Academic journal article African Studies Review

Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of the Land in South Africa/Developmental Local Government: A Case Study of South Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of the Land in South Africa/Developmental Local Government: A Case Study of South Africa

Article excerpt

Lungisile Ntsebeza. Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of the Land in South Africa. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005. x + 326 pp. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $38.00. Paper.

Jaap DeVisser. Developmental Local Government: A Case Study of South Africa. Antwerp, Belgium: lntersentia, 2005. Distributed by Gaunt, Inc., 3011 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, FIa., 34217. xix + 313 pp. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. euro59.50. Paper.

As a component of both democratization and development, local government has increasingly assumed a central role in the discourse of "good governance." Reflecting the assumption that local government is inherently more democratic and responsive to the needs of the people, the power of local government is increasing under the rubric of devolution, decentralization, and deconcentration. In South Africa, this policy was enshrined in the 1997 Constitution, which marks local government as the "epicenter" of development. Localization marks a significant reverse of postcolonial models of state-led development in Africa. Until the introduction of structural adjustment, state-led development was also at the heart of the developmental programs of the international financial institutions. Since the early 1990s, however, development has increasingly emphasized decentralization of political and economic authority away from the central state toward various subnational units. The two works reviewed here thus represent important efforts to come to terms with the scope and nature of local government in the South African context.

DeVisser contends that decentralization is a key tool for economic development in South Africa. For him, the establishment of developmental local government must be predicated on three principles: autonomy, supervision, and cooperation. The bulk of the work consists of exploration of these three principles in the context of the South African case. However, such decentralization can be successful only insofar as the power and autonomy of local government are institutionalized in legal structures, particularly the South African Constitution. The most important source of autonomy, argues DeVisser, is the fiscal autonomy necessary to ensure that the financial resources available to local government are sufficient to satisfy their developmental obligations and responsibilities.

Reflecting the legal background of the author, DeVisser's book is at its strongest when exploring the legal framework necessary to establish local developmental government. Indeed, the text makes extensive reference to legal debates over the nature of the emerging federal system playing itself out in South African courts. The institutional model for developmental local government outlined in the text was developed through extensive consultations with local governments across South Africa. However, the text has little to say regarding the informal power relationships that underscore relations between various levels of government in a federal system.

Ntsebeza offers a fundamentally different take on the nature and importance of local government in contemporary South Africa. Instead of focusing on the broad legal structures of national-local relations, he looks at the historical political economy of local rule. His analysis offers a more thorough and complete consideration of the historical position of local government in South Africa. Unlike DeVisser's book, which offers only marginal comments on the historical specificity of the South African case, Ntsebeza's text is almost exclusively historical, with most of the chapters devoted to the history of local rule in Xhalanga District, Eastern Cape, during several distinct time periods. The book offers only a brief analysis of the postapartheid system. Most impressive is the well-supported argument regarding the antidemocratic nature of rural authorities (headmen, chiefs, traditional authorities) as shown in the concrete case of Xhalanga District-an analysis that traces the evolution of rural authority from before the establishment of white colonial rule, through apartheid, and into independence. …

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