If you build it, they will come: sports facilities and local government

By Paul Berkowitz 2 December 2011

The department of sports and recreation recently proposed that a portion of municipal grants should be allocated to the building of sports fields. There are jobs and social cohesion that a greater public sports programme could provide, if it were properly implemented. By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

Last week the department of sport and recreation held a Sports Indaba in Midrand. Some questioned whether it would actually achieve anything or whether it was just another talk shop. What is most interesting is the proposed funding model for the department’s targets.

One proposed source of funding is from the National Lotto, buried deep in the address of minister of sport and recreation, Fikile Mbalula. The monopolisation / cartelisation of the legal gambling industry in South Africa, and the subsequent capture of gambling revenues by well-connected rent-seekers is another tale for another time, but the cuts in funding to deserving NGOs are not going unnoticed.

The second interesting suggestion is that a portion of the municipal infrastructure grant (MIG) be earmarked for spending on sports facilities. This would be problematic on a number of levels.

The MIG is a grant allocated to all municipalities through the annual Division of Revenue Act. It was originally designated for a number of different infrastructure types, including local sports facilities, but arguably its first priority is the provision of so-called “basic services” (water, electricity, refuse removal and sanitation) and transport infrastructure.

The success of the MIG in addressing basic service infrastructure backlogs is patchy at best and a brief summary of some of the problems that have plagued the department of cooperative governanace and traditional affairs (Cogta) is necessary. It is a useful lens through which to view the suggestion that 15% of the MIG budget should be effectively transferred to the department of sport.

Firstly, the replacement of the erstwhile head of Cogta after months of allowing him gardening and tennis leave can’t have had a positive effect on the department’s work. The chronic and systemic underspending of the MIG, by municipalities large and small, points to capacity problems in running successful MIG project management units (PMUs) across the country.

The MIG is also a conditional grant. In plain terms it’s a “use it or lose it” grant. Municipalities that have failed to spend a minimum portion have had their grants reduced in subsequent years. It’s the municipalities with the largest basic service backlogs that are most likely to have their MIG grants cut. In the cruellest of ironies, the least-developed municipalities also suffer a lack of capacity to implement infrastructure projects.

The constant whispers of changes in legislation and in policy direction are also disruptive. Rumours of changes to the two-tier system of local government can only distract district and local municipalities from working together and leave leave officials with one eye on their jobs. The announcement of Operation Clean Audit 2014 possibly shifted some of the focus and resources from delivery to compliance, although Sicelo Shiceka is no longer in office and won’t be responsible for the success or failure of this multi-year programme.

The nature of public spending dictates that there will always be a tug-of-war between different departments for greater shares of the public purse, and Mbalula is doing his job to the best of his ability and seizing every opportunity to promote his department’s mandate. You can’t fault him for that, and it’s fair to consider the merits of the department’s work.

Bread alone cannot sustain, as the scripture goes.  The debate between utilitarianism and nourishment of a metaphysical kind is timeless. Does a society ensure there is bread (or other basic services) for all or does it spend money on roses too? The ideas of sport as artistic expression (or propaganda device), as a building tool (or social engineering tool) for a better society, as a vehicle for social transformation (or a symbol of political power); all of these have incredible power.

There are more tangible benefits of sports facilities for all. A healthier society is one, a society with more outlets and opportunities for young people in desperate need of these things is another. There are jobs and social cohesion that a greater public sports programme could provide, if it were properly implemented.

Unfortunately, the warning signs are too bright and noisy to ignore. A grant which has a poor record of being spent on basic services is about to be further restricted and reduced for this purpose. At a time when service delivery backlogs should be attacked with renewed vigour municipalities are having their focus diluted by this proposal.

The little paranoid libertarian voice in your head should also be shouting, and if you listen you can hear it asking “Cui bono?” To whose benefit is this proposed legislation, apart from the sports minister and his department? Possibly to the organised construction and engineering industry. Possibly to the same companies who were found guilty of collusion in the construction of the 2010 World Cup stadiums?

It’s a bit unfair to cast such aspersions without hard evidence. But ask your inner paranoid voice which of the following scenarios is more likely: the proposed sports infrastructure will include a healthy locally-sourced component resulting in jobs and skills development for local people, or the construction and maintenance of facilities will be outsourced to established companies? Before you answer, recall the trouble that municipalities have had in successfully spending their infrastructure grants to date.

If the department of sport could successfully implement a sports infrastructure programme after having discussed it many times it would be wonderful. It cannot come at the expense of providing basic services to all South Africans. Its blanket implementation cannot be prioritised over ensuring the successful functioning of all municipalities. And it cannot be decided at a private indaba without input from the broader society. We need more roses in our society but not before we all have some bread. DM



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