The era-defining work of the previous generation, with its enduring legacy, shows up the inadequacies of the current crop of political elites. This, in part, accounts for the collective sense of societal disappointment and yearning among the electorate for South Africa to fulfil its potential.
Twenty-five years ago, the government published the White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery predicated on Batho Pele — People First. Next year will also mark the 10th anniversary of the Back to Basics programme for local government.
The 1997 white paper was intended to be the standard-bearer of conduct for a public service undergoing a massive capacity and cultural shift. It aimed to shape public sector workers “first and foremost as servants of the citizens of South Africa”.
In the white paper, the government recognised the necessity of establishing service standards that “must be set at a level which is demanding but realistic”. Eight principles defined the transformation impetus of the public sector and included the standard of value for money, underscored by public services “provided economically and efficiently in order to give citizens the best possible value for money”.
As South Africa underwent the growing pains of democracy and the demands of an evolving society, other concepts were added to the mix of the Batho Pele doctrine, including the Back to Basics programme. This programme identified the essential facets of functional municipal environments as:
- Political stability;
- Service delivery;
- Financial management;
- Institutional management; and
- Community satisfaction.
The programme borrowed extensively from the 1997 white paper’s playbook, tailoring its framework for service delivery to local government. This was so because the white paper focused on setting standards for national and provincial government.
The quest to transform the public sector from one bedevilled by indifference to the citizenry into a professional setting characterised by responsiveness and accountability to the community goes back to the early days of democracy. The previous generation put in the political groundwork and crafted policies to build institutional capacity and capability.
The 1997 white paper demonstrates an inherent understanding that those either elected or appointed to public office are in those positions not for personal benefit but in “service to the people”. However, the ethos of “service to the people” has been lost in translation for the current generation.
This is apparent in the Auditor-General’s 2022/23 annual report tabled recently in Parliament. The report offers insights into the accelerated deterioration of local government’s performance in financial and service delivery terms.
What differentiates this report from those of previous years is that it highlights how municipal dysfunction now also has financial implications for the Office of the Auditor-General.
The report states, “Auditees impacted by the status of their public finances are unable to pay audit fees, which in turn threatens our sustainability.” Furthermore, the report draws attention to the ever-increasing debt owed by municipalities to the Office of the Auditor-General.
The piling up and unpaid audit fees “[restrict] … our plans to modernise our tools and develop our staff. Our leadership pays constant attention to this challenge,” reads the report.
According to the 2022/23 report, outstanding audit fees stand at R1-billion, representing 24% of total revenue for the office. Most of the municipalities that owe fees are in financial distress.
It is worth noting that in his recent Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement the finance minister acknowledged that “effective local governance is the bedrock of service delivery. Equally, financially stable municipalities are the foundation of our nation’s economic prosperity.”
However, the Office of the Auditor-General’s assessments of municipalities’ performance reveal a consistent trend of rapid decline. The institution predicts further “deterioration of service delivery at local government because of the lack of sufficient financial resources”.
The accountability ecosystem is producing suboptimal outcomes. As matters stand, Batho Pele has long been abandoned as a practice and displaced by an erratic brand of politics and public administration. There has not been a return to Back to Basics but rather a regression into the abyss.
The current political elites do not seem to view themselves “first and foremost as servants of the citizens of South Africa”. They do not appear to be in office in “service to the people”.
What is happening in municipalities and elsewhere demonstrates to South Africans that value for money, underscored by public services “provided economically and efficiently in order to give citizens the best possible value for money”, no longer informs resource management.
There are few municipalities that possess the essential features of effective administration: political stability, governance, service delivery, financial management, institutional management and community satisfaction.
In the 25 years since the publication of the White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery, the public sector has turned into a site for resource contestation, mired in political instability, bad governance, inadequate service delivery, financial mismanagement, institutional mismanagement and community dissatisfaction.
The fall from grace between then and now correlates with the societal disappointment in the current crop of political elites. DM