SURPLUS TO REQUIREMENTS: The Gauteng legislature in Johannesburg may have to go if changes to local and provincial government being mulled over by the government are accepted. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

CAPE TOWN - Changes to provincial and local government structures were being studied and a decision would be made by March next year whether SA needed provinces at all, Co-operative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka said yesterday.

In an informal meeting with journalists ahead of his budget vote in the National Assembly later today Shiceka said the question was being asked, "Do we need provinces?" and, "How should local government be structured for efficient service delivery?"

The possibility of changes in the number of provinces has long been a subject for debate but this is the first time that there has been a suggestion that provinces could be abandoned completely.

Shiceka also came out strongly in support of the Constitution 17th Amendment Bill, so far published for information, which will give the government increased powers of intervention in both provincial and local government. He adopted a strongly unitary position saying that SA was one country with one president and "nobody is expected to be out of tune".

The intentions of the 17th amendment have been strongly questioned and opposed, particularly in Cape Town and the Western Cape where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost power to the Democratic Alliance. The amendment has been characterised as a means for the ANC to maintain control in areas it has lost at the ballot box. Legal challenges are almost certain to follow .

On the issue of the provinces Shiceka said that there had been a long debate on the issue and a study had been commissioned.

The study had been completed and the matter was now being considered by the government. The same applied to the structure of local government .

The whole process should be completed by March 2010, Shiceka said. He declined to give his personal views.

He said one idea was to devolve power down to ward committee level in local councils so that if service delivery was shoddy, the people on the ground could make a difference. An audit of the situation at local government level was under way and should be completed by September, he said.

The 17th Constitution Amendment, he said, began with the idea that the entire country should have regional electricity distribution agencies (REDS). This was because local councils had failed to invest in the maintenance of electricity infrastructure and had not reinvested in their reticulation systems, despite these being local government's main income source.

He said the idea was not to take away electricity income from local government but to give the central government the power to intervene to ensure faster electricity provision.

The amendment goes even further and gives it the power to intervene on any matter.

Shiceka rejected the suggestion that municipalities only stopped investing in electricity infrastructure when they believed they would lose the function to the REDS.

The REDS debate was about seven years old and infrastructure had been declining far longer than that, he said.

hartleyw@bdfm.co.za