Sitting in the public gallery of Parliament listening to the Minister of CoGTA (Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs) deliver the Budget Vote and hearing the state of municipalities left me shocked and deeply saddened. The image of distressed and dysfunctional municipalities, managed by unaccountable public officials without the requisite competencies, leaves me wondering how little we have learned from the last 24 years of our democracy.
Why is there no national outrage about the state of our municipalities and local government? Why does this country continue to pump resources into municipalities that are dysfunctional and are not able to service the public in a way that is consistent with our human rights framework? Why do we continue to prop up municipalities whose capacities are systematically decimated by political agendas?
What is it like to live in a municipality that is dysfunctional? I would not know because I am fortunate to live in a suburb of Cape Town where my rubbish is collected every Monday like clockwork. Any disruption in services in my area is dealt with from the comfort of our homes; we phone in and services are restored. Interestingly, services are restored very quickly without us needing to take our anger on to the streets. Not so for poor communities. Non-removal of rubbish, water cuts, burst pipes and sewerage overflowing on to streets and no storm-water drainage has been accepted as the norm by many poor communities.
We see service delivery protests on a daily basis. We even express frustration when a road is blocked by protesters or when traffic has to be diverted. But to sit in Parliament and hear that of the 297 municipalities across our country 31% are distressed and another 31% are dysfunctional makes me realise that if there is no drastic intervention we will have a total collapse of local government. The slim 7% of municipalities described as functional offers little solace.
Then there are the remaining 29% of municipalities that can only be prevented from slipping into distressed status through focused and tough interventions. This year the Auditor General’s report shows that a total of 128 municipalities are in financial distress and last year irregular expenditure has increased over 50% to R16-billion. The report shows that this year, irregular expenditure increased by 75% to R28.4-billion. So, where are the tough interventions to help address the crisis local government has slumped into? Where is the political will to address this dire situation? In spite of this dire situation, a member of the portfolio committee, in response to the Minister’s Budget Vote has the audacity to say “we are doing well”.
But we know, for as long as local councillors are accountable to their political principals and not to communities, this picture will never change. We know the political agendas determine how tenders for development initiatives and programmes are awarded. Listening to the minister in Parliament speaks of community dissatisfaction and asking whether early detection of this is possible I wonder whether thought is ever given to genuine and proper community engagement processes. Community engagement not as a once-off event but as a process that will move municipalities and local councillors towards partnering with communities in making decisions about how to meet their needs. Community engagement as a process that requires listening and dialogue with people so contentious issues can be identified, engaged with and resolved.
This requires that, instead of being accountable to political principals, local government officials and local councillors have to be accountable to communities, to citizens. They have to take their role of informing and educating communities, involving people in inter-actional processes of planning and decision-making and providing support to enable communities to define and create solutions as a critical part of their work and responsibility.
We are desperately in need of a quality of community engagement that will allow for the voices of citizens and communities to be heard and their contributions to be respected – we need a government that listens. Unless local government, given its proximity to communities, is genuinely seen as the most important tier of government and is accordingly resourced with officials with the requisite capacities and competencies, there is no hope that the current situation can be turned around.
The participatory governance framework makes provision for the involvement and participation of the public in decision-making. However, for as long as citizens are not seen as important partners, participatory governance will continue to elude us. For as long as local government officials and local councillors remain accountable to their political principals and parties, this sad state of affairs in local government will continue. For as long as political agendas allow for the appointment of incompetent people into positions, the crisis will prevail and the systemic dysfunctionality will be sustained. DM
Nomvula Dlamini is director of the Community Development Resource Association, a civil society centre based in Cape Town.