South Africa

ANALYSIS

DA’s cheap political points over 11-week-old draft municipalities’ recovery plan cloud real, important issues

DA’s cheap political points over 11-week-old draft municipalities’ recovery plan cloud real, important issues
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. (Photos: Sebabatso Mosamo / Sunday Times | Flickr / GCIS)

Raising the alarm over dodgy government plans is a crucial tool against maladministration and abuse of power – not only for civil society or whistle-blowers, but also political parties. But DA MP Cilliers Brink provides a lesson in how not to do it.

Monday’s DA statement was phrased in alarm bell-ringing phrases warning of a “coup d’état” by district development models, and the ANC using this for a power grab.

“If the DA’s suspicions are justified it means the inane-sounding district development model was never about improving service delivery; instead it was a cover for the ANC grabbing more government power, and eventually doing away with provincial and local elections,” said DA MP Cilliers Brink.

DA MP Cilliers Brink. (Photo: Twitter / @BrinkCilliers)

Tuesday’s statement stayed on message. Headed, “Are ‘District Champions’ part of ‘top secret’ ANC power grab plot?”, Brink said premiers and mayors had now received letters to inform them who their district champions are.

“We are worried that the document might signal the ANC’s intention to roll back the powers of elected local and provincial governments and so we are putting a formal parliamentary question to President Cyril Ramaphosa to find out whether the document reflects the government’s thinking.”

The document Brink refers to was leaked to him by an official. Under the Co-operative Governance logo, it’s headed “South Africa Economic Recovery Plan for Municipalities in Response to Covid-19”. It’s also marked “top secret” and “Draft 5”.

A cursory check would have shown this discussion document is about 11 weeks old.

It was compiled after 31 March when PricewaterhouseCoopers released its “Thinking through the possible economic consequences of Covid-19 for South Africa”; graphs from this document are used. It was done around mid-April. The reference to “10,000 UIF applications” is the time marker here.

According to Co-operative Governance ministerial spokesperson Mlungisi Mtshali, “it’s not a document that is served before the minister. I don’t know where the DA got it from. I can’t comment on the document.”

Much of the 45-page document is not new.

Ministers and the president, on various public platforms, talked of using the Covid-19 pandemic as a “reset”, of changing economic structures for inclusive job-focused growth.  

When Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma on 27 May briefed the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), no secret was made of these district champions, although the promised presidential announcement “soon” has not materialised even as champions have been sent out.

The district development model was announced in the post-May 2019 elections State of the Nation Address. On 21 August 2019, Cabinet approved it to “will ensure coherence and integration in planning, budgeting and implementation of service delivery projects in all districts by all three spheres of government”, according to the official statement issued a day later. 

“President Ramaphosa will be the champion of the model, supported by Deputy President David Mabuza and the entire executive…”

The first pilot was launched on 12 September 2019 in the OR Tambo District Municipality in Eastern Cape, followed by eThekwini on 18 October and the Waterberg District Municipality in Limpopo on 22 November.

While the Ramaphosa administration styled this district development model, or DDM, as new, it isn’t really. The Mbeki presidency had declared rural and urban development nodes with the same aims – to co-ordinate planning across spheres to boost service delivery and development.

What grabbed Brink’s attention are some references that bring together the district development model and the National Coronavirus Command Council, also referred to as Central Command Council.

“The district political champions can provide the immediate political oversight on the implementation of the response plan in their allocated district and provide updates and feedback to the National Command Centre,” the document states on page 20.

The proposals on centralising decision-making thread over several pages. From page 16, “We need to centralized (sic) decision-making body, which functions precisely as the Central Command Council does so that all of government is involved”, to page 24:

“A centralised policy making, programme and project planning, operations and tactical decision-making council would have to be established…”

It culminates on page 25 in the call for a new structure:

“The ‘Centralised Developmental Council’ will ensure that all intergovernmental relationships and partnerships are co-ordinated, projects and programmes are effectively designed, planned and packaged for implementation.”

Brink describes this as an ANC power grab that would ultimately lead to the abolition of provincial and local government elections.

He told Daily Maverick this district development model may well be a precursor, a pilot project, to prepare the ground for constitutional changes.

“If the district development model was a way to get all spheres [of state] to work together, that’s great,” said Brink. He added it would be good for the government to set out what the DDM is and what it’s not. Hence, the parliamentary question.

“Within the DA, [the question is] might this be a harbinger of plans to centralise power and to change the Constitution?”

In a later written comment, Brink said, “We are acting as the canary in the coal mine – letting the public know that there could be a threat to devolved government…”

While the ANC has as far back as its 2007 Polokwane conference adopted resolutions on reducing the number of provinces and looking at synchronising local, provincial and national elections, to date there are no resolutions to do away with either elections or provinces as a whole.

The Electoral Act must be amended to allow independent candidates to contest provincial and national elections in line with the Constitutional Court ruling, and doing away with elections is not part of such amendments.

The real question to ask is, why a new structure for overarching district development model co-ordination?

Already in place is the Presidential Co-ordinating Council that brings together mayors, the South African Local Government Association (Salga), premiers, ministers and the president. This council was established in law precisely to achieve intergovernmental co-ordination. All those involved in the district development model are represented.

The hard question to ask is why the ANC’s governance structures are not bringing about the expected outcomes? And why fiddling with a new structure is somehow anticipated to produce a different result?

Intergovernmental relations are a constitutional requirement set out in Chapter 3, which also talks of “national unity and indivisibility of the Republic” and in stubborn disputes allows court action.

But serious questions must be asked about the viability of such a model given the dysfunctional status of the majority of municipalities.

Only 20 of South Africa’s 257 municipalities have clean audits, and irregular expenditure increased by another R7-billion to R32-billion in the 2018/19 financial year, according to the auditor-general’s report, “Not much to go around, yet not the right hands at the till”, released on 1 July.

The document glibly talks of lack of capacity at local government, the “financial, political and management crises” with the need to step in financially because, “The majority of municipalities cannot access funding from the capital market because their balance sheets do not enable them to.”

And so, hard questions must also be asked over the National Coronavirus Command Council and its role in decision-making as the lines have been blurred even if most recently the push is to style the command council as a Cabinet committee.

From a liberal fundamentalist perspective, it makes sense, as Brink does, to blame ANC cadre deployment and “the wholescale mismanagement, corruption and criminalisation of the state that followed”.

Yet it is a missed opportunity to raise the hard questions. Why focus on a level of government whose track record is a consistent lack of progress despite over a decade of various efforts, support and training to local government to ensure good governance and financial stability – all the way back to the 2007 Project Consolidate, followed two years later by Operation Clean Audit by 2014?

Concerns are real in many circles about how the Covid-19 pandemic is used for ulterior motives – from preparing for the National Health Insurance (NHI), collecting information on citizens to finally getting off the ground a long-desired national small business database.

Hard questions should have been and must be asked about the current state of governance by decree and direction at the swish of a ministerial pen as allowed by the State of Disaster. And also for how long the State of Disaster is to continue – one-month extension by one-month extension.

Maybe in an echo to its liberation movement past, the ANC has found in command councils and pandemic war narrative – Covid-19 has repeatedly been described as the enemy – the focus around which any number of factions can unify as per the 2017 Nasrec conference.

But according to the Constitution, only Cabinet is South Africa’s executive authority and decision-maker, according to the Constitution.  

And so, hard questions must also be asked over the National Coronavirus Command Council and its role in decision-making as the lines have been blurred even if most recently the push is to style the command council as a Cabinet committee.

But Ramaphosa, in at least two addresses to the nation, said the command council “decided”, even if state lawyers have described this as “presidential loose language” in an ultimately unsuccessful Western Cape High Court challenge to the legitimacy of the National Command Council.

And yet Cabinet ministers continue to talk about taking their case to the National Command Council and making their argument there, as did Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane in a recent parliamentary Q&A session.

Both Gauteng and the Northern Cape over the past few days to Wednesday officially hosted provincial command council Covid-19 updates.

That a “command council” can host public briefings on government measures during the Covid-19 pandemic underscores the blurred lines of governance.

And this is a worry right now, regardless of how the district development model may turn out. 

Dodgy government policy must be called out in a way that focuses attention on the issues at stake. That’s in the public interest. Party political point-scoring is not – and may just miss the point. DM

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