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[OPINION] Tackling the crisis in local government

Even as the latest media reports have President Ramaphosa’s approval rating at 80%, he himself would be under no illusion about the governance challenges that face him and the ANC, both immediately and ahead of the 2019 elections.

He would also be aware that a recent poll found only a slight majority of 52% of people polled are currently likely to vote for the ANC in the 2019 general election. Dissatisfaction with poor and declining governance standards are borne out by the daily community protests across the country as citizens desperately seek government’s response to socio-economic challenges, from land to housing and pervasive unemployment.

Last week, the Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu released the 2016/2017 audit results for local government. They made for dismal but unfortunately not unsurprising reading. During this time, Makwetu’s office audited 257 municipalities. Only 33 municipalities (13%) received clean audits and the degree of corruption and maladministration has worsened steadily. Irregular spending by municipalities has increased by 75% to R28.4 billion.

He painted a picture of neglect, abuse of resources, flouting of tender processes and debt-ridden municipalities. He also expressed his concern that since 2011, the recommendations of his office have largely been ignored.

In the same week, Ramaphosa signed a proclamation that the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) probe corruption in several municipalities in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. It will be a slow and laborious process because the politics of cadre deployment and turning a blind eye to corruption has become entrenched. In places like KwaZulu-Natal, investigating corruption has also become a ‘life or death’ business.

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 was easier said than done given the ANC’s internal factionalism. He remains chair of the ANC in the North West so his removal was not quite the excision that was needed.

So, 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, as Makwetu lamented. Indeed, they were part of the reason for the ANC’s poor showing in the 2016 local government elections.

It is fair to say that 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, as he reiterated again last week, 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”.

Furthermore, 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 falling apart as a result of a lack of services, choking in their own rubbish, or even faeces at times.

Communities are frustrated and it is clear that for there to be social justice, our democratic institutions must work in tandem to ensure meaningful oversight and accountability.

Much of the success of local government begins and ends with political leadership - and officials feeling the consequences of their actions. Without such consequences, those in municipalities who are meant to serve the people will continue to serve their own interests.

When Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti said recently that he was going to give those officials responsible for corruption to the tune of R6.7 billion ‘a chance’ and not ‘condemn’ them, eyebrows rightly raised. A second chance when Nkwinti has said his ministry is ‘in a mess’?

Recently Parliament passed the Public Audit Amendment Act which seeks to give the Auditor-General’s office powers to refer adverse findings to investigative bodies and to recover funds from accounting officers if there has been non-compliance with the Public Finance Management Act. This is a welcome step in the chain of accountability which has, thus far, been rather weak. Of course, investigative authorities themselves must have the will to act against those who act with impunity, but it is a step in the right direction at the very least.

It is time 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. Ramaphosa is trying to make a start and that should be encouraged and not undermined by his colleagues in Cabinet or the ANC.

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