Most municipalities across the country are on the brink of dysfunction and are experiencing self-imposed problems which seem to be multiplying each year. Many factors are cited for this pattern, including corruption, service delivery backlogs and lack of a skilled, expert, competent and qualified workforce.
While the concept of local government has the objective of bringing the government closer to the people and people closer to the government, recent trends depict a completely different picture. Among the vast array of misfortunes, there is financial distress, a mess of maladministration, the long trail of corruption, an extreme addiction to cadre deployment, instability and squabbles in municipal councils and a series of service delivery protests.
Eventually, all these lead to provincial intervention in terms of Section 139(1) of the Constitution of RSA (1996) into local government, as is happening in North West where seven municipalities have been stripped of their powers.
The appointment of competent officials to top municipal management positions is a very important consideration for a well-functioning municipality that is more concerned with service delivery mandate than a “self-enrichment mandate”.
However, the contemporary picture shows that one of the major problems that exacerbates dismal failure in most municipalities is staff incompetence and a lack of necessary qualifications.
For instance, some municipalities have made it almost a cultural norm to appoint top officials in strategic positions such as chief financial officers and supply chain managers who have only matric as their highest qualification. As a result these officials, in many instances, fail to diligently do their job, which includes the compiling and preparing of extensive and detailed financial statements and performance reports for auditing purposes. Owing to this failure, external financial and accountancy consultants are procured for millions of rands to help teach them to compile and prepare these municipal documents.
The obvious impact of this trend is that the budget that is meant to improve the quality of basic services is improperly spent on feeding the bill of these external consultants, at the expense of service delivery to the local communities, thus giving rise to what is generally termed an “unfunded mandate”.
Without any exaggeration, this is more of an observation than a critique and the 2016/17 audit outcome report of the Auditor-General bears testimony to this observation. What I have noticed to be the cause of the problem is the blurred line at the intersection of administration and politics (political-administrative interface).
In an attempt to deal with these challenges and transform local government systems, the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) came up with several initiatives such as the Local Government Turn-Around Strategy, Operation Clean Audit 2014, and Business-Adopt-A-Municipality.
However, these initiatives seem to have fallen on deaf ears since corruption, cadre deployment, service delivery backlogs and dysfunctionality subsists. North West is a special case in point.
The North West Provincial Government does not think twice when it has to use its Section 139(1) powers of intervention in local government; it does not play around. Municipalities presently under administration include JB Marks in Potchefstroom and Ventersdorp, Mamusa in Schweizer-Reneke, Lekwa Teemane in Bloemhof and Christiana, Ratlou in Setlagole, Tswaing in Delareyville, Madibeng in Brits and Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati District in Vryburg.
Being so quick to intervene in the wake of municipalities’ failure, one should not be tempted to think that the province itself is somehow doing well and/or is efficient in its own administration — the beckoning reality is that it is terrible and dismally failing, perhaps even worse than its dying municipalities.
In recent years, the North West provincial government has failed to lead as an example of a good governance unit for the local municipalities within its demarcations. In May 2018, the North West provincial administration was placed under complete administration by the national government (inter-ministerial task team) in terms of Section 100(1) of the Constitution.
The central focus of the inter-ministerial task team during the national intervention in the province was the Department of Health, which was believed and/or alleged to have suffered a serious “attack” on its coffers by the then premier, Supra Mahumapelo, in cahoots with his alleged “friends” from Dubai.
There are also various pieces of legislation that seek to foster a properly organised and efficient system of local government. These include the Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000 which requires local government to be professionalised through improved capacity of municipalities and recruitment of suitable and qualified persons, especially those with scarce skills (finance, accountancy, economics, human resource development supply chain, IT and so on). However, usually progressive laws like this do not enjoy any conformity within spaces which are highly politicised, such as local government, where “cadre deployment” is preferred over “competent deployment”.
The major hindrance to a professional local government is undoubtedly cadre deployment. This practice occurs where the ruling party deploys its cadres, staunch members and loyalists, to key and strategic ranks in public institutions.
This is done without a careful look into and a proper consideration of cadres’ qualifications and the experience required for the position. Cadre deployment is one of the key factors that have pushed the local government into the highly contested terrain it is presently seen to be. As every cadre would want a slice of the cake, this practice has caused many divisions within the party itself and led to the politics of the personality cult, which tends to render the municipality dysfunctional. This practice also tends to give rise to factionalism and patronage, corruption and fraud, maladministration and political interference.
With cadre deployment, the ruling elite aims to supplement its control over municipal councils, often by deploying weak and lazy administrators who will forever remain their “darlings” and always willing to take and abide by any form of mkhombandlela (political mandate), no matter how illegal it may be at times.
The National Treasury, in its Local Government Budgets & Expenditure Review of 2011, has noted that the municipal failures may well be attributed to a lack of legitimate local political leadership rather than the lack of capacity of the municipality.
The growing occurrence of corruption and procurement fraud in almost all local municipalities across the country constitutes a significant loss and waste of limited fiscal resource and this negatively affects service delivery.
A series of Auditor-General’s annual reports on municipal finances have painted a consistent picture of corruption occurring in different forms, including unaccounted expenditures, duplication of payments and payments for unperformed services. Corruption, simply defined, means the misuse of entrusted public power for personal benefit.
Being a complex concept, corruption manifests in various ways such as greed, bribery, nepotism, abuse of power, conflict of interest, favouritism, embezzlement, manipulation of procurement processes, political and friendship favours, theft and misuse of state resources. The most known form of corruption is an abuse of power, where an official makes use of their vested authority to their private benefit.
It is thus high time to rethink and have a thorough discussion on new ideas given the fact that communities are rapidly losing patience with municipal failures. Therefore, let me present a few ideas that I think merit further honest reform conversations.
The point of departure is to abandon political deployment and encourage competent, merited deployment.
There ought to be serious policy and practice revitalisation steps taken against the prevalence of cadre deployment. The first step will be to take the call to professionalise local government much more seriously and not to just talk about it without bringing it into reality.
Unless the government wakes up and intervenes to ameliorate the standard conditions of municipalities in that way, the state of local government will forever remain crippled, with many South Africans having little confidence in the efficiency, effectiveness and responsiveness of municipalities.
Few councillors are attracted to local government because of the desire and passion to lead ethically and bring positive change to the communities, but even some of those that do tend to change at a later stage and become corrupt.
On the other hand, the majority of councillors across the country are seemingly attracted mainly by the prospect of a good salary and benefits, without any good intention to better the lives of the local people.
There is also a serious need to put in place measures addressing poor performance by councillors. However, this should not only be seen as a challenge for municipalities, but should be seen as a national problem as well because the responsiveness of local government in its service delivery mandate, to a large extent, mirrors the responsiveness and efficiency of the entire government.
The institutional design of local government needs to be assessed and its human resource capacity strengthened. The laws and policies aimed at attaining good governance are there, but the institutional and structural implementation of coherent, transparent and responsive local government is stifled and bedevilled by political contestations.
Therefore, there is also a need for structural and institutional realignment of local government. Laws such as the Municipal Systems Amendment Act 7 of 2011, if properly applied and observed, may improve the performance of local government. The act intends to enhance accountability and transparency as well as to limit the often abused political powers of councillors.
To improve the quality of services and responsiveness of local government, capacity building is important. This would mean a culture of encouraging regular training and workshops for municipal officials in key strategic positions.
In dealing with corruption in local government, a resilient anti-corruption system is necessary. This entails a system that will be able to operate free from political interference and can easily be supported by citizens, in order to strengthen its resilience and legitimacy.
This anti-corruption system must feature, among other things, regular lifestyle audits of municipal officials, public awareness on corruption, encouraging whistle-blowing on corruption and strengthening the protection of whistle-blowers (and if possible, incentivise them) and last, active involvement of civil society groups to help play an oversight role. DM