Since re-election, President Jacob Zuma has been making noises about improving local government. Delegates from across the three spheres of governance came together on Thursday to discuss how to improve this most important and terribly beleaguered aspect of the state. By GREG NICOLSON.
“Every councillor needs to ask: ‘Have I made a difference to the quality of life of the people?’ How successful have we been over the past year in delivering essential services to residents, such as sanitation, roads, refuse removal, health services, electricity? Have we been able to deliver water and to mend the leaking pipes and the broken meters? Have we been able to bring services to the informal settlements and the rural areas?” asked President Nelson Mandela at the National Summit for Organised Local Government in 1996, before local government was significantly transformed in 2000.
Meeting on Thursday at the Presidential Local Government Summit, held in Midrand, representatives from all spheres of government faced the same questions and were told to focus on a “back to basics” approach championed by co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister, Pravin Gordhan. The summit is key to the minister’s attempts not only to improve the function of local government but also challenge public perceptions of municipalities in the face of high public expectations for services 20 years after the first democratic elections.
In his speech, President Jacob Zuma said the there must be a commitment to providing water, electricity, parks, street lighting, refuse removal, fixing potholes and addressing service interruptions and billing problems. Municipalities, said the president, must commit to professional service, interacting with communities, dealing with corruption, working harder to alleviate poverty, and supporting rural communities. “Back to the basics means in essence, that from this summit onwards, local government will indeed become everybody’s business,” he told the mayors, speakers, chief whips, municipal managers and chief financial officers gathered at the event with ministers, premiers, MECs, business and civil society leaders.
Zuma went off speech and said citizens must take more responsibility. “We must go back to the basics in the real sense of the word, back to basics. Just clean in front of your house. Cut the fence, clear the pavement in front of your house, just basics. Just ensure that the street is clean, that the plastics are not all over, are collected. There are people who are not employed who are happy to do so. I mean, how do you feel when you drive and the plastics jump up and the town or city is dirty and you think that’s not your business? Just back to basics.”
With all 278 municipalities represented at the summit, Gordhan warned that things must change. “Many of us think we can engage in fraudulent activity without anyone knowing about it. Those days are gone,” he said. “Breaking the law is not the right precedent to set for future generations.” The public, he said, believe “we are a corrupt lot” and “it’s our collective responsibility to remove that perception”.
Gordhan was frank that more needs to be done to improve local government. A third of municipalities are doing well, another third can do better, and the final third needs urgent attention. In his state of the nation address Zuma announced an inter-ministerial task team would address the problems facing local government and identified municipalities to receive immediate assistance. Gordhan said municipalities must stop wasting money on outside financial consultants who aren’t helping achieve unqualified audits and said it’s crucial that people feel close to their local governments
“Perhaps if we can attract people who have complaints to our offices rather than to the streets we can make a difference to the perception the president was talking about,” said Gordhan. Zuma spoke at length on why the perception that local government is failing is not true. The president cited a number of reasons for the high-level of local protests, including demand for services, nepotism and corruption, but it’s clear Zuma believes the key reason is because of increased expectations and urgency as communities see neighbours benefiting. “In other words protests are not because the government is doing nothing or this country is doing nothing; it’s because we are doing something,” explained Zuma after citing the latest figures from the non-financial census of municipalities.
While Zuma said the media does not explain these issues, Steve Tshwete Local Municipality mayor Mike Masina explained how local government can share its own achievements and become more responsive to community concerns. The municipality has a communication strategy that includes Masina writing a weekly newspaper column where he shares local government’s plans and the municipality has a radio slot where executives discuss issues with listeners.
Improving the relationship between local government and citizens could build trust in municipalities and prevent rather than respond to issues of service delivery and protests. But local government challenges are anything but basic. The government can be proud of delivering basic services to millions, and as a result vastly raising living standards, but beyond the numbers, reports emerge daily of municipal failures and dealing with local government is often a burden. These experiences, combined with the widely reported endemic failure of municipalities to receive unqualified audits without findings, reinforces the idea that local government doesn’t help citizens.
“How do we all lift our performance to a new level to say to all South Africans we do care about the conditions where you live?” Gordhan asked on Thursday. The 2009 State of Local Government Report said, “The effective functioning of a municipality begins with its political leadership. In respect to governance the overarching question during the assessment process centred on the effectiveness, capability and integrity of the local political council leadership.”
“The back to basics approach relies on municipal political leadership and management to play a significant role,” Gordhan said in the same vein. “All of us are accountable to change people’s lives and create better prospects for the economy.”
The minister will try to keep the local government leaders accountable, but it’s difficult to be inspired when they need to be told that breaking the law is not right. If we’re looking at political leadership, Zuma’s attempts to avoid accountability sets a worrying precedent. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma addresses delegates at the 2014 presidential local government summit in Midrand, Thursday, 18 September 2014. Picture: GCIS/SAPA
Municipal man: Pravin Gordhan tackles transformation’s ultimate test in Daily Maverick