Deepening democracy through municipal councillor oversight

As a result of the wide-spread and intense criticism directed at local government for failing to deliver on its constitutional mandate, a necessity arise for in-depth study to evaluate the role of municipal councillors in their duty to provide oversight in ensuring policy implementation and accountability. In light of this, the LGSETA commissioned Enterprises UP to conduct research regarding the extent to which municipal councillors succeed in their oversight role.

Municipal oversight: A conceptual and contextual exposition 

Government oversight provides for pre-emptive interfaces initiated by the legislature to hold the executive and administrative organs of state accountable for diligently and lawfully executing their functions to improve the delivery of predetermined objectives of government. As local elected assemblies, municipal councils are entrusted with powers and functions in terms of section 151 of the Constitution, which place municipal councils at the centre of ensuring accountability of the executive and bureaucratic structures of the municipality.

Apart from the oversight responsibilities of political office bearers, there are also committees that must fulfil the functions of oversight over the municipal administration. The roles and functions of these Section 80 and Section 79 committees (e.g. executive committees, mayoral committees, council portfolio committees, municipal public accounts committees and audit committees) in terms of the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act (MSA) 117 of 1998, are key structures to conduct such oversight functions. It is the duty of these committees to use necessary monitoring and tracking tools to make sure that public resources and funds are not being put to waste or misappropriated. Oversight is crucial to support processes of clean audit and prevent issues highlighted in the Auditor-General’s report from being repeated. 

Research methodology 

Following a mixed-method research design both in-depth structured interviews and a questionnaire were used to probe the perceptions of four target groups regarding municipal councillor capacity and tools for conducting their oversight role. The responses obtained were triangulated to gain a comprehensive perspective of the status of municipal oversight. The target groups, sample size and method for data collection are outlined in table 1 below.


Table 1: Target groups, sample size and data collection methods

Target groups (T1-4) Sample Data collection method
T1: Chairpersons of Section 79 Oversight Committees • 4 x metro’s
• 8 x local municipalities (low and high capacity)
• 8 x district municipalities
Questionnaire and interviews
T2: Chairpersons of Section 79 Standing Committees • 4 x metro’s
• 8 x local municipalities (low and high capacity)
• 8 x district municipalities
Questionnaire and interviews
T3: Chairperson of Provincial SCOPA 3 (1 per 3 sampled provinces) Questionnaire and interviews
T4: Local government experts 5 experts Delphi interviews
Total sample size (n= 48)    



Research results and main findings

The key factors identified that limit the capacity of councillors as intermediaries in service delivery include the following: divisive party politics and factionalism in some municipalities; lack of technical and conceptual skills; limited comprehension of the responsibilities of portfolio oversight committees; and poor understanding of ward demarcation and the geographical spread of constituencies. On the part of councillors, the general inability of councillors to interpret technical project reports seriously hampers their oversight function. Such reports include estimates and calculations of the budget, environmental impact assessments, and feasibility studies. It is encouraging to note that the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), the National and Provincial Treasuries, and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) in provinces have undertaken numerous capacity-building programmes aimed at equipping all councillors, new and old, with knowledge and skills for their roles. However, it seems that these initiatives do not adequately cover the broad spectrum of aspects needed for the proper functioning of oversight committees.

Views of respondents in terms of current competency of councillors in conducting their oversight role, were almost split with 42.3% of the respondents rating the levels as “average”, while 25% gave a positive rating of “good” and 21.1% rated the levels as “poor”. The majority of local government experts expressed their concern regarding the adequacy of current oversight capacity and rated the role and competency of councillors as “very poor”. Fourteen percent indicated that the degree of success and the competency levels vary from one municipality to another and also between the different types (i.e. metro and local) and the location of the municipality (i.e. urban vs rural). Particular areas of concern raised include:

  • a lack of commitment to training of councillors for their roles in oversights committees
  • inability to monitor the service delivery due to a lack of monitoring and evaluation knowledge and skills
  • the lack of knowledge regarding matters such as local government planning frameworks (e.g. IDPs, SDBIPs)
  • limited comprehension of municipal budgeting processes
  • partial awareness of the content of municipal by-laws
  • the relative inability to conduct physical, on-site assessments
  • cumbersome reporting arrangements
  • poor preparation of councillors prior to meetings and low levels of active participation in committee deliberations
  • the lack of consequence management for non-compliance or non-implementation of municipal decisions. 

At the same time, positive inputs reflected the inclusion of former mayors in the oversight committees and the fact that knowledge was being transferred between experienced and less experienced councillors. Additional encouraging aspects regarding oversight include the relatively high levels of dedication of some councillors and their commitment to promoting the effective functioning of oversight committees. A particular constructive aspect is the use of study groups among councillors to ensure that they are adequately prepared for meetings as well as the continuous sharing of information and knowledge prior to oversight meetings.

In response to questions probing the typical tools or instruments that oversight committees use to conduct their oversight role (i.e. monitoring, accountability, reporting and control tools), table 2 below reflects those typically applied.

Table 2: Oversight tools and instruments

Tools and instruments Responses
Legislative processes • Development motions for discussions and deliberations
Logistical support • Monitoring tools in the form of vehicle and capturing instruments
• Public hearing and electronic devices to record findings
Oversight committee procedures and processes • AGSA Municipal audit reports
• Internal Audit reports
• Section 52 and 71 reports
• Budget versus actual performance reports
• Risk and compliance reports
• Reports to the MAYCO
• Standing Committee reports
• Quarterly performance reports
• MPAC and ward committee reports
Physical oversight • Physical visits with interviews and documentary evidence
• Inspection in loco
• Projects visits
• Conduct interviews, take pictures and generate reports
Planning, reporting and evaluation frameworks • IDP and SDBIP
• Performance Management System
• MTREF (Budget)
• LED Reports and Special Management Unit Reports (MIG Spending)
• Review of reports
Public and stakeholder oversight • The media
• Mayoral Izimbizo’s
• Utilise EPWP workers to conduct oversight on behalf of the municipality
• Reports from civil society organisations and NGOs
• Research reports


It is interesting to note that 54.5% of councillors indicated that they prefer to do physical inspections “to be seen in the community as doing their jobs.”

Recommendations to strengthen municipal oversight

It is recommended that an integrated training programme be designed with the assistance of all relevant role-players such as the LGSETA and SALGA, to continuously provide training to oversight committees. The focus should be on in-service training and cooperation. Respondents strongly supported the notion of compulsory and continuous annual refresher training of councillors, over and above the normal induction training.

The use of enhanced ICT systems such as real-time tracking of municipal projects should be promoted as it will increase the use of cutting-edge technology and innovation to conduct oversight. Improved access to documents and information on a central database should be made available. All previous committee reports need to be readily available on a “Cloud” that is accessible at any time. It is further recommended that a suitable IT Platform and/or Help Desk be established to support councillors in their oversight function. A “buddy-system” should also be encouraged whereby higher capacity municipalities assist those who are not performing as per expectations. It is also advised that a Council Programme of Action be compiled in which councillors and officials have clear rules of engagements, expectations and a schedule to report back to the community on the performance of previous and current years. Ethics management, professionalism drives, and anti-corruption initiatives should be integrated in line with the proposed Municipal Integrity Framework. Consequences and other punitive measures should be considered for municipalities that ignore or disregard public participation due to a lack of skills and knowledge.


By working to ensure that local government is responsive, accountable, and representative, councillors play a critical role in promoting the well-being of their constituents and in strengthening local democracy. Transparency in local governance and community participation will be enhanced once councillors, especially ward councillors, are empowered to successfully use their oversight structures to monitor and evaluate performance of municipal structures. However, councillors require more specific and targeted capacity, specifically in terms of oversight structures and mechanisms for financial oversight, local government legislation and supply chain management processes and procedures.


This article is part of a series reporting on research commissioned by the Local Government Sector Education & Training Authority (LGSETA) (Contact:

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