African School on Decentralisation: The impact of COVID-19 on decentralisation in Africa

The African School on Decentralisation (ASD) is a collaboration between the South African Research Chair in Multilevel Government, Law and Development located at the Dullah Omar Institute (DOI) of the University of the Western Cape and the Centre for Federalism and Governance Studies (CFGS) of Addis Ababa University. The two institutes were to hold the inaugural course of the ASD under the theme ‘Decentralisation and Development in Africa’ from 25 May to 5 June 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. Regrettably, the rapid spike in the spread of the coronavirus (otherwise known as COVID-19) across the continent witnessed from March 2020 necessitated the postponement of the ASD to 2021.

On 28 August 2020, the ASD brought together 19 out of the 25 participants selected for the School virtually to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on decentralisation with respect to Africa.  The webinar aimed to provide participants, funding partners and lecturers with an opportunity to formally introduce themselves. Perhaps more importantly, the webinar served as a platform for knowledge-sharing on how African countries, particularly decentralised states such as South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia have been impacted and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his opening address, Prof Nico Steytler – SARChi Chair in Multilevel Government, Law and Development - set the scene by sharing Africa’s COVID-19 statistical report, dated 27 August 2020. At the outset, Steytler noted that from the five regions in Africa, the pandemic mostly impacted the Southern African Region – with South Africa registering more than half, 60% (613 017), of all, reported confirmed cases in the region. However, according to Steytler, the current COVID-19 statistics do not paint a complete picture given widespread complaints of under-reporting in Africa. Another key issue apart from the number of reported infections is the economic and social consequences arising from stringent lockdown measures implemented in various countries to contain the pandemic. In consequence of the global and national recessions, it is predicted that 27 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, with some going as far as predicting ‘that the number of deaths due to the social and economic consequences will far outstrip those caused directly by the disease.’ 

Key question: What is the impact and relevance of the pandemic on decentralised governance?

With reference to South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya, Steytler remarked that the impact of the pandemic on decentralised governance largely depends on who are the decision-makers. Within federations, is it the federal government, states (provinces or counties) or local governments? Importantly, one should also not forget the role of traditional authorities. At the heart of decentralised governance arrangements lies the distribution of powers and functions. The decision-making powers of the various orders of governments was an important factor during the early stages of the pandemic. For example, who had the authority to declare a state of emergency or disaster? This is generally a power reserved for the central or federal government. On the other hand, health care services are often split between the federal/central and state governments.

The coronavirus rapid spread is wreaking havoc across the world, and the African continent is no exception. Globally, as of 6 September 2020, there have been 26 763 217 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 876 616 deaths, reported to the WHO. Of the global cases, Africa as of 6 September 2020, reported 1,077,664 confirmed COVID-19 cases, of which 881 769 are deemed recovered. Sadly, 22 883 cumulative COVID-19 deaths were reported in Africa as of that date. Several African countries, in particular, South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya have adopted measures to slow down and control the spread of the disease. Some of these measures include lockdowns and the closure of borders. Let us briefly, explore in more detail South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya's responses to the pandemic as case studies.

South Africa

With 639 362 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 15 004 deaths, as at 7 September 2020, South Africa has the highest number of reported cases in Africa. To combat the spread of the virus, the Minister of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) declared a national state of disaster on 15 March 2020. The declaration of disaster and subsequent lockdown announcement by the President on 26 March 2020, had a major disruptive effect on the functioning of South Africa’s multilevel system of government. The South African Constitution establishes a three-sphere system of government – national, provincial and local, of which all the spheres of government are guaranteed certain key roles and functions, as provided in the Constitution. Due to how the Constitution divides responsibilities across the three spheres, particularly the fact that hospitals fall under the jurisdiction of provinces, these subnational governments played a very important role in the health response. For example, COVID-19 testing and screening was a primary function of the provincial hospitals. Provinces also had to implement and enforce the rules on the reopening and closing of schools given that primary education is a concurrent function of both national and provincial governments.

In general, however, South Africa’s COVID-19 response was centrally coordinated through the establishment of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) – a national disaster advisory body. Essentially, at some point, the NCCC became so important that people started to question its legal and constitutional status. Generally, South Africa’s response has been coordinated and informed by the COVID-19 risked-adjusted strategy. In principle, this strategy makes provision for different alert levels and lockdown restrictions. Although there have been calls for the government to follow a differentiated approach, the strategy has not been implemented in a differentiated manner. For example, during the webinar, Jaap De Visser from DOI used the infamous alcohol ban as a case in point to illustrate that while the alcohol ban was imposed throughout the country, it had a devastating impact on the Western Cape wine exporting industry, in particular.

At the local government level, the existing functions of municipalities such as water, sanitation, law enforcement, and the regulation of trade undertook a different dimension. For example, traffic officers had to enforce the lockdown, municipalities had to provide emergency water responses where people did not have access to water. Municipalities were also assigned new functions such as providing emergency food relief.

Notably, three of the country’s largest cities that were at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak – City of Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini metropolitan municipalities – also appeared before Parliament to share their COVID-19 Recovery Plans.

Presently, the most spoken about issue at the local government level is the economic ruin caused by the pandemic. For example, it is reported that the City of Tshwane lost approximately R1.2 billion in uncollected revenue. Certainly, the lockdown and its impact on the formal and informal economy will likely result in 34 percent of households exiting the middle class to vulnerability. Consequently, the rise in the number of unemployment figures (over three million jobs lost), has increased the demand for basic services to be expanded for free. This in, turn, has reduced the ability of municipalities to collect and increase taxes and fees for services. The national government has set aside R21 billion relief funding for municipalities, which simply is not enough. On the way forward, De Visser recommended the government to revise the Intergovernmental Fiscal Framework and called upon municipalities to be more innovative.


On 13 March 2020, Ethiopia reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case. Since then, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rapidly escalated to 57 466 confirmed cases, with 897 deaths as at 7 September 2020. The daily infection rate is reported at a thousand a day, despite the lack of tests being conducted due to a shortage of testing kits. Of the nine regional states, the state of Addis Ababa is at the epicentre of the pandemic accounting for 70 percent of the total cases. With regards to the federal arrangement in Ethiopia, Zemelak Ayele, from the Centre for Federalism & Governance Studies, highlighted that both the federal and states governments played a role in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The health function is envisaged as a concurrency competence by the Ethiopian Constitution, meaning both the federal and states can pass health policies and legislation. The two levels of government also exercise concurrently the power to declare a state of emergency. On the other hand, the authority to close the borders, as a means to slow down the spread of the virus, is a power vested in the federal government.

The federal government has adopted various measures to combat the pandemic. These include conducting screening (temperature checks) at airports, the closure of borders and schools, and the placing of persons suspected with the virus under mandatory quarantine, amongst others. Ayele noted that states were very slow in their response to the pandemic owing to the centralised tendency of the federal government in the past. Generally speaking, states over the years developed the tendency to wait on the federal government to do something. However, the North Regional state of Tigray declared its own state of emergency, despite the federal state of emergency.

Economically, the COVID-19 pandemic according to the World Bank and United Nations has caused the Ethiopian economy to contract by 4 percent, with more than 330 000 jobs lost. The pandemic has also forced the country to postpone its 6th national election. This led to scholars debating whether the federal government could postpone the election, and if so, who is going to govern the country until the next election. The matter was taken to the House of Federations – a body charged with interpreting the Constitution – where it was found that the election could be postponed indefinitely, enabling the current Parliament to govern the country until the next election. Significantly, the Tigray region is still planning on going ahead with its regional elections despite the House of Federation’s decision.

The absence of Intergovernmental Forums (IGR) was another challenging factor that made coordination and cooperation between the federal and regional governments difficult. In this regard, Ayele called on the Ethiopian government to establish IGR structures and an independent body charged with settling constitutional disputes.  


Like the rest of the African countries, Kenya has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 35 020 cumulative confirmed cases and 594 deaths, as of 6 September 2020. As from 15 March 2020, the Kenyan government took drastic measures to limit movement and economic activities, which, as expected impacted negatively on the country’s population. The Kenyan Constitution of 2010, introduced a devolved system of governance comprising the central government and 47 county governments. From a functional point of view, Mutakha Kangu – who is a lecturer at the Moi University and an alumnus of the DOI - noted that since COVID-19 is a health disaster, an intergovernmental response is necessary. During the early stages of the pandemic, the Summit – an IGR structure – convened several meetings to allow the President to discuss COVID-19 related issues with the governors of the counties. Unfortunately, this was not the case before the pandemic, thus calls have been made for the two levels of government to continue with this current practice. Another key lesson emerging from Kenya is that of the threat of centralisation given the limited capacity of county governments to deliver health services. Similar to South Africa, the issue of financing devolution is a very hot topic in Kenya. In fact, the Kenyan Senate had to adjourn nine times, after it failed to adopt the revenue allocation formula. More disputes regarding finances are thus predicted given the limited availability of resources at both levels of government.

The role of local government in post-COVID-19

So far, the management of the pandemic in South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya has mainly followed a top-down approach. This may have been appropriate in the initial period of curtailing the spread of the virus. However, a ‘more differentiated approach is now required to deal with the deadly social and economic aftermath of the restrictions, and provinces and municipalities should play a vital role’, in this regard.

Phumla Hlati – doctoral researcher at the DOI – gave a presentation titled ‘Role of South African Local Government in Post COVID-19 Economic Recovery' which set out key considerations for local economic development (LED). By way of example, Hlati observed that South Africa has one of the most enabling constitutional and legislative frameworks for LED. Indeed, the role of local government in LED is clearly set out in the White Paper on Local Government. In practice, there have been pockets of LED best practices in South Africa, with different approaches across municipalities (i.e. some follow the pro-poor approach, whereas others favour pro-growth – market-orientated approach). Several pre-existing COVID-19 challenges remain and need to be addressed, however. These include financial and human resources constraints and the questions around whether LED is an unfunded mandate. Nevertheless, local governments when dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic must get the basics or governance issues right such as appointing competent leadership. It must also follow a differentiated approach, promote skills and infrastructure development, and promote private-partnerships with business. According to Hlati, the ability of local governments to engage in or and promote LED, amongst other things, depends on their level of fiscal autonomy.

Going forward

Globally, and in Africa, subnational governments are expected to be at the frontline of the post-COVID-19 response. The ASD will continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on decentralisation in Africa and provide relevant analysis. From the above discussion, the following key themes and governance-related issues have emerged and should be further explored:

  1. Division of Powers: Has there been a process of centralisation of key functions? For instance, has activities previously undertaken by states or local governments been reassigned to the central government? Also, have functions been shifted away from the central government to local government?
  2. Innovative measures: Have subnational governments been innovative in their response to the pandemic, especially from a health and economic perspective?
  3. Financing of subnational governments: How have subnational governments financed the demand for services taking into account the decline in transfers and own revenue sources?

The ASD and its funders remain committed to not only press ahead with the School but most importantly ensure the safety of all those that will take part in the School. The inaugural course will be held in 2021 under the theme ‘Decentralisation and Development in Africa’. Taking into account progress made in combating the pandemic, the new dates shall be communicated in due course.


by Curtly Stevens, Doctoral Researcher


The publication of the Bulletin is made possible with the support provided by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Bavarian State Chancellery.

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