By taking control of the North West by using the Constitution, President Cyril Ramaphosa has taken away premier Supra Mahumapelo's access to billions of rands.
He knows that to reduce the power of the premiers to organise politically, you have to take away their access to patronage and that comes in the form of transfers from the national fiscus. The provinces get a whacking 43% of the national budget. So, for every one rand that the state raises from taxes, it sends 43c to the provinces. In the February budget, this amounted to R538-billion. This money is then distributed to provinces proportional to population. Provinces also raise small provincial taxes.
South Africa spends badly and the provinces share at least half the blame for this.
The provinces are exceptionally powerful because of these transfers. The latest budget review outlines their functions. "Provincial governments are responsible for providing basic education and health services, roads and housing, along with services in social development and agriculture. Local governments provide basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity reticulation and refuse collection, as well as roads and services. Investments in these services and infrastructure underpin South Africa's long-term growth potential."
South Africa spends badly and the provinces share at least half the blame for this. North West is a particular basket case, along with the Eastern Cape and Limpopo and it has now been placed under administration.
But is it too little too late? In Business Day on Tuesday, Carol Paton argued that it will be difficult to undo the provinces because the premiers are like "provincial barons" who exercise significant power.
She writes: "They are also a reminder of the kind of party the ANC is becoming: although it projects itself as a national party with a united national programme, it increasingly reflects a federalised arrangement in which power is exercised through provincial and regional structures. The dispersed nature of power in the ANC means deals must constantly be brokered between the national leadership — in particular, the president — and the provincial barons who hold power.
"This movement towards provincialism is an inevitable result of two things: the national Constitution and the structure of the ANC."
The Constitution is a federalist structure because that was one of the compromises struck at the negotiations to free South Africa from apartheid rule. In a separate paper, the director of the Public Affairs Research Institute Ivor Chipkin has written that the growth of provincial elites as a political force can harm state consolidation.
By placing North West under administration, Ramaphosa has disabled Mahumapelo's threats to go it alone and remain in office although he was given his marching orders.
Writing in the Daily Maverick, Chipkin wrote that "the weakening of the ANC reopens centrifugal forces that ignite forces in favour of secession. This is a scenario of state dissolution. This is what was avoided during the political transition from apartheid".
"Another is that local and regional elites push for greater autonomy in their respective areas and jurisdictions, weakening any move to build capable, national administrations and developing coercive powers through local police and militias that owe them allegiance. This [is] a scenario of state fragmentation."
By placing North West under administration, Ramaphosa has disabled Mahumapelo's threats to go it alone and remain in office although he was given his marching orders. But the provincial battlefield does open up a can of worms for Ramaphosa as he tries to clean up the provinces ahead of the election in 2019.
The ANC government recognised the problem of provinces many years ago when the National Development Plan was passed in 2012.
The plan, a blueprint for a thriving South Africa by 2030, said that "the role of the provinces has been a perpetual issue in post-apartheid South Africa. Provinces that incorporated former homelands [like the North West] consistently perform worse than others".
The National Development Plan recommends that the functions of provinces be reassigned to metropolitan councils more often and that the provinces should be centres of delivery rather than of politics. National departments also needed to be able to have greater authority over how provinces were run, especially when senior bureaucrats were selected. What, for example, are the use of provincial legislatures?
The National Development Plan also recommended that "at the administrative level, there needs to be a relationship of trust between national departments and their provincial counterparts". Six years after the plan was passed, South Africa is no closer to dealing with the problem of provinces and in that time, they have consolidated political power and pose a problem for the coherence of the national state and the stability of government.