Democratising local government helps to build and sustain peace

Local governments contribute to fostering peace by working in, and with the communities that reside within them

There is another angle that this contribution seeks to highlight by discussing the case of South Africa. That angle is that, aside from the services, activities and programmes local governments undertake, the democratic nature of local government, and its status vis-à-vis other levels of government can contribute to building peace. There is great potential for peace-building in democratizing local government, and this is something that those seized with making decisions about the future of local government in their countries should consider.

In many countries, particularly in the global south, a combination of two phenomena is often prevalent. First, local government may not be fully democratized. For example, local leadership may be ‘imposed’ by the national government and not elected by local voters, or municipal elections may not be held regularly. Second, often, local government reforms take place against the backdrop of civil strife, which could be rooted in (a combination of) ethnic, racial, political, or cultural tension.

The case of South Africa

This combination was prevalent in South Africa before the advent of democracy in 1994. Local governments were racially segregated in line with the system of apartheid. They were also not democratically elected. Society had been ravaged by colonialism and apartheid, which abused and exploited the black majority in unimaginable ways, and caused deep cleavages that left the country teetering on the brink of civil war in the early 1990s.  

In transforming local government, South Africa did two things. First, it democratized local governments. It introduced the local election of local leadership. This local democracy was introduced gradually because between 1994 and 2000 the electoral system included a compromise: the outgoing (white) minority was guaranteed 30% of council seats to ensure a peaceful transition. During that initial phase, local governments were also instructed to pursue consensus in decision-making, rather than a ‘winner-takes-it-all’ approach. Second, South Africa elevated the status of local government by affording it constitutional protection: the boundaries, institutions, powers, and fiscal position of local governments are protected by the Constitution. Over time, municipalities (with cities at the forefront) started asserting this protection and claiming ownership of their constitutional rights and responsibilities.

More than two decades later, we can ask: what has the impact of these two features of South African local governance been on building and sustaining peace in a country of which the world once feared it would descend into chaos?

To begin with, for the first time ever, municipalities are democratically legitimate because the leadership of each municipality is now elected by its local voters. Free and fair local government elections have been held every five years since 2000. The abovementioned electoral compromise, and drive towards consensus in the initial, post-conflict phase between 1994-2000 meant that former foes were forced to work together in municipalities on service delivery and development issues.

The second effect materialized in the longer term: the democratization, and elevation of the status of local government assisted in the promotion of multi-party democracy. It resulted in the diversification of politics because, over time, different political parties and coalitions took charge of different levels of government. Initially, all provinces and the vast majority of local governments were controlled by one political party. But, politics gradually diversified and "other" parties and "other" coalitions were voted into power at different levels. Fast forward to 2023: more than one third of the municipalities is now controlled by other political parties or coalitions than the party that controls the national government.

The "normalisation" of the regular, peaceful transition of power at the municipal level on the back of free and fair elections has been a major achievement in sustaining peace in South Africa. Those supporting the ruling party came to realize that the sky does not fall down when another party wins power, and those supporting other parties and formations came to realize that access to power comes with responsibilities. Furthermore, there is another important peace-building effect of the diversification of politics across levels (or "spheres" as they are called in South Africa). Local governments, irrespective of which party or coalition controls them, have to work together with national and provincial governments and vice versa, and the reality is that they do – regardless of their political and other differences. For example, the national government continues to transfer funds to local governments in a predictable, transparent manner, regardless of the political differences between the various parties controlling national and local governments. No municipality has ever been "punished" financially by the central government for being run by another party or coalition than the ruling party nationally. In fact, municipalities of all political persuasions work together with national and provincial governments in planning, budgeting, and implementing service delivery and development projects.

Challenges and lessons

This does not mean it is all roses and sunshine. Local government in South Africa faces major challenges. And yes, there often is animosity between the spheres of government, particularly if different political parties are involved. They disagree, bicker, take to the media, and even litigate against one another. But the point is this: it is all done in accordance with the "rules of the game". There is no violence involved, legal disagreements are absorbed by an independent judiciary, and the tension is not materially different from any country with decentralized governments. The opposing role players in these disagreements may or may not overlap with the "cleavages of old" (i.e., racial, ethnic, political, or cultural), but that no longer matters as much as it did during the dark days of apartheid or the precarious immediate post-conflict transition. The peaceful co-existence of local, provincial, and national governments, governed by different political parties or coalitions would have been hard to imagine in the 1980s or early 1990s when South Africa was engulfed in violence.

The lesson in all of this is that the democratization of local government, in the way it was pursued by the African National Congress and its negotiating partners during the transition to democracy, may help to promote peace, stability, and the fostering of political tolerance. I argue that it holds great promise for those countries which are now being faced with critical choices about the future and the role that decentralization plays in it.


By Jaap de Visser


This article is part of a publication on the 2022 edition of the UCLG Peace Prize, to be presented at the World Forum of Cities and Territories of Peace in Bogota, Colombia, on 27 and 28 June 2023. The UCLG Peace Prize collects and highlights successful and inspiring peace initiatives undertaken by local governments worldwide and stimulates others to follow suit. Moreover, it aims at generating international public attention for the role local governments play in ensuring sustainable and peaceful development. As such, the publication features several examples of initiatives by local governments around the world.

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