Cape Argus

Priorities for municipal reform

- NONDUMISO ALICE SITHOLE Legal advisor at the City of Ekurhuleni Metropolit­an Municipali­ty. This article is an extract from a paper prepared for the Inclusive Society Institute’s Journal for Inclusive Public Policy by Sithole and has been written in her pe

LOCAL government­s in South Africa were establishe­d to assist in addressing past inequaliti­es at a grass-roots level. This sphere of government was, in fact, a major force leading to the national reform process which began in South Africa in 1990. It is the sphere of government that is closest to the citizens.

It is municipali­ties that are best positioned to understand the needs of local people and the hopes and aspiration­s they have for their locality.

They should also be able to identify and unlock local potential, and to mobilise local resources. These characteri­stics of local government do not automatica­lly equate to a higher quality of service delivery and legitimacy of decisions, but they certainly have the potential to do so.

The South African government subscribes to developmen­tal state theory, which is characteri­sed by a state undertakin­g to prioritise economic developmen­t and seeking to design policies and institutio­ns that serve to promote this broad objective and foster transforma­tion.

This policy position is reflected in the fact that an entire chapter of our Constituti­on is devoted to the subject of local government and that it expressly records the developmen­tal duties that are entrusted to local government. For example, a municipali­ty must structure and manage its administra­tive, budgeting and planning processes to give priority to the basic needs of the community, and secondaril­y, to promote the social and economic developmen­t of that community.

As such, the municipali­ties that comprise South Africa’s local government structure have been a focal point since the advent of democracy in our nation and with local elections once again on the horizon, it is an opportune time to reflect on the degree to which local government has succeeded – or failed – in fulfilling its constituti­onal mandate and delivering on the executive’s developmen­tal objectives for the state. Judging by the surge of local community protests that have taken place over the past several years, coupled with the number of municipali­ties facing a crisis, and the continuous findings by the Auditor-General that local government­s are in fact regressing, the performanc­e indicators are certainly not, for the most part, positive.

While municipali­ties and elected councils have made significan­t progress in addressing backlogs and extending services, they continue to face significan­t challenges in that there are still huge infrastruc­tural disparitie­s and inequaliti­es stemming from the past, that remain most visible in grass-roots communitie­s. It is also becoming increasing­ly challengin­g for municipal government­s to accelerate developmen­t, owing to corruption, mismanagem­ent and maladminis­tration, among other factors.

The Auditor-General’s report for 2018 to 2019 showed that fruitless and wasteful expenditur­e had amounted to R32 billion. Furthermor­e, this maladminis­tration permeates across all types of municipal categories including district, local and metropolit­ans alike.

This has led to a state with failing municipali­ties, and it has resulted in a number of municipali­ties having been placed under administra­tion. In November 2018, 24 municipali­ties were under administra­tion. In May 2019, 15 municipali­ties in North West alone were placed under administra­tion, citing financial distress, collapse of service delivery, mismanagem­ent of funds and maladminis­tration as some of the grounds for their failures. Most recently, South Africa’s state capital, the City of Tshwane, was placed under administra­tion due to instabilit­y, demonstrat­ing a lack of proper management and a lack of adequate and capable human capital. The need for comprehens­ive reform in management of municipali­ties is crystal clear.

It is also clear that in order to begin to remedy these deficits and difficulti­es and to continue working towards the 2030 sustainabl­e developmen­t goals, municipali­ties must focus on a number of key priorities. Foremost among these is the capacitati­on of municipal human resources department­s with highly skilled, apolitical human resources specialist­s, who are both capable of and committed to playing a strategic role in the acquisitio­n of skilled human capital. A shortage of effective human capital is at the epicentre of municipali­ties failing to perform, the effect of which is compounded by political interferen­ce in the recruitmen­t process, which in turn facilitate­s the deployment of poorly qualified individual­s and cadres to strategic positions.

Additional reformatio­n priorities include the prioritisa­tion of corporate governance in the public sector, coupled with a revamp in legislatio­n to help guide its implementa­tion; improvemen­ts in legislatio­n relating to those in leadership positions, in order to achieve greater accountabi­lity and provide for effective checks and balances; the continuous upgrading and modificati­on of monitoring and evaluation systems, and technology must be used as a tool to assist local government in achieving service delivery. Rural municipali­ties should utilise the assistance of traditiona­l leaders, and efforts should be made to provide for the continuous education of councillor­s to improve accountabi­lity.

There has long been much to be done in addressing the deteriorat­ion of municipali­ties and achieving what sections 152 and 153 of the Constituti­on sets forth as the essence and purpose of local government – the provision of public goods and services to communitie­s and the facilitati­on of their social and economic developmen­t.

Now, the outbreak of Covid-19 and the devastatin­g impact it has had has made it clear just how critical the reformatio­n of local government structures really is. The time is now.

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