What factors are required for viable, democratic, local governments in Africa? This is an important question for several reasons. First, in an era of continuing economic problems and structural adjustment, national governments have been forced to reduce the services they provide. While the private sector may pick-up some of these, collective and non-profit-earning social goods must be delivered or funded by sub-national governmental units if they are to be provided at all (World Bank, 1994). Second, research over the last two decades has suggested that highly centralized and top-down service delivery is expensive, cumbersome, inflexible, adapts slowly to new information (if at all), and is prone to political abuse (Esman, 1991). Third, government collapse and incapacity, with spontaneous patterns of local initiative in education, sanitation and marketing, suggest there is an untapped local capacity to make collective choices and take collective action (Green, 1995; Wunsch and Olowu, 1990; Fass and Desloovere, 1995). Finally, a growing body of research suggests that democracy must be rooted in functioning local, participatory self-governance institutions. This literature emphasizes the importance of the growth of civil society, development of public "ownership" of political institutions, mobilization of talents and resources into constructive patterns (positive sum rather than zero-sum or negative-sum political interaction), and countervailing power vis-à-vis national institutions (Harbeson, Rothchild and Chazan, 1994; Wunsch and Olowu, 1990). Despite these compelling reasons, most "experiments" in decentralization and local democratic governance suggest that African local democracy and governance has failed in virtually everyplace it has been tried (Olowu, 1990)!
Some important recent research suggests that these problems are rooted in specific policy choices and strategies pursued by African governments. These policies include deliberate withholding of resources, whether fiscal or juridical (Mutahaba, 1989), from local entities for political or ideological reasons; central bureaucratic hostility and weakness (Smoke, 1994); turbulent economic and policy environments which have undercut local institutions (Olowu and Wunsch, 1995; Wunsch and Olowu, 1996); absence of complimentary reforms needed in national administrative law and systems (Ayee, 1997); and underdeveloped local civil society that left local governments "rudderless" as they tried to develop policy and deliver services (Olowu and Wunsch, 1995; Wunsch and Olowu, 1996).
This paper reports the results of a 1995-1996 comparative analysis of local government in the context of current political reforms in South Africa, Botswana, and Swaziland in an effort to arrive at the preconditions for efficient and effective local institutions of collective choice and of service delivery. At a theoretical level, this paper reports the general patterns observed and the specific findings in each country. Since all countries are in periods of dynamic change, it will also review relevant contextual aspects.