Fixing local government depends on political will

Can South Africa’s ailing municipalities be overhauled, and if so, what should the key elements of a turnaround strategy be?

Many of South Africa’s municipalities have since 1994 suffered from broken governance, lack of democracy and poor service delivery.

Corruption, mismanagement and official indifference have become so endemic that a number of surveys have concluded that local government is one of the least trusted public institutions.

It is regularly said that the problem of failing municipalities is a combination of lack of “capacity” or “skills”, lack of funding and lack of appropriate laws.

Government has over the years introduced a number of technical solutions – parachuting in experts, injecting new funding and enacting new laws, to try to fix the country’s ailing municipalities – most of which have ended in failure.

To the contrary, the failure of government reforms to turn around the broken local government system is due to a lack of political will.

The reality is that securing an administrative position or an election to a council in local government is increasingly seen as a route to enrichment.

Contests in ANC branches over leadership positions are increasingly becoming acrimonious affairs, as prominent positions in branches offer a route into local government as mayors, councillors and top administrative positions.

Top positions in municipal politics and administration in turn provide the power to decide on lucrative government contracts and the appointment of staff.

The appointment and dismissals of ANC councillors, municipal administrators and local government service contracts are increasingly politicised or based on patronage, rather than on capability. There are many skilled, honest and conscientious South Africans from all races who could be appointed to municipalities.

Similarly, there are also many competent companies that will be able to efficiently complete municipal contracts.

What has been missing in all government interventions to clean up municipalities is a singular lack of political will to tackle the politicisation and “patronagisation” of appointments, and dismissals of political and administrative representatives and distribution of contracts in municipalities.

Unless government depoliticises and depatronises the local government sphere, it is unlikely to turn around failing municipalities. Political office bearers should not occupy administrative positions in municipalities.

In many cases, decisions by municipal managers are often overruled by political office bearers in the ANC who occupy lower administrative positions, but have higher positions in the ANC.

The ANC as a party will have to relook at the policy of “deployment” of ANC cadres, whether as councillors or administrative staff, into municipalities.

A practical consequence of incompetent cadres being deployed to key municipal positions is that government may introduce a multitude of new laws, regulations and rules, as “technical solutions” to solve municipal failure; however, the “deployees” do not have the capacity to implement them.

The ANC’s national task team appointed to probe the 2011 local government elections when communities and ANC members rebelled over centrally appointed councillors, which was headed by former Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, reported that many ANC councillors simply did not have the necessary competence to resolve community problems.

Some of the deployed candidates were described by the Dlamini-Zuma task team as “lacking values, principles or ethics”, for “whom public service is not a concern, but accruing wealth at the expense of poor communities is their priority”.

The Dlamini-Zuma report pointed to factional manipulation in the nomination and removal of councillors and said that competent councillors were often removed because they oppose corruption, waste and mismanagement.

Clearly, the ANC will have to look at the quality of its internal candidates for councillors’ positions for the coming local government elections next year.

Auditor General Kimi Makwetu found there was a continuing trend in municipalities for officials to give tenders and contracts to companies in which their mayors, councillors, municipal officials and families had stakes.

There has to be more transparency in the handling of municipal tenders, which include making them publicly and widely available, having outside, independent observers vetting their allocation and having quick, fair and transparency dispute resolution processes.

One way to clean up local government, while at the same time boosting the sphere’s capacity, accountability and democratic participation, is for municipalities to partner with civil society, communities, business, as well as organised labour.

Any turnaround strategy for local government will also have to be predicated on change in the organisational culture of the ANC itself – which often takes precedence over South Africa’s Constitution, formal laws and rules.

The ANC’s organisational culture includes what former ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, then ANC general secretary, in his 2005 ANC organisational report to the ANC’s national general council described as increasingly characterised by “fights over leadership positions, selection and deployment of councillors, tendering and control of projects”.

To clean up its organisational culture, Motlanthe proposed that the ANC: “Relook at conditions of transparency in our [ANC] internal business, including governance, democratic rights of members, improving the quality and nature of our congresses and electoral systems, as well as safeguarding the system of democratic decision making.”

Sadly, vested interest to keep the current “politicisation and patronagisation” of local government in place may be so entrenched now in the ANC’s local branches, that it may be too difficult for the ANC leadership to muster the political will to introduce the necessary changes.

If that is the case, only if the ANC loses key cities and municipalities in next year’s elections – and with it gsain the fear that it may lose more seats, and by this the party’s ability to distribute patronage, may the party leadership muster the necessary political will to introduce the required changes.

*This article appeared in the Daily Dispatch. To view the article on their website please click here. 

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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