Knowledge is the new black.
21 October 2014 21:44 (South Africa)
South Africa

Dial F for Failure: SA's local government disaster

  • Khadija Patel
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\Khadija's Q&AThomas Koelble

KHADIJA PATEL talked to Professor Tom Koelble from the UCT Graduate School of Business about his upcoming book on the failures of local government in South Africa, finding out what these failures are and what exactly is hindering their repair. 

Last month we reported that Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace in their annual Failed State Index, assessed South Africa as a “borderline failed state”. It is an assessment that has annoyed some South Africans just as it’s served other South Africans with opportunity to say, “We told you so.” 

The response from Professor Tom Koelble from the UCT Graduate School of Business, however, was particularly interesting. Koelble argued that weaknesses of the South African state are particularly apparent at the local level but are increasingly seen at the provincial and national levels. “What these rankings pick up on is the fact that the South African state is nowhere near as effective as it might otherwise be if the funds devoted to it where in fact used for the purpose they are meant for,” he said.

Koelble’s perspective on the failings of the South African state was best justified by the release of the damning report by the auditor general that found municipalities misspent R11-billion in 2010-11. There appears to be an urgent crisis in local government in South Africa but few know exactly how to define it, or how exactly to address it. Koelble, together with his colleague Andrew Siddle, is the author of The Failures of Decentralisation in South African Local Government (UCT Press), to be released the week of 5 August. 

Koelble and Siddle studied over 50 municipalities in the country, and he said, “the picture is bleak”. We caught up with him on 2 August to find out more about his book and his views on what exactly is wrong with local government in South Africa and why it portends failure to the greater South Africa. 

Daily Maverick (DM): What’s the book about?

Tom Koelble (Koelble): The book focuses on decentralisation?the process through which powers, functions, responsibilities and resources are transferred from central to local government. We focus on why decentralisation has so far failed in South Africa and we look at the impact that it has on issues like service delivery. Basically what we’ve tried to do with this book is to ascertain to what extent local government complies with the various regulations from the constitution and from the various acts of parliament. 

We looked at things like institutional capacity, jurisdictional scope, to what extent the municipalities actually pass bylaws, because they are supposed to pass bylaws and then people know then what the rules and regulations are under which the municipality does the things that it is supposed to do. We looked at the powers and functions of the municipalities and to what extent they actually exercise them and then of course also revenue sharing and raising?to what extent they are complied with 

DM: What does the study say about South Africa today?

Koelble: The municipalities in this country are completely overwhelmed by the functions they are supposed to carry out. They are very poorly capacitated. There are very, very few people in the municipalities that are able to discharge the jobs that they are supposed to do. 

DM: What exactly is impeding these municipalities?

Koelble: Well, it’s a capacity issue. You need engineers. You need technical personnel to run places. You also have a situation where politicians at local level have carved out for themselves little pools of patronage and they tend to misuse those for their own purposes. There is also a lack of oversight. We have in the constitution and in the various acts of parliament, we have lots and lots of oversight rules and regulations but they are not applied. So the message it sends is that you can do pretty much what you like in the municipalities and get away with it. 

DM: What is the cause of this incapacity? 

Koelble: The major problem is that municipalities are actually left to do many, many tasks that may be better done by the national or provincial level. The short and long of it is that we are expecting a level of government to do a whole bunch of things?from water supply to sewage to refuse removal?which may work in the better-capacitated municipalities, but in the areas where there’s very little capacity in the municipality there’s a shortage of people to do the very technical sort of jobs and these municipalities are just falling down. We shifted a whole bunch of functions to the level of government that is probably the poorest capacitated. So we mustn’t be surprised if there are service delivery issues all around us. It’s a kind of cascading problem from the top downwards. The top doesn’t take care of these things and the local level where these services are supposed to be provided is too poorly equipped to actually provide them. 

DM: But how does incapacity actually translate to failures in local governance?

Koelble: It’s a whole cascade of issues. Basically it goes from non-capacity in terms of technical staff to managers that are probably not equipped to handle their departments. When you look at some of the statistics we’ve looked at, for instance on vacancies. In 37 municipalities, in 10 cases the municipal managers were in a permanent position?that’s a quarter. Most municipal managers are in their positions in an acting capacity. Thirty out of 37 municipalities did not have a full complement of permanently appointed senior managers. In two of these cases all of the managers were serving in an acting capacity. This is just one snippet of what we’re looking at here. So you’ve got a lot of people in acting positions. They come and they go. Very often people job hop. They go from one managerial position in one municipality to another managerial position in another municipality. They stay for six or eight months, sometimes they leave under a cloud and they get another acting position some place else and they leave again after another ten months. So this is just one art of the problem. 

You know, there are 37 powers and functions (of municipalities) outlined in the constitution. Out of our sample of 37 of these municipalities, one municipality was only delivering eight functions. Now, that’s eight out of 37. Others serve only seven, or 10, or 15 and so on. And the book gives a very good snapshot of this. 

I think the best gauge of it is the auditor general’s report that has come out on fiscal management. Now this is perhaps the most obvious gauge of the problem. You’ve got lots and lots of municipalities that failed to even report on their budgets in time for the audit…. It tells us a lot. And the thing is nothing happens to them!

DM: Why are these accountability mechanisms not kicking in though?

Koelble: Oh, if the accountability mechanisms were applied and if people were brought to book for the various things they are doing and not doing! It’s a fantastic system. It’s not so much the system itself (that’s the problem) but many of the legal requirements are just being ignored. 

DM: But there really isn’t a culture of accountability, is there? 

Koelble: Look, I’ve just spent six weeks in Germany. The governance system adopted here is actually very close to the German system. In fact, a lot of what we’ve got we kind of copied from the Germans during the constitution writing process. And there is a thing called “personal liability” in Germany, so if a municipal manager or a manager or anyone in a leading position is caught mishandling funds they have personal liability. Believe me, if 15 mayors or councillors were actually brought to book for various wrongdoings that would certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons. 

DM: So what should be done to fix this?

Koelble: Well, what we do in the last chapter of the book is we set out a new scenario. We basically go back to decentralisation. We advocate the system where municipalities that are functioning well and they are usually the metros. All the metros are doing fairly well except maybe for Buffalo City. But for the more poorly equipped places we actually advocate that the national government actually takes many of the functions that they’ve given to these places in various acts of Parliament, we advocate that they go back to a national level. 

DM: Why do you think the government is not looking at these options in addressing the problems with local governance?

Koelble: It’s probably a combination of things. I think one of them is probably the lack of political will to do so because a whole level of government has been basically opened up to patronage politics. And there are a lot of people who have a stake in maintaining that. If you connect this in one way or another with the governing party or with the opposition, you do get some protection from these parties, no matter what you do. That’s why we believe what we are advocating is also going to catch a great of political flack because it will be highly unpopular. In the end though, what’s happening is people are not getting serviced despite the fact that there is a great deal of money being spent and the taxpayer is getting short-changed because that money is being misspent, severely undermining the developmental state. 

DM: Why do you believe your proposed solution will be controversial?

Koelble: There are very many provincial and local politicians in this country who will argue that any kind of reduction in the scope of local government would be detrimental.  And it’s certainly detrimental to their political careers and their trajectory.

DM: So does this mean South Africa then a failed state?

Koelble: Local governance is definitely an area where the South African state is failing. You have to look at the number of public disturbances there are over service delivery. South Africa has a very, very high number of service delivery protests. Now, we all know it’s not just delivery, it’s a whole bunch of things that is going on at that level. People are protesting because their councillors are not listening to them, they feel they have no input. In some cases it may be politically motivated, like the DA is currently claiming that the ANC is riling people up in the Western Cape. These may all be factors but the overriding factor is that there is a great deal of discontent and it’s because the state is not producing what it promises to reduce, better roads, better education. The things that are promised to people at election time. 

DM: Is it then a failure of democracy as well? 

Koelble: Many democracies rely on a strong opposition, and that’s the problem here in South Africa. The opposition isn’t able to (capitalise) on this discontent. So much of this discontent is then translated to internal struggles within the ANC. In other countries this discontent would lead to the opposition winning the election, and that has a lot of implications on the opposition who have to come up with a better plan. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a failure of democracy but I do think the democratic system is at stake. The state and key institutions are very much at stake. 

Read more:

  • Municipal corruption in spotlight in R614m water scandal on TimesLive 
  • Auditor-general's report on municipalities: Cloudy, with remote chance of improvement in Daily Maverick 

Photo: Children play at a rubbish dump at an informal settlement in Soweto August 25, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko 

  • Khadija Patel
  • South Africa


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