Giving Local Government a Voice
Almost a year into his term as the President of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), Parks Tau has also been elected as the first African President of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), adding to the depth and scope of his roles in local government. Apart from ensuring that local government has a voice across the global negotiation platforms, Tau wants to ensure that he bridges the gap between cities in the global North and those in the global South. One major way in which this can be achieved, he states, is to find innovative financial instruments that will be channelled towards infrastructure development that will spur economic growth. He hopes that, in this manner, ‘poor’ African, Asian and Latin American cities will be able to counter the rapid rate of urbanisation which is currently the phenomenon worldwide.
Parks Tau, President of the South African Local Government Association and first African President of the United Cities and Local Government
You have been the president of SALGA for close to a year now. Given that it already has an impressive track record, what are your primary objectives as far as this institution is concerned?
It is important to highlight, from the outset, that SALGA is an important part of the governance system of the country through its presence in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). As the SALGA president, it is my obligation to sit on the presidential infrastructure coordinating committee wherein the president of the republic meets with all the premiers. As such, it is the duty of the SALGA president to coordinate the work of the government throughout the country.
It has been important for us to use these mechanisms of representation to enable the voice of local government to get through to the systems of both parliament and the executive in the country. We strongly believe that will allow us to influence the discourse and direction of the country in that regard. The association is placing a lot of emphasis on the implementation of the Integrated Urban Development Framework, which was adopted by cabinet last year. This is to ensure that we meet the needs of our communities and citizens, adequately, by using local government as a conduit that is able to respond to key pressure points. SALGA is fully cognisant that one of the many and immediate challenges faced by our cities today is urbanisation - they are struggling to deal with huge infrastructure backlogs as we speak.
I need to point out that we acknowledge the fact that it is not only the big metropolitan municipalities that are growing at a phenomenal rate but the intermediary cities which are budding at an even higher rate per capita. Apt examples in this regard are those such as Rustenburg in the North West Province and Steve Tshwete and Emalahleni in Mpumalanga Province. These are, but, just some of the cities that are facing huge pressures when it comes to urbanisation. The more people move to these centres, then the more we need to speedily respond to the challenges that arise.
Thus, one can never stress enough the importance of the development and strengthening of our urban development policy and frameworks. For this to succeed, all stakeholders need to be all hands on deck because the government cannot go it alone and neither can local government. More emphasis also needs to be placed on SALGA provincial arms to ensure that they are more effective in representing local municipalities at a provincial level. In this regard, SALGA is lobbying provincial governments to pass legislation that is specific to organised local government. We hope that this will open up avenues where we [can] have direct access and interface with the provincial system of government, the legislature and the executive. Should this be a reality, sooner than later, it will vastly improve the manner in which SALGA operates as well as its relationship(s) with provincial government. Ultimately, it is always important to remember that SALGA is an association of municipalities and, hence, we need to work in such a fashion that reinforces the work of our member municipalities. Then, I think, we will be able to create centres of excellence and points of reference for municipalities to learn from each other as well as leverage on the experiences gained from one another. This will go a long way towards empowering SALGA to create effective mechanisms that will allow it to better serve its members.
You’ve been on record as saying that you are tremendously excited with your election as the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) president. Can you please tell us more about UCLG and what your responsibilities will be?
It is a global association of local authorities which does a number of things. In part it does the same work done by SALGA; only on a much bigger and global scale. The association represents more than half of the municipalities in the world comprising of both municipalities and local government associations in different countries.
In the South African context both SALGA and municipalities are members of UCLG. It is the preeminent organisation to represent the United Nations system. Through UCLG we engage stakeholders via an institution called the Global Taskforce, which was created by local government to bring, under one roof, all the voices of local government from across the globe. This is because we have thematic institutions such as those that deal with sustainability like the C40 which focuses on climate change issues. Essentially, UCLG is the convener of the Global Taskforce of Municipalities which allows local authorities to speak with one voice. The president of UCLG and the organisation [itself] also chair the United Nations Advisory Committee on Local Authorities. This is the primary system which we use as the interface with the UN system; also a body that is gradually gaining statutory recognition within the UN.
Presently, we are focusing a lot of our time and energy on strengthening the ability of local government to leverage different and innovative financial instruments that are available in the market. For example, in South Africa we are doing work that is related to pooled financing mechanisms which means that we are supporting South African municipalities through UCLG and its partner organisations, in order for local government in the country to gain access to capital funding for those who have not been able to gain access to the capital market. The same applies to those municipalities that have not been able to gain access to the debt capital market.
More work is in progress to allow the same to access grant funding because there are a lot of such resources available for those who need them most - from multilateral organisations like the UN and the European Union or from individual countries. We aim to create capacity for local government to access such funding so that they can deal with issues of urban poverty, housing etc.
We have realised that one of the major gaps faced by the global South is that, for instance, the poor countries of Africa and Latin America are not able to access such funds because they do not have the instruments to access these resources and be able to report continuously based on the criteria that has been set by a particular funding institution. Therefore, we are trying to build capacity so that we are able to support local government to access these important resources. This is all done in an effort to ensure that local government becomes the primary means of implementing the [important] global development agenda that has been adopted. This ranges from the sustainable development goals (SDGs) to the Climate Change Agreement and the New Urban Agenda recently adopted by the UN, among many others.
Cities are under tremendous pressure around the world because people tend to migrate to urban centres as a means of moving up the economic ladder. What are your perspectives regarding how cities can deal with, or address, this complex challenge?
It is important to recognise that urbanism and urban development are an important part of how the world is evolving. More people are living in cities such that we have reached a point where more than 50% of the world’s population are living in cities. At the same time, this is a world where more than 90% of global innovation occurs in the cities. Innovation facilitates economic growth and development, so we need to realise that we have to reap the urban dividend that people are going into cities. This requires that we enable our cities by equipping them with adequate planning tools for spatial planning because this is an important part of how cities function. Cities have to plan for infrastructure, human settlement and commercial development for transport, as well as for different parts of how the urban development system works. In this way, we will be able to build inclusive urban centres that thrive and create opportunities for their citizens to participate economically, prosper and climb up the socio-economic ladder.
One of the key challenges with cities in the global South is that, while they urbanise at such a rapid pace, they are not able to reap the benefit of urbanisation that is currently taking place. In order to mitigate this, we are ensuring that we build the capacity of the cities such that they are equipped with effective planning and implementation tools for any planning frameworks that they may have developed. It is both about spatial planning and land use management and the cities’ ability to provide the necessary infrastructure that will support a growing economy.
It is of vital importance that our cities have the muscle to leverage on their own income streams and balance sheets to allow them access to debt capital markets and grant funding. The stark reality is that, throughout the world, most cities prosper because they had adequate grant funding. Cities in the global North get their funding from their respective governments and the global market but the same cannot be said of the cities in the global South. It is very important that, if we are to create a more equitable world then we need to cultivate an equitable playing field vis-à-vis grant funding. This work has occupied much of our efforts as we have been lobbying the UN and other development agencies in this regard. We need more resources to go to local government instead of the national government as is currently the case. It is at the local government level where the rubber meets the road and service delivery takes place.
As the first African president of the UCLG, what do you hope to leave as your legacy to the organisation?
Firstly, I should stress that, it is an honour to have been elected as the first African president of the UCLG. It suggests that people do not only have confidence in me as the president but in the global South as we know it today. It also shows the faith that the global community has in South Africa to champion their cities’ causes. Personally, for me, it is about ensuring that we build an organisation that will serve its members effectively through our regions all over the world. We need to create more mechanisms that will allow regional associations to effectively serve their constituencies.
Secondly it is about representation so that local government is more effective and gets a more prominent seat in the global negotiating table. The world is busy negotiating important issues about society but local government is visibly absent. Further, we need to ensure that local government also gets a seat at the implementation table by lobbying the UN system to create these. It is very encouraging that the UN has recognised the role of local government through such platforms as the New Urban Agenda and the role of cities as adopted in October 2016 as well as in the SDGs which replaced the millennium development goals.
In the SDGs’ regard there is goal 11 which specifically relates to the role of cities in the bigger scheme of global urban developments. We are happy to see that local government is able to assume its role as a negotiating partner and as an implementing partner of the global development agenda.
It is also going to be about creating equity in the world because we realise that the cities in the global South are the ones that are currently experiencing very high levels of urbanisation yet they have the lowest levels of infrastructure investment. This is an anomaly that has to be addressed yesterday by, as I have already alluded, opening up grant funding avenues and capital debt markets. In this manner they will be able to uplift their citizens immensely as well as respond to the needs of their communities. This is going to be critical for cities going forward because it allows them to deal with any hurdles that are brought on by the rapid rate of urbanisation. The infrastructure backlog is most likely to get worse if we do not come up with innovative funding solutions for cities in the global South as soon as possible. For me, this is the most critical task that we have to tackle on behalf of local government.