Local government is one of three spheres of government in South Africa. The other two are provincial and national government.

S. 152 in Chapter 7 of the Constitution explains the duties and functions of local government:

  • To ensure democratic and accountable governance
  • To provide basic services
  • To promote social and economic development.

Local government has the power to make and enforce laws as defined by s. 156 of the Constitution. It has a legal duty to deliver municipal services. The most important local government duties include providing basic services such as:

  • water and sanitation
  • electricity
  • refuse removal
  • municipal health services
  • municipal public transport
  • municipal roads.

Other duties include firefighting, parks and recreation, roads and public transportation, the regulation of child care and public spaces. Local government also has a critical role to play in the provision of housing.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT MUST... give priority to the basic needs of the community. This means it must:
Provide basic services

Local government must ensure that each member of the community has access to at least a minimum level of basic service (s. 139(5) of the Constitution; s. 73 (1) of the Municipal Systems Act).

Promote development and the environment

Local government must promote a safe and healthy environment, as well as social and economic development.

Encourage community participation

Local government must encourage the involvement of the community in matters of local government. In practice this means that it must not only consult with the community, but also allow and promote community participation in decision-making.

Respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights

Local government must respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights (s. 7(2) of the Constitution), such as the right to water, a clean and healthy environment, and housing. What does this mean?

  • Respect means it must not stand in the way of the realisation of a right – like failing to grant a license to allow a community to drill a well for drinking water.
  • Protect means it must not allow others to undermine the realisation of a right – like allowing companies to pollute the drinking water supply.
  • Promote means it must do what it can to facilitate the realisation of the right – for instance by maintaining and repairing pipes needed to deliver drinking water and sanitation.
  • Fulfil means it must take positive steps to ensure that the community has access to affordable, clean drinking water, for instance by implementing free basic services to those in need and by constructing infrastructure to make services accessible.

Achieve human rights step-by-step

The Constitution recognises that the government cannot fix all problems overnight. But when it comes to unequal access to adequate housing, water, sanitation, food, a clean environment, and health care the government must move forward, not backward.

What government must do is to make a plan to realise rights within their available resources, and carry out that plan step-by-step to improve people’s enjoyment of their rights. If government fails to make a plan, or leaves vulnerable people out of the plan, or later on ignores the plan they made, this is a violation of human rights.

The human rights obligations apply not just to local government administration, but to anyone local government has hired to deliver services to the public, for example municipally owned companies such as Johannesburg Water, and publicly owned parastatals like Eskom, private companies and CBOs.