013.

“I also look at issues such as the Marikana tragedy and wonder, where was the local municipality? What was their role in providing basic services and housing?” he asked. “Who has the greatest responsibility to make sure the whole system works?”

“In Johannesburg, part of the challenge has been to integrate people, but are we really doing anything to unpick the old spatial development patterns of power? The legacies are still with us,” he said.

For Berkowitz, one of the biggest challenges faced by the MDB is the fact that the process of public participation is driven by political parties rather than the public.

Timothy Nast agreed that demarcation is a political issue around the world. “In South Africa we should applaud the fact that the MDB is independent,” he said.

For Nast, the practical implications of boundary changes are huge. “When someone walks into my office and I ask them where they are from, they will tell me their ward. It points to a positive sense of association and ownership. So a change in a ward boundary is like a change in your family: who are you letting in to share your resources?

“If we could cost the continual restructuring of local government boundaries, we’d be horrified,” he said, adding that he felt that demarcation changes should only take place every 10 years, after the release of census data.

Ebrahim Fakir, Manager: Governance Institutions and Processes, Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA), pointed out that an important part of demarcation is redistribution, and as such there will be changes and upheavals.

“It is more than just a technical exercise,” he said. “It is subjective and there is a purpose. It is also about achieving certain political goals and outcomes and this is contentious, especially when structural impositions are used to force people to interact."

Too much change results in instability, so the MDB has to weigh up the benefits and costs of making a short term decision that will achieve a long term social or political objective.

Under apartheid, demarcation reinforced marginalisation and exclusion and now all of these things have to be reversed.

“Are we not imposing the reversal of these massive, socially engineered outcomes through an instrument like the MDB? I wonder whether the ANC is imposing onto the MDB an onerous obligation which it ought to meet politically,” he said. “Is the MDB being asked to reduce poverty and de-racialise areas through demarcation? Are they imposing cross subsidisation from richer to poorer areas?”

In all the cases facing the MDB, there is contestation, but we need to be clear about what the contestation is about. Sometimes it is inter-party, sometimes it is intra-party.

“And in Khutsong, it was worse. It was about intra-party factionalism and it was also about groups of citizens taking sides against each other, and sometimes citizens against the government they actually support,” Fakir said. “Unfortunately for Khutsong it came to a head at a time when they could be used as a pre-Polokwane football.”

Van Donk warned against a perception that there is always a hidden agenda when it comes to demarcation.

“Of course, we do know that agendas exist, but demarcation is a much broader issue than a political or factional agenda,” she said. “That is not to say that political agendas are inherently bad."

As we talk about the politics of demarcation, we need to bring to the fore the community politics, what Van Donk described as “politics with a small p”. It is here that community interest takes precedence, in all its messiness and difficulties. Communities are hard to manage and mould and structure, especially as all the nuanced levels of power and influence are at play.

“Educating citizens about the role and functions of the MDB is vital,” Masiko-Kambala said. “In the end, and assuming due process has been followed, communities and political parties have to learn to accept that ‘drawing the line’ is essentially about balancing objective and subjective matters in the interest of better service delivery provision and development.”

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