Residents taking over failing municipalities not a long-term solution - experts

In some parts of the country, residents have taken matters into their own hands, successfully persuading the courts to take away from councils some of their powers and functions, as well as budget, and give them to concerned citizens to fix crumbling infrastructure.

Potholes in Mahikeng. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

CAPE TOWN - With local government elections just days away, voters are hoping that their votes will make a difference.

But experts are warning that it will take a mammoth effort to halt the decline that has brought municipalities across the country to the state of near-collapse.

In some parts of the country, residents have taken matters into their own hands, successfully persuading the courts to take away from councils some of their powers and functions, as well as budget, and give them to concerned citizens to fix crumbling infrastructure.

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The plan for local government always envisaged active citizens playing a part in the well-being of their community. Ironically, the government now faces an increasing number of ratepayers who are taking matters into their own hands and who are finding support for this from the courts.

But Professor Jaap de Visser of the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape said that it wasn't a long-term solution.

"You cannot have private associations running public infrastructure. One only wants to commend the community for taking charge and doing what is needed, but there is no accountability in the long run. It is not a democratic structure."

While the government is holding out its District Development Model as one answer to bringing local government's back from the brink, De Visser is skeptical. He said that the plan to make the three levels of government work better together was something that should have been happening for the past 20 years because it was spelled out in the Constitution.

"It's nothing new - it's old wine in new bags," De Visser said.

Professor David Everatt of the Wits School of Governance said that corruption and rent-seeking in local government continued, with nobody held to account. That impunity bred contempt for the law and voters alike.

"Above all, it's about the local sphere being called to account and nobody seems to be able to do this. So here we sit. I do think there is a rotten politics, not just in the ANC; I think there is a rotten politics generally, which is about rent-seeking."

Voters will have a chance to try and bring about change in their municipalities with the way they vote on 1 November.

But turning local government around will take more than crosses on a ballot paper.

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