Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 13 July 2020

Has Salga’s day of reckoning arrived? 

There comes a time when organisational purpose and raison d’être comes under scrutiny and its future hangs in the balance, as stakeholders question the waste of time and resources being poured into its superfluous existence. That time appears to have arrived too late for the South African Local Government Association (Salga).

Wayne Duvenage

Wayne is a businessman and entrepreneur turned civil activist. Following former positions as CEO of AVIS and President of SA Vehicle Renting and Leasing Association, Wayne has headed up the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) since it’s inception in 2012.

Local government in South Africa is that which pertains to the administration of municipalities and metros, a sector regarded as the most dysfunctional in South Africa today. 

For many years the auditor-general’s (AGSA) annual reports on local government have painstakingly reflected the dismal and declining state of affairs of South African municipalities.  National Treasury has also weighed in and expressed its dismay at the lack of governance and financial discipline throughout municipal and metro structures in recent years.

However, one just has to ask the residents of most South African towns and cities if they’re getting value for their property rates and taxes, when compared to a decade ago. I have no doubt their answer will express a collective disappointment in the decline of water quality and sewage system infrastructure, potholed roads, crumbling electricity distribution networks, poor refuse management and declining financial discipline.

And if the average resident pondered on the existence of a local government association that might have to be structured to represent and assist with the management and performance of municipalities, they’d be forgiven for thinking that such an association doesn’t exist. Yet it actually does.

Known as Salga, the South African Local Government Association was established in 1997 and was supposed to “represent, promote and protect the interests of local governments and to raise the profile of [thereof]”.  

Well, that’s what they purport to do on their website.  They go on to reflect that, “Salga has a clear strategic role to play in representing the interests of local government within the system of government as a whole and supporting its members to fulfil their developmental obligations.”

Salga spells out in its six pillar mandate that it deals with, among other things: “Capacity Building” in local government, and reflects on “Leadership and technical capacity development in municipalities”, along with “Support and Advice” to provide effective execution of the municipality’s mandates, including  “Knowledge and information sharing” aimed at facilitating peer learning within the sector and to “inspire service delivery”. Seriously?

Clearly, Salga appears to have failed in its ability to execute, and one wonders what indeed they have been doing all these years, besides acting as an “Employer Body” and representing municipalities in the wage bargaining councils. And even in this role they have failed to curb the municipal wage bill, which has increased consistently above CPI over the past decade, ultimately pushing up the cost of municipal operations that are simply being passed on to residents in the form of ever-increasing property tariff hikes, revaluations and additional levies.

So what is this local government association and why has it been missing in action when it comes to delivering on their mandate? In its rather confusing purpose, Salga reports to government as a “Schedule 3A public entity”, which means its finances are scrutinised by the auditor-general under the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA).  Yet, 90% of its R625-million per annum comes from voluntary fees paid to Salga by its municipal and metro “members” and despite accounting for Salga’s expenditure, in reality it could all be construed as fruitless and wasteful expenditure if indeed its purpose and intentions remained unfulfilled.

And if you ask Salga what keeps them busy, they’ll spell out that their 400-plus national and regional structures, which chew up just over R100-million (around 16% of their income), are kept busy spending around R350-million (55%) of their revenue on programmes related to advocacy, lobbying, capacity building, training, advice and knowledge sharing for its member municipalities, largely with the intention of improving the performance of local government in South Africa.

In reality, this lazy, lethargic leopard is unlikely to change its spots and will remain a politically aligned cadre deployment honey pot, unable to come to grips with its ever-increasingly conflicted and confused role within local government.

Cutting to the chase, one would be correct to assume that Salga’s mandate could, or at least should be measured by the improvement and successful performance of municipal output. That being the case, Salga has failed on an epic scale. Over the years, despite glaring evidence of the demise of local government, little criticism has emerged from Salga on the poor performance and dismal financial management skills of their members. And it doesn’t take rocket science to understand why, driven largely by their difficulty to criticise the hand that feeds them. Criticising municipalities for their failure could generate a backlash against the very entity they pay to help them build their capacity. It’s a vicious affair of conflicted interest.

The pressure is on for Salga and feeble attempts by them to show mettle can be heard in recent calls for the government (Treasury) to withhold funds from those municipalities that fail to properly account for public funds. It was indeed a desperate call against the backdrop of Treasury’s recent request for Salga to renegotiate the local government salary increases entered into with the unions, when they failed to rise to the occasion.

Could it be that Salga now realises the high levels of corruption, maladministration and ineptitude within municipalities – which they failed to be critical of for so long – is now crippling their own cash flow in the form of unpaid  “membership” fees?

Most ANC-run municipalities are broke, while those that are still cash-positive are questioning their need to squander their resources on a voluntary Salga membership, for which they receive little in return.  Furthermore, if the municipalities and metros decide to withdraw their voluntary financial support, Salga would cease to exist.

In reality, this lazy, lethargic leopard is unlikely to change its spots and will remain a politically aligned cadre deployment honey pot, unable to come to grips with its ever-increasingly conflicted and confused role within local government.

With the South African local government model now in dire straits, the beginning of the end appears to be in sight for this superfluous, revenue-draining and rather meaningless entity that was supposed to do far more than it purported to have been doing all these years. DM

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