LEADING EDGE // The South African Local Government Association


Lessons in Leadership

By: Valdi Pereira


In this edition of Titans: Building Nations we speak with Xolile George, Chief Executive Officer of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) and a Continental Winner in the Public Enterprises sector of the Titans: Building Nations programme 2015. He shares his views on the challenges local government faces, draws attention to the progress made in this sphere and reaffirms his passion for seeing local government help transform South Africa.

Xolile George, Chief Executive Officer of the South African Local Government Association


Local government is in many respects a unique environment – after almost a decade at the helm of SALGA – what have you come to recognise as the key ingredients for successful local government?
Local government is the most important sphere of government. It is at this level where citizens experience the impact of policies that national government has put in place in order to improve the lives of ordinary people.


South Africans often look to local government to realise the aspirations that have been enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Issues such as the restoration of dignity, access to adequate housing and shelter, the provision of education and many other rights are often realised in the local government sphere.

To achieve this you need a strong, caring, responsive and agile system of local governance to ensure citizen experiences are indeed positive.

Many challenges that exist in the local government sphere are often ascribed to a lack of ongoing leadership capacity development at municipalities. What is your view on this? 
It is always important, as South Africans, to appreciate where we come from. While we are 22 years into the democratic life of South Africa, local government as we know it today, has been in existence in this form for a mere 15 years.

Each municipality has played a role in ensuring South Africans enjoy access to basic services in order to promote the restoration of human dignity. The right to have access to water, sanitation, solid waste disposal, streetlights and other basic services of this nature, are highly aspirational in our emerging democracy and municipalities have worked hard to realise these aspirations. 

Of course, there have been positive and not so positive experiences for citizens with respect to the progress that has been made in delivering upon basic services. Opinion makers in a variety of news mediums and protestors obviously seek to highlight those situations where delivery has been less than desirable.

At SALGA we know that a lot has been achieved by local governments in the past 15 years. This is not to suggest that all is well, there is still a lot of work ahead of us.  We do however encourage everyone to arm themselves with the right knowledge of local government achievements before making pronouncements and forming opinions on perceived failures in this sphere.

One only needs to look at the authoritative bodies in the form of the Auditor-General, National Treasury and Statistics South Africa, who engage with and interrogate the performance of local government from a multitude of governance, financial and delivery perspectives, to realise that any claims made with respect to progress in this sphere have been examined and verified.  

They provide us with metrics to access local government performance and if necessary, contest poor performance by local governments. In terms of the key metrics such as access to water, sanitation, electricity, the provision of roads and other services, 85% of South Africans can now claim to have access to these.

In our view, this clearly demonstrates the success local governments have achieved and it is something, I think all South Africans can take pride in.

In recent years the Auditor-General has commented favourably on the improving level of financial and governance compliance amongst municipalities. Yet, there is still a fair share of criticism directed at municipalities. Why do you think this is the case?
In 2011 the Auditor-General stated that less than 5% of municipalities achieved clean audits. Presently 59% of our municipalities are achieving unqualified audits, which is the highest audit standard which can be achieved in the public and private sector. The situation is far from gloomy, we are clearly on the right track and are certainly targeting 100% unqualified audits. 

The challenge for local government, particularly when it comes to criticism, is that a service delivery failure is localised and in many ways a personalised matter. The moment you get into your car to drive to work and you turn a corner to find a robot out of order or see other public facilities that are not properly maintained, you feel directly affected by the problems.

You expect running water at home, consistent electrical supply and the provision of utility services. If these things are not there, your thoughts immediately turn to your municipality and what you believe they should be doing.

As taxpayers we all want to know that our money is being spent wisely and in a fashion where municipal officials are accountable for the decisions they take. The demands and expectations on municipalities are therefore very high and a lot of hard work has to go into keeping citizens satisfied.

Despite acknowledging the progress that has been made in local government, you have also been frank about the challenges that exist in this sphere. What do think can be done to address these challenges?  
Citizens are frustrated because of leadership that comes across as unaccountable and uncaring. This has been at the core of many tensions that have been experienced at local government level. Our view as SALGA is that we need a responsive and accountable system of local government – in fact our Constitution promises this to every South African. 

In these 15 years what have we learned? We think that as SALGA we must work collaboratively with as many players as possible to invest in building capable leaders, whether it be political or administrative leadership.

If we can achieve this then we will create a resilient system that will stand the test of time and is accountable and caring. This is the ideal that we want to work towards, to ensure people can fulfil the roles they have been given because they have suitability in terms of attitude and background for the role they must fulfil.

The SALGA Centre for Leadership and Governance has been created with a view to developing a generation of local government leaders who appreciate the importance of being accountable, understand the power of innovative thinking and acknowledge that the answers to the challenges they face, will need to be developed in conjunction with their communities.

How do you think the performance of local government can be further lifted?
Linking consequences and accountability is an important step that can be taken. If there is an Auditor-General report which does not reflect well on a particular municipality, what is the action that needs to be taken? Do we hold the Municipal Manager accountable or the people that report to him? 

One cannot have a situation where there is no consequence for poor performance. If you do not take action you are simply making mediocrity and tolerance of poor service inbred in all your actions.

At SALGA we want to drive issues around consequence and accountability. We want to create and army of people who inspire others to achieve great things in the local government sphere.

It is sometimes suggested that local government is not making enough of the opportunities the digital era presents. Do you think there are opportunities in this regard?
There is no doubt that we need to exploit the fourth industrial revolution. Decision making in municipalities must be improved. As local government leadership we need to exploit the various avenues of the digital era that we are living in. We must serve citizens in a much better fashion. We need to move away from archaic systems.

There are many ways that we can draw ideas from citizens without being prescriptive in terms of when and where they can interact with local government. Contemporary approaches can be adopted through the use of appropriate technology and I have no doubt it will also contribute to accountability.

What do you see as the biggest challenge local government faces today?
The sheer scale and magnitude of inequality, poverty and unemployment is a vexing problem for local government. These triple challenges continue to tear at the fabric of our society and it is felt at all levels of government. 

It is a historical challenge rooted in 300 years of systematic marginalisation of people along racial lines. It is not something that will be easily eradicated and the challenge we now face is that we have people living in communities that are never going to be able to lift themselves out of their circumstances unless there is some form of intervention.

Statistics South Africa has recently released a report showing how deeply ingrained the inhibitors of success are for poor communities and how poverty easily becomes inter-generational for these communities if there isn’t investment in education and skills development programmes to improve the catchment areas in a municipality of skills that can serve its local industries.

This is very important because migration from certain areas often occurs because people feel they can better opportunities in another. This urbanisation often chokes service delivery in certain municipalities because there is such strain placed on their resources that they cannot cope. 

This in turn gives rise to the spectre of protest, even if an affected municipality is doing their utmost with their resources. Until we confront the issue of building balanced economic growth we are going to continue having municipalities doing very well, like the City of Joburg, but having to deal with protests over matters which are in essence driven by relative deprivation and not poor service delivery.

What do you think can be done to address the issue of migration?
By improving the intelligence building capabilities of municipalities, ensuring they become developmental in their solutions and harness ideas from areas around them. They need to work with key players in their areas to create interventions that could spark greater development, thereby making sure that people don’t need to leave their home region and move to a city to increase their prospects.

SALGA has been helping some associations in countries in East Africa; including Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya in capacity building and in refining their systems of government. What progress has been made in this regard?
We have a unique situation in South Africa – one that is worth celebrating. We possess a democratic dividend in the form of a constitution that places citizens and not government, at the centre of benefit.

Our government is defined in three spheres: national, provincial and local. If you look at the spherical notion of government it is clear that all three pulling together fulfil the functionality of the state. 

Our local government is defined in the Constitution and we have direct powers and functions. In contrast, others don’t have system of local government that is constitutionally guaranteed. It is often defined in subsidiary statutory legislation where powers can be given or taken away – something which cannot be done in South Africa.

In this environment SALGA is a shining symbol because we are an organisation created in the constitution. We are therefore a point of reference for many countries for governance models, defining the role of local government in their systems, capacity building and leadership.

In fact, SALGA is the most advanced local government association in the world because of its guaranteed constitutional existence. In South Africa we sit in parliament and partake in development and raise issues when law making takes place.  

We are benefitting from the foresight and wisdom of the architects of our Constitution. It has allowed us to build capacity from a vantage point that others do not have. 

On the continent we have recently formed a pan African association of which we are member. It allows us to share lessons learned, leadership learnings and constitutionally reform perspectives amongst others.

What are the blockages which stand in the way of having South Africa, and African, local municipalities being run as well as some of the best in the world? 
In many African countries I think the challenge is that local governments do not have sufficient autonomy. It is one area that is holding back local government from promoting participatory democracy.

One of the big advantages of local government as it is designed in South Africa is that you get to vote for ‘faces’ that you know. You choose the ‘face’ you want to represent you. It is an important differentiation between provincial and national level leadership selection.

The other challenge is that local governments cannot raise their own revenue. In South Africa there are local governments that struggle with this, but it only occurs because of structural economic conditions.

In many parts of the continent, local governments do not have fiscal powers to raise their own revenue, to borrow funds and make critical investments from which they in turn can derive revenue from, they are going to struggle to become viable government enterprises.

Productivity, inclusivity and sustainability are but some of the issues that pose significant future challenges for local governments and the cities they manage. Do you think local governments are positioned to deal with the big changes that will be coming our way in the next two decades? 
It is a function of cities to arrest the scourge of migration. There is nothing wrong with urbanisation, but there is something very wrong with migration when it becomes a push factor and starts to run rapidly at a scale that is not easily manageable for cities.

We can look at the City of Joburg as an example. On a monthly basis they receive 10 000 new citizens. Just think about the impact of this over five years in terms of resources needed to match this growth.

The problem with this growth is that it takes places on the fringes of the city – on the spatial edges. You then have development taking place that is not defined by a spatial development framework or that the city is not even geared towards responding to.

All our big cities face this challenge, on a daily basis. There is little doubt that our big cities are very important, they are places of trade, centres of investment, some of them are financial capitals, the home of arts and culture and very often they have leading institutions of learning. 

Their role in driving the economic growth of the country is important and they need to have strong leadership in place. They also need various levers of control available to them to respond to these issues.  

One of these put in place by our government, which SALGA will continue to lobby in favour of, is the need to embrace urbanisation and guide it, so it does not become a bigger challenge than it already is.

If you consider that currently 50% of Africa’s population live in urban centres and that this number will climb to 75% by 2050, you start to realise the urgency of the challenge, because it is a very rapid rate of urbanisation.

We are going to need strong governance models, mechanisms to raise funding and innovative approaches to dealing with spatial inequality challenges if our cities are going to be able to deal with the demands upon them.

In this respect the City of Joburg, with its 2040 strategy – called Corridors of Freedom, is setting a good example of how to provide spatial justice whilst also looking to deal with the myriad of challenges, thereby creating a connected growing city that uses resources in a way that creates opportunities for  its people and promotes social cohesion.

Are there any other thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?
As SALGA we stand ready to navigate the transition to our forth form of local democratic government. We will be welcoming a new crop of local government leaders that will be elected by the citizenry and we are ready to play our part in preparing them to navigate the local government space. 

Because of the intersection of many factors at play in this space: political, economic, social and developmental, it is possibly the most challenging environment one can find. It is also an environment where councillors find themselves face to face with the stark realities many citizens confront on a daily basis. It is therefore our responsibility to make sure our leaders are strong, emphatic individuals who are passionate about making our local government experiences, positive and uplifting.

It is also my belief that we need to surface those people that are doing good and showcase what they have done so we can learn from them. We need to build local government that is capable if we want to contribute to the National Development Plan. In order to do this local government needs to be able to interpret its environment, exploit opportunities and makes our experience as citizens a positive one.  

The Best Leader By Far
Xolile George’s litany of accolades is vast. It includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Continental winner of Titans: Building Nations (Public Entities Category),

  • Received seven successive unqualified audits and four successive clean audits as CEO of SALGA,

  • Boss of the Year finalist 2014,

  • National Business Award finalist 2015 (Public Entities Category),

  • Recipient of two special awards as Best Executive in the city of Joburg 2004/5, and 

  • Recipient of the SALGA Chairman's Special Leadership award for excellent leadership in 2015.


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