This article was originally published in Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa.
By Lukhona Mnguni
Local government is a constitutional imperative in South Africa. Section 152 (1) of the country’s constitution requires municipalities to be responsive, accountable and inclusive. A 2009 document by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) defines local government as “a key part of the reconstruction and development effort in our country.” Yet, 21 years into the democratic dispensation, local government is failing.
One measure of this is growing civic dissatisfaction with the quality of local government. According to the Civic Protests Barometer 2007-14, published by the Multi-Level Government Initiative, the number of “civic protests” in South Africa reached an all-time high in 2014, at 218. Since 2008 there have been over 100 protest incidents every year.
The level of violence associated with these protests is also rising. “In 2007 just less than half the protests were associated with some violence. In 2014 almost 80 percent of protests involved violence on the part of participants or the authorities,” according to the study. Moreover, “issues relating to municipal services and the administration of municipalities were cited more often as cause of protests than all other grievances put together.”
Interestingly, the report concludes that the rise in civic protests does not reflect a “rebellion of the poor,” as suggested in “public debates, political statements and even academic publications.” There was only a 19 percent correlation between the number of protests and the number of poor people, defined as “those living in the poorest 25 percent of households, counting only those aged 16 to 59,” in the municipalities where protests took place for the period under review, it says. “We need to look for other explanations for the extensive involvement of the non-poor in protests,” it concludes. Yet the report itself shows that the rise in protests is strongly associated with dissatisfaction with municipal services.
According to the University of Cape Town’s Professor Tom Koelble, the main reason why local government is failing is due to a lack of capacity, which “translates to … failures in local governance.” In particular, he identifies a lack of capacity among local government technical staff and managers, who were “probably not equipped to handle their departments.”
In 2014, a poll of 164 municipalities in six provinces by City Press, a national weekly newspaper, revealed that only 40 percent of municipal managers had met a deadline “to acquire the appropriate skills” for their jobs. The deadline had been set in a 2007 National Treasury document, “Guidelines for Municipal Competency Levels.” Also in 2014, the minister of COGTA noted that out of 278 municipal chief financial officers, managing about 320 billion South African rand (about $28.9 billion in December of that year) in municipal budgets, 170 did not have appropriate qualifications for their jobs.
As part of its study, City Press cited the example of then municipal manager of Nama Khoi municipality in Springbok who had acquired his job, in 2011, on the basis of a ninth grade education. The appointment was in direct breach of the 2007 national treasury directive. In the same year, the auditor-general found the municipality’s books were in a shambles. No wonder: The wrong captain was steering the ship.
It is further possible to distinguish a number of issues that contribute to the crippling lack of capacity in local governance in South Africa.
Firstly, the findings of auditor-general reports are not enforceable by that office. The auditor-general is a Chapter 9 institution, constitutionally established to “audit and report on the accounts, financial statements and financial management” of public departments and entities. Unlike the Public Protector (another Chapter 9 institution) the auditor-general does not have the power to “take appropriate remedial action.” The auditor-general submits its reports to politicians—council mayors, legislatures, parliament, and ministers. It is up to them to act on the audit findings.
Some improvements in accountability by municipalities are observable in the auditor-general’s annual reports on local government. At present, local government consists of 278 municipalities and 57 municipal entities, or organizations used by municipalities to deliver services, including utility companies. Of these institutions, in 2007-08 only 2 percent received audit results that were unqualified with no findings, the best possible evaluation. This improved to 17 percent in 2013-14. But even with these improvements some 47 percent of the municipalities received reports as follows: qualified with findings (24 percent), where financial reports conformed to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), except for a few areas; adverse with findings (1 percent), where audited financial statements do not reflect the municipality’s performance fairly and there is lack of conformity with GAAP; disclaimed with findings (18 percent), where the auditor-general elects not to issue an opinion, mainly because significant uncertainty exists over parts or all of the financial statements submitted by affected municipalities; and outstanding reports (4 percent), where no financial statements were prepared for the auditor-general to receive and carry out the audits.
These municipalities collectively manage a budget of 76.6 billion rand ($5.07 billion). That is a lot of money in a country facing serious fiscal challenges. Without effective governance, billions of rand will continue to be squandered. The exact losses from municipal mismanagement are not easy to tally but they fall under staggering estimates of the cost of corruption and fruitless expenditure to the country. In 2011 the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution estimated that some 20 percent of the country’s annual GDP was being lost to corruption and fruitless expenditure. In January 2015 the Institute for Internal Auditors claimed that South Africa had lost 700 billion rand ($55.16 billion) to corruption since 1994.
In 2009 the government found that “the financial environment in municipalities is a highly problematic area—at worst it is fraught with both a poor skills base, weak support from provinces, and then open to abuse and fraudulent activity.” Unfortunately, however, this same government has not succeeded in reversing this trend.
Secondly, a legislative defect protects constituency-based town councilors from real accountability to their electorates. The electoral system at the local government level is hybrid, and includes an element of constituency-related activities as well as proportional representation. In the former, citizens in a specific ward directly elect the individual they want to be a ward councilor; in the latter, citizens cast a vote for a political party and it is a party that decides who occupies, in proportion to its gains, the council seats reserved for proportional representation lists.
However, once elected, councilors are beholden to the whims of the party that nominated them. A political party can recall a councilor if it is displeased with that person for some reason. Internal party politics therefore exert an influence on many councilors—even those who are performing well.
In the Eastern Cape province, for instance, the African National Congress provincial leadership listed several municipalities as “hot spots” of factionalism, as reported in a February 2013 article in the Daily Dispatch, an Eastern Cape newspaper. The provincial treasurer, Thandiswa Marawu, admitted that “factional battles were adversely affecting service delivery” in these municipalities. (This conclusion overlaps with GGA’s rankings of the municipality performance.) In Mbashe and Mnquma, several councilors were expelled from the party for defying party directives.
Thirdly, it is evident that the ruling elite has political interests as regards the disbursement of municipal funds. The “political–administrative interface,” a phrase used by Professor Christopher Thornhill, professor emeritus of the University of Pretoria, is mired in overlaps, and a complete separation of the two is impossible. In South Africa, divisions between politics and administration as delineated by legislation are not being respected. More often than not, the mayor and the municipal manager belong to the same political party. The municipal manager, who is also the council’s chief accounting officer, may find himself drawn into political considerations with regard to the disbursement of funds.
As a result, the Municipal Systems Amendment Act of 2011 has been implemented half-heartedly at best. The purpose of the Act was to minimize and terminate the practice of “cadre deployment” to critical official positions in municipalities, but this practice has persisted. No comprehensive figures are available on the number of under-skilled but politically connected officials currently in local government, even in reports by credible bodies such as Deloitte. However, the available figures on the number of qualified managers and CFOs who are employed in local government positions do allow a partial deduction of the state of affairs. Glenn Hollands, a development consultant, posits that this is a strategy that allows “the ruling party to supplement its control of most councils with pliant and often weak administrators, only too willing to take political direction.”
Fourthly, as noted above, there are indeed poor levels of appropriate knowledge and skills sets in local government all across the country. Over the last two decades, local government has consistently shown itself unable to attract relevant skills, which has resulted in a reliance on external consultants. Consultancy fees can deplete municipal budgets, thus affecting service delivery projects, including the ability to pay salaries.
Fifthly, and largely as a consequence of the lack of skills and knowledge outlined above, many municipalities are dependent on consultancies for a range of services, including information communications technology, financial control mechanisms and project management. Even the conceptual work involved in formulating and writing an Integrated Development Plan—a five-year detailed plan on development priorities for a particular municipality, and a legal requirement—is often outsourced.
IDPs are linked to the municipalities’ budgets and all relevant stakeholders within their jurisdiction, including contractors, suppliers and local residents, should be involved in their formulation. However, since they are often formulated by external consultants who are not accountable to citizens, members of municipal councils are not usually full custodians of their IDPs.
Lastly, citizens are disengaged from local government. This is at least partly a result of the minimal involvement in planning on the part of elected officials noted above. Because they are not committed to their IDPs, they discourage interactions with the public, or avoid them, or behave in ways that are inappropriate to their roles as public officials. This results from what Zwelinzima Vavi, former secretary-general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, calls “a growing social distance between leadership and our mass constituency.”
In 2012, Mamphela Ramphele, a senior academic—and, at the time, a prospective politician—observed that the country needed an active citizenry to “mobilize citizens to voice their rights and exercise their responsibilities.” In reality, where they have no further recourse, citizens in poor or marginal communities who experience official obfuscation or poor service are resorting to protest.
This list of challenges might make the overall problem look insurmountable, but there are a number of specific and concrete proposals and ideas that policymakers could consider.
Clearly the auditor-general’s office needs more teeth and reach. Currently, the auditor-general’s reports depend on organizations and people in the political arena—councils, legislature, and parliament—for their implementation. Where political high stakes are involved, the auditor-general’s reports are likely to face inaction, even where they address technical and professional aspects of municipal governance, such as financial management.
The auditor-general needs to be empowered to require the National Prosecuting Authority to act on his or her recommendations regarding poor financial practice in local government. In particular, the auditor-general should be empowered to institute sanctions, including the prosecution of local government officials who are identified as having participated in corruption and mismanagement. The requisite legislative instruments are already in place, including the Municipal Financial Management Act, the Public Management Finance Act, and Treasury Regulations.
Local officials can be vulnerable to internal party conflicts and interests. Often, this stimulates intra-political party tensions in a local community, to the detriment of service delivery. In July 2013, this was evident in Tlokwe local municipality (formerly Potchefstroom) in the North West province, when ANC councilors acted in concert with the opposition to remove a mayor alleged to be involved in corruption. The said ANC councilors were reprimanded by their party, which sparked intra-political party tensions that weakened the party’s public standing. In addition, the amount of time the affected councilors devoted to the issue also detracted from the municipality’s functioning.
Political infighting can also cost the ruling party its hold on some wards. In January 2014, for instance, the Johannesburg-based daily, Business Day, reported that the ANC had suspended 16 of its councilors in March 2013 in the Mbhashe municipality in the Eastern Cape for their role in ousting a sitting ANC mayor in their council. The mayor had been accused of tender irregularities, but the ANC chose to protect the incumbent.
In January 2014 the ANC then lost two wards out of the 12 it had held in the municipality before the resulting by-election: one to an independent candidate and the other to the United Democratic Movement, according to a report by a Johannesburg-based news and opinion outlet, the Daily Maverick. “Ructions in a number of municipal councils in the province have contributed towards hampering service delivery,” then-member of the Executive Council for local government and traditional affairs in the province, Mlibo Qhoboshiyane, lamented in 2013.
Political parties that wish to recall a constituency-based councilor should be required to submit a request to do so to the electoral court, with supporting documentation. A recall should proceed only once the court is satisfied that the application is based on objective and rational grounds.
At present, indeed, the opposite often happens: councilors who have been recalled approach the courts to challenge the decision. The function of a recalled councilor may be held in abeyance while a new candidate for the role is sought. Councilor positions may be left vacant for months due to legal battles fought by councilors against their suspensions, according to the aforementioned Business Day article.
It is also evident that the incumbents of local government positions need to demonstrate greater responsiveness to people’s needs and a greater receptiveness to the need for institutional reforms such as the ones outlined here. At the same time, electorates must more actively ensure that they elect capable individuals of moral standing to local government positions. The main aim, at all times, must be to ensure that the existing laws relating to local governance are understood by all stakeholders and that they are enforced when necessary.
In mid-2015, a former municipal employee, the city manager of the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality, Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela, went to court to argue that Ben Fihla, an ANC-appointed mayor of the municipality, had interfered with her work and prevented her from making senior appointments that would have helped to guard the municipality against irregular and unlawful expenditure. These allegations were confirmed credible by Judge Dayalin Chetty of the Eastern Cape High Court in May 2015. By then the ANC had appointed a new mayor, Danny Jordaan, a respected football administrator, ahead of 2016 local elections.
In fact, the ruling party was facing mounting discontent over many failures in local governance in the municipality. In April 2015, the National Union of Metalworkers said that the city was “at risk of falling to the opposition [Democratic Alliance] because of the ANC’s weakness there.” Clearly the prospect of a democratic challenge to the power of incumbents can force them to do the right thing.
The timing of local government elections should also be reconsidered. They should take place six months before councilors assume office. This would allow for a period during which councilors can be educated and trained on relevant government legislation and good governance practices, such as those outlined in the King reports on corporate governance, as well as leadership practices of transparency, accountability and consultation. Moreover, to maximize citizens’ support of their municipal structures, the election of ward committees should occur simultaneously with that of councilors.
Lukhona Mnguni is a PhD intern at the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is a public commentator on issues relating to socioeconomic and socio-political development in South Africa.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]