Independence you can trust
20 March 2018 23:38 (South Africa)
South Africa

Municipal man: Pravin Gordhan tackles transformation’s ultimate test

  • Greg Nicolson
    greg nicolson BW
    Greg Nicolson

    Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

  • South Africa

Local government is at the heart of service delivery and transformation. It also features some of the worst examples of poor governance. Pravin Gordhan, one of the most respected government leaders, is now in charge of supporting and improving municipalities and both the country's and the ANC's futures are riding on him. By GREG NICOLSON.

We're still committed to good governance... Give us a year in which to demonstrate,” was Minister Pravin Gordhan’s telephonic response to those who think the ANC-run government can't improve the performance of municipalities.

Twelve weeks ago, Gordhan, one of the country's most celebrated administrators, became co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister after he was moved from the finance portfolio. One of his key responsibilities is improving local government, which lies at the heart of transformation and improving the day-to-day life of citizens. While crucial to both the future of the country and the ANC, the challenges seem overwhelming.

The line going around for the last five years is that no one size fits all,” said Municipal IQ's Karen Heese when asked for her view on local government. Large and small, well performing and poor performing – with municipalities context is everything. “It's hard to make a broad statement,” she said.

Yet there are some generalisations to be made. In the Auditor General's report on local government for 2012-2013, the most recent figures, only 22 of 278 municipalities received unqualified audits without findings. Auditor General Kimi Makwetu said basic control deficiencies are allowing an environment without accountability, which is sacrificing service delivery objectives. Many municipalities have key posts vacant, struggle to employ qualified staff, and don't comply with legislated regulations, or employ adequate financial controls.

While 63 municipalities improved their standings, the overall results supported arguments that too little has changed since 2009 when the State of Local Government Report said, “It is clear that much of local government is indeed in distress, and that this state of affairs has become deeply-rooted within our system of governance.”

On Tuesday, Statistics SA released its latest non-financial census of municipalities report, supporting the ANC's claim that since 1994 the government has indeed made huge strides in delivering water, electricity, sewerage and sanitation and waste management services. A large majority of South Africans now have access to these services.

But while still impressive, the achievements are diluted when factoring in nuances. Some of those who have access to water don't have access on their own properties. Some people who qualify for free services are not receiving them. And, shockingly, there's been an increase in the number of people who use the bucket toilet system.

In a report earlier this year, the Social and Economic Rights Institute of South Africa said it was still too hard for the poor to access basic services. There are also frequent reports of local government failing to deliver services and violent protests over municipal issues.

On Wednesday, Gordhan reflected on his time in the new ministry. He said he understood all South Africans live in municipal boundaries, which are related to the broader economic issues, and are the point where all spheres of government meet. So far, he's spent his time learning about a myriad of issues – what works, what doesn't; spatial planning; current legislation; increasing urbanisation; his department's capacity and key projects; local financial matters. “

Clearly what we need is a new vision making sure basic functions work well,” says Gordhan.

In his July budget vote speech the minister said local government was the ultimate test of transformation “where apartheid's settlement geography must be confronted, where the trade-offs involved in addressing poverty and investing in growth must be made, where a new and more cohesive society must be born”. He outlined five key tasks: going back to basics, responding vigorously to immediate crises, understanding and responding to structural challenges, continuing to build resilient local government institutions, and improving intergovernmental systems.

Yet these goals look similar to those of past administrations. Asked what's new, Gordhan said each administration must build on the lessons of the past and push for improvements. Ongoing misconduct and malfeasance, however, can't be tolerated, he added. The minister is reported to be looking at new measures to curtail greed and under-performance.

The Democratic Alliance's shadow minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs Kevin Mileham remains doubtful. Calling local government “a shambles” he said there's no accountability or consequences for failing or for corrupt officials. Little is done on forensic reports into specific local governments and if action is taken, ANC officials either are shifted horizontally or promoted.

Until we start seeing a party that is committed to governing and abandons the ruling mentality not much will change,” said Mileham on Tuesday. Gordhan responded by saying DA-run municipalities face many of the same problems as those run by the ANC, despite their claims otherwise.

While it's too early to evaluate Gordhan's performance, those the Daily Maverick spoke to said Gordhan is probably the best candidate for the job. He has vast experience in financial management and as finance minister was praised for telling government to reign in spending during hard times. Website Emerging Markets awarded him Africa's best sub-Saharan finance minister of the year in 2013. “Even though it's early days he's hit the ground running,” said Municipal IQ's Heese. For the ANC, sending the country's book balancer into communities could be a master stroke.

Ahead of the 2016 municipal elections, the ANC look vulnerable in some of the biggest metros. In the recent elections the ANC won Johannesburg with 53.6%, Tshwane with 50.9% and Ekurhuleni with 56.4%. Support for the ANC in Eastern Cape's Nelson Mandela Bay dipped below just 50%. Speaking at the first ANC NEC meeting after the recent elections, President Jacob Zuma turned straight to the 2016 local elections. “Work begins now to fix the problems in this sphere. The provision of basic services to citizens and the listening to their grievances must become everyday activities of the ANC.”

Author of The African National Congress and Regeneration of Political Power, Wits Professor Susan Booysen, said as the party's election results continue to decline from their 2004 peak it needs to continually focus on improving local delivery. “It's crucial. I'm sure they realise and recognise the importance of it,” said Booysen. At the local level citizens directly interact with issues of governance and the liberation struggle narrative isn't as strong as it might be at national level, she added.

It's a massive, massive test,” Booysen said on the challenges facing Gordhan. In his favour: Gordhan knows the system and the problems identified by the Auditor General. He's experienced, and as he's not vying for a top position in the party so he can afford to make tough decisions. But, Booysen pointed out, local governance issues are intricate and individualised, and there's both a shortage of qualified staff and problems with the deployment of party officials who aren't qualified.

I cannot imagine how anyone is going to turn that around before Jesus comes,” said Booysen.

Municipalities have to use public resources in an optimal way and all sectors of society must fight rent-seeking behaviour, said Gordhan. He acknowledges the challenges but, like many ANC leaders, also seems unhappy with the perception that government has failed while in reality it has delivered basic services to millions of people in the face of persisting structural problems. It's also important to manage expectations. “Not everything can be delivered in the moment,” he said.

Gordhan is tackling one of the most difficult areas and faced with allegations that local government is inept and corrupt. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” he responds.

In 2016, voters will tell him how it tastes. DM

Photo: Then South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivers remarks at a panel discussion titled From Poverty to Prosperity during the IMF World Bank Annual Meetings 2013 in Washington, DC, USA, 09 October 2013. EPA/SHAWN THEW

  • Greg Nicolson
    greg nicolson BW
    Greg Nicolson

    Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

  • South Africa

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles

Reader notice: Our comments service provider, Civil Comments, has stopped operating and will terminate services on 20th Dec 2017. As a result, we will be searching for another platform for our readers. We aim to have this done with the launch of our new site in early 2018 and apologise for the inconvenience.