Municipalities were meant to be the lynchpin of the ruling party’s plans for the country, but they are often the very exemplar of what is wrong with governance in South Africa.
It should have been encouraging to hear Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s thoughts on the state of the country’s municipalities last week. As the minister for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, addressing the municipal malaise is the most important responsibility she carries (indeed, there is even a municipality in KwaZulu-Natal that bears her name). To her credit, she seems to understand the magnitude of the problem and the implications of failing to turn it around.
‘It is common knowledge most of the municipalities, some metros and districts are not fulfilling their responsibilities as they should,’ she said, ‘There are 40 Municipalities that are currently under section 139 administration, and many more that are dysfunctional or struggling.’
She added: ‘The major challenges are in the areas of weak governance, non-compliance with legislation, poor quality of annual financial management, internal control weaknesses, supply chain management, performance challenges as well as a lack of service delivery. These challenges also include service delivery on the ground, hence the increase in service delivery protests, and we know that these protests have become very destructive.’
The immediate context was the report of the auditor general on South Africa’s municipalities in 2017/2018. Of 257 municipalities, a paltry 18 (or 7%) received clean audits in that year. This was only half the 33 that did so the previous year. Irregular expenditure stood at some R25.2 billion – admittedly, a decline from the R29.7 billion the year before, but still a mind-boggling sum. 57 municipalities incurred deficits.
Some 43 municipalities lacked a permanent municipal manager and 51 a chief financial officer (in a majority of these cases, these positions had been vacant for six months or more). The ability of some incumbents was suspect, with the report noting that in one province, ‘even though the chief financial officer position was filled at some municipalities, there was a lack of technical competency skills to appropriately interpret, analyse and report the financial and performance information in compliance with relevant frameworks and legislation’.
A troubling number of municipalities lacked the necessary technical skills to monitor and maintain their infrastructure. Indeed, some 23% failed merely to assess the condition of their road infrastructure, 31% failed to do so with their sanitation infrastructure and 29% in respect of their water infrastructure. All of this inevitably has its consequences for people’s day-to-day lives, and for the attractiveness of the overall environment for business and investment.
Perhaps most sinister are reports of threats (‘the audit environment became more hostile’) to the auditors. The line between municipal governance and organised crime is not always a clear one…
Behind all of this, the Auditor General’s report points to an array of factors: a lackadaisical attitude to addressing problems of risk and deficient internal controls; lack of consequences for bad performance; and a general lack of skills and capabilities, with key positions being improperly filled, or not filled at all.
That the minister pledged to address this is commendable. Equally commendable was the support she received from the cabinet. Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu told a media briefing that the cabinet had decided that ‘heads must roll’ over the situation. Action – not mere words, mind! – was needed: ‘The cabinet has said the minister working with relevant municipalities should indeed find a way of curbing these maladministration tendencies in our system of local government.’
Fighting words, and words in which one should find encouragement. But there is little encouragement to be found in them.
Municipal government has been a lynchpin of the ruling party’s plans for the country since it came to power (in stark contrast to its profound ambivalence about provinces). Yet municipalities have struggled to step up to the ‘developmental’ mandate that had been envisioned for them. Quite the contrary: they are often an exemplar of what is wrong with governance in South Africa.
As the Auditor General’s report makes clear, the cumulative effect of municipal pathologies can be described as a massive failure of accountability. This is hardly new, at this level or throughout the state as a whole.
Yet in principle it should be possible to remedy this. South Africa has mechanisms – electoral, administrative and legal – for enforcing accountability. Perform ethically and effectively, or be moved out for someone who will.
What is lacking is the political impulse to do so. The report touches on this: ‘Unfortunately, political infighting at council level at some municipalities directly affected the administration of municipalities, with councils delaying decision-making and neglecting their oversight duties in pursuit of a political agenda. We also observed political interference in the administration of some municipalities.’
This is not new either. Previous government research on local government has identified the ‘political-administrative interface’ as a major difficulty. Nor is it accidental. In 1997, the African National Congress took a decision to politicise the civil service. This is what came to be known as cadre deployment. Counter-constitutional from the outset, it was remarkable just how many otherwise sensible observers saw no real problem in it. This policy – rather than the antics of a family from Uttar Pradesh – was the original state capture.
Political interference in the running of the state was the intention. Rather than the established accountability systems that the constitution, the law and even the electoral system may have afforded, the writ of a deeply factionalised party was decisive.
The corruption and dysfunctionality that it brought may not specifically have been intended, but they were entirely predictable, if for no other reason than that South Africa had neither an infinite pool of skills nor robust institutions. It needed the very best it could muster – irrespective of race, sex or politics – and to staff its nascent government system with them.
Doing the contrary was a conscious choice. As evidence mounted as to its destructive impact and even in the face of a court judgment (the case of Vuyo Mlokoti vs Amathole District Municipality in 2008), it remained party policy. No less a person than current president Cyril Ramaphosa chaired the party’s national deployment committee between 2013 and 2017.
We’ve heard tough words before. Yet, the toughest and most encouraging words – that a policy flawed in its very conception and deleterious in its execution is forthwith abandoned, in the spirit of building an ethical and meritocratic public service – have yet to be spoken.
Until they are – or perhaps more accurately, until they are put into practice – the accountability so desperately needed for the type of governance that will take the country forward will remain illusory.
Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.
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