GIVEN the lack of service delivery, mismanagement and pervasive corruption in most provinces, many have called for this branch of government to be scrapped.
But is scrapping the provinces a solution?
We must not again fall prey to the perennial South African policy-making weakness, whereby whenever an institution appears not to be working we scrap it and create a new one, with new problems.
We must decide whether it would not be easier, cheaper, and more effective if we made provincial governments, public services and leaders more accountable, as opposed to creating a new giant central structure with the same deficiencies and hope that it would produce better results.
Furthermore, does the current national public service have the capacity to take on the additional burden of administering the provinces? Are we not creating a new mountain of problems that will dwarf the current provincial shortcomings?
Then there are the practicalities of creating a new central structure: establishing new reporting lines, procedures and offices, which alone may take years to complete.
Service delivery may grind to a halt as the energy, focus and priorities are concentrated on creating a new structure.
Meanwhile, communities will become restless, demanding improvement in service delivery. Furthermore, it is likely that the incorporation may be fiercely resisted across the provinces.
This will in turn increase paralysis, which again will distract from focusing on service delivery.
Is the proposal to close down the provinces perhaps another attempt to take the easy option rather than confront the real problem of lack of delivery in the provinces?
The perception is that very few in provincial governments are going to be fired for mismanagement, corruption or incompetence, especially if they are politically connected: that employment in many provinces is reserved for those with the right ethnic background or right colour, rather than competence.
The reality is that the provinces have become patronage machines to reward friends and allies through government tenders, contracts and appointments.
This means that competent professionals of all colours with the necessary skills won't even apply for jobs because they know they are not "connected".
Yet we appear to lack the courage to fire those who are responsible for mismanagement and corruption, and to appoint those who we may disagree with politically, but have the skills that will help pull our people out of grinding poverty.
Another problem is that provinces do not have enough power. They are conveyer belts for policies from the centre.
They have limited say over their budgets. They cannot even raise their own revenues, except through liquor licences, casinos and traffic fines.
The provinces have little say in setting development priorities. In the Eastern Cape, for example, there are massive retrenchments, but the province lacks innovative leadership, fresh ideas and courage to come up with a strategy to rescue closing plants and implement job creating opportunities.
The challenge is to bring fresh talent, skilled personnel and innovative minds into provincial government.
The provincial civil services must be depoliticised and detribalised: political cronies or those from the same ethnic group of the provincial or national bosses, but with no skills, should not be appointed to critical jobs; and those who fail to deliver must not be protected.
These are hard decisions to make, but on balance they are cheaper, and will bring better results.
l Gumede is author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.