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Paradigm Shift Needed in Local Government Thinking

By Ziyanda Mtshali
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A paradigm shift is required in how the media reports on cities and local governments in order to cope with the challenges that lie ahead, be it climate change, rapid urbanisation or the achievement of the sustainable development goals.

This was the view of Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General of the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa, in his keynote address which kick-started the Highway Africa Conference that took place at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

The world, even more so Africa, is headed towards the century of cities, to the extent that at the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York in September 2015, there is a strong expectation that a Goal 11 will be adopted alongside the other 16 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

“The importance of media being literate on what it means to manage cities has never been greater and will provide more balanced reporting and critique of cities,” he says.

Elong Mbassi believes that cities are engines of growth as this is where most activities happen around feeding the city, building the city, servicing the city, maintaining the city and managing the city. These five pillars enable businesses in cities to be productive, and when business is productive in cities, local government are also productive.

“Every business is local” says Elong Mbassi. “Businesses want to operate in functional cities, where people can have jobs, shelter, education, health, leisure and security.”

The decision of where to choose a business location depends on the quality of places, and these places are run and governed by Mayors and local government officials. The attractiveness of cities is therefore more closely linked to the quality of places. The competitiveness of the businesses and of national economies are more and more dependent on the quality of services offered by cities and towns under the leadership of local authorities.

Against this context he further questioned the over attention on national state oriented models of government, and urged a push for a local government led model of governance, with responsibility and accountability.

He says unless you shift attention from national economies to local economies and local government, we cannot cope with the challenges of urbanisation that lie ahead of us. And this is where the media plays a critical role in driving this narrative and thus contributing to this agenda.

It is also critical for local governments in Africa to establish deeper ties with other cities. “Building links between cities is essential; this continent must achieve the African Union Vision 2063 for An Africa we Want. But how are we going to achieve that if our local leaders don’t meet” he questions.

The African continent will have 1 billion urban dwellers in less than 20 years. There is no way the continent can cope with this unprecedented urbanization if local authorities as the front liners in the management of this urban challenge are not fully empowered to tackle it.

He says that it is concerning that the African Union, still does not recognise the urgency to address the urban challenge of Africa and the need to manage the huge migration trends associated to it. It is critical that a framework is provided at the level of the African Union for mayors and local authorities to take their share beside the national governments in the building of the integration and unity of the continent.

“Africa will be really united only when Mayors and local authorities start meeting and working together, complementing the efforts that Heads of State and Governments have been pursuing for more than 50 years, with quite limited results in terms of building the feeling of African oneness among the African people.

“I am unsure, for example, how often the Mayor of Tshwane meets with the Mayor of Cairo, or the Mayor of Johannesburg meets with his colleague of Abidjan.

“If the leaders, who run the day to day lives of cities meet, network, engage and share solutions, this continent will move forward towards greater integration and greater unity of the African people,” he says.

He added that local authorities are the public authorities closest to the people. The reputation, credibility and legitimacy of any national government and regime depends a lot on the way local authorities care about their local constituency and ensures service delivery at the local level.