Opinionista Niki Moore 11 November 2014

KZN’s Municipal Excellence Awards: Too much carrot, not enough stick?

In October, a 'glittering event' was held at Durban's International Convention Centre to congratulate the winners of the KwaZulu-Natal Municipal Excellence Awards. Many prizes were handed out to the various municipal managements of KZN's towns and cities for 'superb performance'. Trouble is, 'excellence' is a moving target.

Municipalities were being judged off a very low base, and in many cases people were lavishly rewarded merely for doing their jobs. The IFP issued a press release a few days after the awards, in which spokesman Blessed Gwala grumbled that it was impossible to justify performance bonuses handed out at lavish functions to underperforming officials. An investigation into the actual excellence of these municipalities uncovered something of a curate’s egg: good in parts, but the rest not so edible.

In her speech welcoming the award winners, KZN MEC for Local Government, Nomsa Dube-Ncube, claimed that she was brandishing both the carrot and the stick: “I am a firm believer in rewarding success,” she said. “But there is no room for unqualified staff, inexperience or corruption in local government.”

The reality on the ground in municipalities shows, however, that while there is plenty of carrot, there is not much stick. So while some of the awards could be said to be justified, they rewarded one tiny element of an otherwise-problematic municipality. And despite a rising number of people intent on doing a good job, there was still a long way to go before performance could be called ‘excellent’.

As an example: seven municipalities got a clean audit this last year, and were rewarded for doing so. That sounds like good news, until one takes into account that there are 61 municipalities in KZN (so that’s a pass rate of around 11%).

The bulk of the awards were for municipalities that had successfully implemented innovations or development plans or met some basic service delivery targets. The problem here, as we have seen many times before, is that plans that look good on paper very seldom stand up to close, on-the-ground scrutiny. A municipality might get one thing right, but that does not mean that life for the ordinary resident in that municipality is a bed of roses.

This is a failing that the Department of Local Government is fully aware of.

We do a range of assessments based on a number of criteria,” says the Department’s Priscilla Sharmugan. “We have to use these measurables, because that is all we have got. The different municipalities are asked to motivate why they should get an award in a particular category, and we judge this motivation against a set of weighted criteria.”

Sharmugan is fully cognisant of the fact that some elements of good performance in a municipality do not always reflect overall performance.

But that is all that we have to work with,” she says. “We have to look at things like Blue Drop reports, Green Drop reports, adherence to Integrated Development Plans, roll-outs of projects. We judge performance on how well municipalities are meeting their targets. We hope that by rewarding these, we encourage municipalities to improve their overall performance.”

So, for instance, the municipality of Umhlatuze (Richards Bay and Empangeni) were recognised for their installation of a sophisticated computerised system that monitors sewage flow on CCTV cameras, and picks up faults on the grid. It’s working, and its working well. And it is also part of the reason why Umhlatuze and its parent district, Uthungulu, won the awards for the best-performing municipalities.

This is not an excellent municipality by any means,” says Dave Savides, editor of the local newspaper, the Zululand Observer. “But it’s not as bad as it could be. It’s not like we have serious potholes and sewage spills and things like that. The problem is maintenance and sustainability: this municipality is very fortunate in that it inherited a very well-built infrastructure. It’s also a relatively new city and for a long time it was a boom area supported by the coffers of international companies. The concerning thing is that there is low spend on maintenance.”

The council spends a fortune on consultants and legal fees, related to dubious cases. We have severe under-spend on our budget, especially our Municipal Infrastructure Grant. There are many people in acting positions in the municipality, and a completely top-heavy management that soaks up enormous salaries. This means there is a shortage of skills where they are really required.

Cadre deployment has replaced institutional memory: those engineers who installed the systems and know where the pipes are, for instance. New people don’t get mentored, they just get thrown into the job. CoGTA is presently investigating alleged political interference: where people take short cuts or do favours because their political party or their political bosses order them to. This creates tension between the political leadership and the appointed officials.”

Richards Bay, therefore, could almost be a poster child for South Africa’s municipal management: a town running overall on empty despite one shiny new innovation. This is a picture duplicated all over the province.

Another example might be ‘Best Ward in a Municipality’ won by Ward 16 in Abaqulusi Local Municipality (Vryheid). Ward councillor HV Khumalo explained that he had set up a ‘war room’ in his area, where all the stakeholders compiled a weekly report detailing all the challenges in that ward. This report goes to the municipality and to the Department, where he raises issues such as housing, roads and water supply.

It is working well,” he says. “We report things like disasters, and people who get houses illegally. But we don’t always get what we want. For instance, there is a bad shortage of water in the ward.”

So, while the councillor in the ward is doing a good job, he is let down by general chaos in the municipality. According to the editor of the Vryheid Herald, John Carnegie, the council is in complete disarray.

We haven’t had a municipal manager in three years,” he says. “After the 2011 elections, the ANC took over from the IFP in a coalition with the NFP. They fired the mayor and appointed a Dr V Mthembu as municipal manager. He was definitely the best candidate for the job. But the MEC turned him down. So he took the council to court. He kept winning his cases but they would not let him take up his job. Around August he even won his case in the Constitutional Court, but the municipality would still not let him into the building. For three weeks he sat in his car in the parking lot. We heard that finally he got some police from Ulundi and they stormed the building. The MEC got another interdict to remove him, and we still don’t have a municipal manager.”

So much for Vryheid, which wins tiny battles but loses the war.

Another odd award is the Best Operation Sukuma Sakhe Award, won by Ward 13 in Msundusi (Pietermaritzburg). No-one is able to say why this ward got this prize, and the ward councillor, Bongani Dhlomo, is not answering his phone. Operation Sukuma Sakhe was an initiative launched by the previous Premier of KZN, Zweli Mkhize, to ‘unlock development by addressing issues of access to resources’, but it seems to be little more than a vehicle for an international aid agency, Al-Imdaad, to distribute food, blankets and bicycles to the poor. While this has to be an admirable project, it has nothing to do with local government.

Interestingly, the awards were indeed lavish: the best performing municipalities got a cash prize of R1 million.

This would have come in handy for Ezingolweni, a small rural municipality by ANC deployee Mandla Mazece. On the South Coast, it won for ‘best performance’. The award puzzled the local people. This municipality will soon cease to exist: it is about to be absorbed into the Hibiscus Coast Municipality. There is no rates base at all and it operates off the equity share (ie. Government funding).

However, Mazece is not surprised that they got their award: “Against the backdrop of limited resources we have created projects that have a positive impact on the communities,” he said. “We have built two community centres that are ‘one-stop-shops’ for community services such as welfare and home affairs and other services. We are the best in the province in terms of housing delivery. We also managed to spend the CoGTA small-town rehabilitation grant. We employ only competent and qualified contractors.

Because of this, we have managed to attract investment: there are plans for a neighbourhood shopping centre. We did recently have a wave of violent protests” (which were about the sporadic water supply) “but we have stepped up our community communication in order to deal with that.”

The Best-Performing Medium Local Municipality was uMzimkulu, one of those little way-stations on the road to the Transkei that used to be synonymous with potholes, wandering dogs and pigs, and litter-strewn pavements. But according to municipal manager Z Sikhosana, they have pulled up their socks and the place is now unrecognisable:

We are doing very well by building up the municipality through service delivery that is visible,” he says. “This was not a town, it was just a village, and people coming through would say this town is neglected. But through hard work we are currently fixing the main road, we are creating an economic development node. There are 300,000 people living here, the buying power is here. We want to make this a good town. If you thought this was a run-down place, you will be surprised.”

The last categories in the awards were for best-performing mayors, and these were won respectively by James Nxumalo of eThekwini and Afzul Rehman of Newcastle. These were decided by a popular vote.

The DA is suspicious of this: “These awards are just political patronage,” says DA KZN leader, Sizwe Nchunu. “All of these winners are ANC deployees. The MEC hasn’t really been clear about the basis for these assessments. Also, there were huge adverts in the local newspapers, asking people to vote for their municipalities. So this was really just a popularity contest funded by the tax-payer. Instead of these huge jamborees, they should focus on service delivery, because across the province there is a huge level of failure.”

To be fair, investigation showed that most of the winners of the awards were making a genuine commitment to service delivery. However, one could also ask: where are the punitive measures against the corrupt, the inept, the non-performing municipalities? The Department should be conducting discipline in exactly the same blaze of publicity.

The truth, however, is that KwaZulu-Natal local government is not performing as badly as some of the more notable provinces such as North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. One can perhaps congratulate the MEC Dube-Ncube on these awards (unique, by the way, to KZN). But it would be nice if we had some public executions too. DM


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