Without favour or prejudice

Jane Thupana, Chairperson of the MDB
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Meet the woman who is progressively navigating the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB) through the spatial reorganisation of South Africa.

The 1994 democratic government inherited a highly segregated spatial arrangement from the apartheid era.Dismantling this spatial distortions and reconstructing them, are critical aspects influencing the objectives and impacts of government’s National Development Plan (NDP) that addresses social and economic development, and reduces inefficiencies.

Instituted by government as an independent authority addressing spatial arrangements, the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB) is responsible for defining and redefining the boundaries of South Africa's district and Local Municipalities.

The MDB reconfigures and implements spatial relations in ways that meet the constitutional imperative to provide access to basic services and economic opportunities to all, and to alleviate poverty and inequality.

Appointed as the chairperson of the MDB in late February 2014, Jane Thupana is adamant to progressively navigate the organisation through this spatial reorganisation of South Africa. The MDB is tasked to integrate economic and social development, give advice, and to make recommendations based on the abilities of municipalities to perform their powers and functions in their demarcated areas.

Thupana assures, “As full time member of the Board, I offer support to the administrative arm in executing the Board's stipulated mandate. Furthermore, I establish strong linkages between executive management team and the Board to ensure a common vision, healthy relationship between the organization and other local government stakeholders, and that all functions of the Board run efficiently and smoothly.”

Before being appointed as Chairperson, Thupana served in government for 17 years as Chief Planner and Deputy Director in the Department of Land Affairs, and as Director and Chief Director responsible for Land and Agrarian Reform as well as Farmer Settlement and Agri-Business Development.


This experience and background in all aspects of territorial governance, perfectly position her to understand the complex relationship between politics, society and space. The roots of the MDB can be found in Chapter 7 of the 1996 Constitution which states ‘National legislation must establish criteria and procedures for the determination of municipal boundaries by an independent authority.’

This section of the Constitution highlights issues that need to be addressed such as: municipalities’ developmental duties, powers and functions; their establishment, categories and types; ward segmentation and local elections; internal procedures; and privileges and by-laws.

The first law to give effect to this provision was the Demarcation Act of 1998. This Act provides for the establishment of the MDB, the appointment of members of the Board, conditions of service, their powers, functions, and administration and operating procedures of the Board.

In establishing this Act, Cabinet resolved that departmental service delivery boundaries must be aligned to constitutional boundaries (national, provincial and local) and should be finalised by departments in consultation with the MDB.

The legislation requires the Board must determine, and if necessary re-determine municipal boundaries in which processes of transformation and development of local government can take place.

The MDB is centrally focused on these principles and to further transform local governments to redress the apartheid spatial planning of segregation and unequal service delivery standards and levels.

The main aim of the MDB is therefore to integrated communities, and to carefully plan and resize municipal boundaries, thereby creating more viable entities and credible boundaries for traditional areas, so all South Africans will benefit from access to services and opportunities.

Members of the Board are appointed by the President for a five year term office. The first Board was appointed by Nelson Mandela on 1 February 1999, the second one on 1 February 2004, and the third on 20 Feb 2009. The fourth and current Board was appointed in February 2014.

“Being appointed to head one of the most important institutions in South Africa and to build on the vision of Mandela, was a humbling experience for me. I view it as a calling, instead of a career.”


Serving the people of South Africa will require a high level of diligence, “But I am primed for the task,” she says. Thupana is well-known for inspiring teams to develop strategies and models for cooperative governance that make projects more sustainable.

The first five years of the MDB’s existence were about transformation, and the collapsing of all apartheid boundaries. The second five years were about spatial integration, creation of metros and consolidation. The third five year term was about stabilisation, assisting municipalities in becoming more sustainable. The third Board deepened democracy and over time, issues of public participation came to the fore.

“For us as the fourth Board, we take on this responsibility during a time when democracy is coming of age and maturing very fast,” says Thupana. “Issues are becoming more critical and it befalls on us to do things differently and to focus on matters affecting people in different groups and societies.”

The Chairperson of the Board serves on a full time basis while all other Board members are part time. Only two of the previous term’s Board members remained, “Which makes for good transition of organisational memory and continuity,” says Thupana.

Allocating all her focus to the Board’s functions, Thupana is adamant to continue moving meticulously towards democracy whilst keeping the Constitution as her only guiding light.

She says, “Taking the country through another phase of change, requires a team who acts with high level of integrity, accountability and ethics. What gives me much confidence though, is our Board members were selected from much wisdom with a diversity of skill sets.

Since its establishment, the MDB transformed 852 local governments into currently 268, whereby each municipality or local government, is a reflection of the surrounding community with logical linkages between each.

However, the majority of South Africans still do not have access to a wide range of basic services and opportunities have not been created. Municipalities also still face great challenges in promoting human rights, meeting social needs, addressing past backlogs and spatial distortions, and planning for sustainable futures.

“In the long run we need to come up with spatial areas that balance the wishes of the majority with guiding criteria for viability" says Thupana.

“We engaged in dialogue with communities and ensure that every citizen understands how transformation of outer boundaries redetermination and wards delimitation work, and how they will affect their lives for the better.”

Promoting development

The MDB considers various factors when making decisions. An area would have to enable the local government for that area to fulfil its constitutional obligations, and should provide services to the communities in an equitable and sustainable manner, promote social and economic development, and provide a safe and healthy environment.

The area should meet certain criteria involving the interdependence of people, communities and economies as indicated by existing and expected patterns of human settlement and migration.

This includes employment, commuting and dominant transport movements, spending, the use of amenities, recreational facilities and infrastructure, and commercial and industrial linkages.

Unfortunately, the MDB’s functions are also closely intertwined with politics, and most people are complaining, “The public is starting to question what the Board does, which is a good thing as it shows that democracy is maturing. It only challenges us to apply ourselves better.”

The MDB is to be remain totally independent from any other structure which requires a lot of diligence as citizens get more and more involved. “The Demarcation Act talks to the function of the Board and people most often focus on that. But the objectives are much bigger than the actual function of just drawing that invisible line on the ground, which we need to get across," Thupana says.

When South Africa became a democratic country in 1994, one of the critical choices made was to do away with the Homeland and Bantustan system(s) that had dysfuctional boundaries, serving only to fragment and divide society.

MDB works thus in partnership with IEC, Salga, the Financial and Fiscal Commission (FFC), the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the House of Traditional Leaders, ect. — carefully considering urban and rural areas in an effort to move the process forward. Today it’s every local government’s vision to realise the objectives of government’s NDP, and to work closely with all types of groups within the community, especially improving the lives of destitute children, women, disabled and very poor people.

Thupana adds, “Rapid, inclusive and sustained economic growth is a prerequisite for the achievement of policy objectives, among which poverty alleviation is key.” Ultimately, all government programs and activities find expression in space. The nature of the space economy of a country has important implications for meeting the social, economic and environmental objectives. For instance, where human settlements are scattered over vast distances, servicing becomes expensive in terms of initial capital investment and subsequent maintenance. Well-connected settlements with sufficient densities, are far more conducive to develop with better public transport, jobs and opportunities.

The challenges

Among the challenges experienced by the MDB in exercising its mandate over the years, is the lack of adequate capacity within the organisation to undertake the strategic work required in rural areas and scattered settlements, which resulted in the Board outsourcing a lot of functions and losing organisational memory in the process.

“We have very few people here to serve the entire country. We now look at the organizational capacity to see how this can respond to our strategy. In the meantime, we work with institutions like IEC and Stats SA that have people, and who we can use for ward delimitation while they are not engaged in Election or Census..”

Jane Thupana grew up in Limpopo in a small poor rural village just outside Polokwane. “I lost my mother when I was five years old, and my dad died five years later. I was raised by a very kind and loving stepmother who always supported me.” Thupana understands poverty and knows what it means to go to school hungry. “Today I live to say; there be better times in this country with the opportunity to rise above adversity. Young people should embrace and take advantage of our democracy.”

Thupana scouts young, brilliant people and assists them to develop their potential, “Like my helper at home. She is very clever and showed an interest to be educated, so I enrolled her for a course in hospitality at an FET college. She passed all her first term subjects, and it was very fulfilling to see her succeed.”

This is the kind of incidence that gives Thupana an expanded quality of spirit, “I want to contribute more towards making other people’s lives better. I want to help them get educated. I want to give them opportunities. I want to see them succeed.”

When Thupana was a scholar, she worked in the nearby farms during school holidays to supplement her stepmom’s income to put her through school. She reminisces, “My stepmother kept on encouraging me saying, you must work hard, education will make your life better.”

And so it did. Thupana worked as a clerk in the Lebowa homeland and obtained bursaries. “My entire extended family was so excited when I got my first degree in geography, and it was a whole rigmarole buying my graduation dress and shoes,” she laughs.
“My inspiration, my inner drive, my bigger vision, were influenced by the rural women around me, specifically my aunt and stepmom who kept on saying, education will make your life better. And I believed in that.”

“More importantly, this taught me to not to underestimate uneducated rural women, they understand more than what we think - just explain something clearly and they will know.”

Thupana says she is married to a wonderful and supportive fellow, “I’m so lucky,” she smiles. “He supports me when there’s an opportunity for advancement or representation saying, go, and represent me well.” They have two sons, a daughter-in-law and a lovely granddaughter of three, “Which is my joyful reason to go home.”

Thupana obtained an Honours in Geography, “Which comes in quite handy in this job,” she says. “My studies in Development with Unisa, Management Advancement with Wits and Masters degree in Public Administration and Business Leadership give me a broad perspective of business development and economics and understanding the intricacies of leadership.”

In her own company, dealing with organisational and human capacity development in line with rural development, she’d been exposed to quite a number of dynamics in private and government sectors that aid her role as chairperson. “I am also a keen researcher and have co-published some articles in international journals.”

The MDB Board consists of five women out of nine members. “I have largely worked in male dominated environments and it’s the first time I work with so many women at this high level and I admit, they are more focused. Our male colleagues are always very supportive and sometimes putting on breaks, as opposed to us women who bring vibrant energy and a sense of urgency, wanting things to be done right now.”

And what should be done now at the MDB says Thupana, is to build on research & knowledge capacity, ensure local foot-prints and elicit stakeholder & public discourse as part of their future strategy. “The board works with no fear, favour or prejudice. All people should understand what we do and no one should be left out in the transformation process. We need to address their concerns, give them comfort and show them transparency.” All of this though cannot be done without proper understanding and integration of financial, economic and social aspects to MDB function. “A country is like a business, and you need to understand what drives it economically,” says Thupana.

The Board is funded by money appropriated annually by Parliament which is not always sufficient. “We cannot run with determination of boundaries without knowing if there will be sufficient funds to make the new entities viable.”

“We thus need to know what resources are available to municipalities that will make them financially more viable to deliver on the NDP mandates, and that their spatial transformation falls in line with the bigger vision and terms of government’s plans.”

The MDB is highly regulated by the Constitution and one cannot cut corners. “Capacity assessments of municipalities should thus frequently be done in developing a repository of knowledge that will add value. Building technical capacity from within will assist this process as well as strengthen the Board’s role of rendering advisory services towards MECs for Local Government,” explains Thupana. The South African municipal landscape is going to change after the next municipal elections in 2016 following the final decision of the MDB on the re-determination of municipal boundaries and delimitations of wards.

“The NDP has ushered in a long term planning regime for the country, which is a good thing for spatial planning, and alignment of the Board's activities to the NDP in pursuance of a sustainable local government sector is being sought. To this end, we have adopted a reflective approach, to assess the viability of existing municipalities, bring stability into the sector by avoiding frequent reconfiguration of outer boundaries where this can be avoided. Having embarked on a new season of ward delimitation in preparation for the 2016 Local Government elections, the MDB has become a common feature throughout the country, having met already with key stakeholders, with extensive public dialogue to follow soon,” she says.

Jane Thupana might appear cushy and petite, but inside her beats a strong and resolute heart that inflates a devoted, keen personality, inspiring her teams with dedication, diligence and quiet strength – an amalgamation of all the rural mama’s who raised her.

Rizel Delano



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Issue 68