[OPINION] Let’s talk about the service delivery revolution

Don’t you know they’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution,

It sounds like a whisper…

While they’re standing in the welfare lines

Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation

Wasting time in the unemployment lines…

Sitting around waiting for a promotion…

Don’t you know they’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution,

It sounds like a whisper…

Poor people gonna rise up

Get their share

Poor people gonna rise up,

Take what’s theirs…

Tracy Chapman’s iconic 80s song Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution seems to have added resonance now especially as we watched Mahikeng and other parts of the North West province burn. Burning has become a leitmotif in South Africa. Usually, if protesters want the attention of politicians, burning follows protests. President Ramaphosa cut his London visit short to deal with the crisis in Mahikeng. 32 people have been arrested for public violence and the violence seems to be continuing.

Yet, the challenges within communities are deep-rooted. They reflect a toxic mixture of poor governance which, in turn, is a reflection of the dysfunction within the ANC. People consistently called for North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo to be relieved of his position, though that seems to be easier said than done given the ANC’s internal factionalism. Mahumapelo, a known ‘Zumarite’ and, according to reports, involved in several corruption scandals, will not go without a fight.

ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, himself under scrutiny for corruption, visited the North West along with his deputy Jessie Duarte. Given both of their ties to former president Jacob Zuma, it was clear that their presence was never going to solve anything. Incidents of corruption against Mahumapelo are apparently being investigated by the ANC and the Hawks seem to be circling.

But, it would be foolhardy to hold our breath for quick solutions to this mixture of political turmoil, corruption and resultant poor governance. These challenges at local government level are not new and indeed were the reason for the ANC’s poor showing in the 2016 local government elections. Virtually not a day goes by without a so-called ‘service delivery’ protest and without burning and road closures, after all. They seem part and parcel of our morning or evening traffic reports, sadly.

Local government across the country is in crisis. A cursory look at the Constitution, the Municipal Systems and Structures Acts and the Inter-governmental Framework Relations Act provides proof that what we had envisaged for local government and the status quo are, indeed, worlds apart. For all the transparency, the law requires in relation to municipal financial management and the consultation envisaged as being integral to Integrated Development Programmes (IDPs), the grim reality is that local government is largely dysfunctional.

The Auditor-General has repeatedly warned against the state of financial management in municipalities, and the government’s own analysis in its 2009 state of local government report indicates how severe the challenges of lack of capacity, mismanagement and corruption are at the local level.

Tackling this complex set of challenges will require a combination of leadership, political will, training and tough decisions on ensuring the rule of law prevails in municipalities that are often run as personal fiefdoms. It is worthwhile revisiting this 2009 local government report. It is frank about the patronage networks many local government municipalities have become. It states unambiguously that party factionalism has led, in many parts, to the “progressive deterioration of municipality functionality”.

It identifies weak oversight, overly complex legislation which municipalities are unable to get to grips with, corruption, skills deficits and tensions between the political and administrative interface as bedevilling local government’s efficacy. In addition, the pressure on metros has increased with urbanisation. Apartheid spatial development, too, continues to entrench socio-economic vulnerability, the report says.

The findings should have shaken everyone out of their complacency, specifically the section that deals with access to water. It tells a tale of poor management of our resources, which is as inexcusable as it is unforgivable. The politicians are often quite keen to say that the violence has been stoked by inter/ intra-party conflict, yet that is denying the very real problem of communities which are falling apart as a result of a lack of services, choking in their own rubbish or even faeces at times.

Communities are frustrated, yet the Constitution envisages a proper conversation. It also envisages peaceful, respectful protest. Parliament’s constitutional mandate is to oversee the executive in order to ensure the just society envisaged in the Constitution becomes a reality. It is clear that for there to be social justice, our democratic institutions must work in tandem to ensure meaningful oversight and accountability.

As countless research documents have shown, there are no easy, overnight solutions to poverty and inequality. The danger of high inequality is that it foments anger within society, which makes creating inclusive solutions tricky to negotiate.

Then Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Yunus Carrim rightly pointed out in 2009 that a debate about local government must begin. That was almost ten years ago now. But now that we know what the situation is, and local government audits have happened, what will be done?

A fresh discourse must begin around service delivery and it should be based on respect for citizens’ rights in terms of the Constitution, while at the same time fostering responsibility within communities.

The report on local government has identified the symptoms and root causes and part of the government’s turn-around strategy is premised on working with municipalities and provinces to create greater accountability within local government.

Of course, the greatest plans can be wrought but, as the report itself acknowledges, much of the success of local government begins and ends with political leadership.

Since 2009, local government has arguably fallen into further dysfunction. It is time sufficient political will is summoned to deal firmly with corruption and cronyism at local level and to ensure that skills are deployed in towns and communities that need them most.

If we fail to do so, poor people will indeed rise up and “take what’s theirs” - and who will be to blame then?

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february