Municipalities under siege

2010-12-04 14:36

As we approach the 10-year mark of our system of local government, we need to ask the question: have we fully listened to our own advice and that of those more knowledgeable on how we should position the system as an agent of local democracy, transformation and sustainable development?

The audit opinions of the auditor-general (A-G) offer little cause for celebration.

Early in March 2000, a document by James Manor of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex, ­titled “Local government in South Africa: Potential Disaster Despite Genuine Promise”, was circulating in the Department of Provincial and Local Government (now Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs).

He cautioned against over-regulation in local government and the obsession of national bureaucrats with “First World” prescripts.

We paid no attention, and the result is that municipalities are laden with many highly complex tasks they are unlikely to fulfil.

Added to this are the limited resources with which they are expected to perform these tasks.

Municipal challenges owe much to the environment which gave birth to the system – an environment characterised by the austerity of Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme).

Gear imposed constraints on the development potential of municipalities.

This limited the fulfilment of the objects of local governments as contained in Section 152(1) of the Constitution.

The notion of creating post-apartheid towns and cities dissipated.

Many municipalities inherited apartheid debts, were unable to leverage private-sector resources and had no revenue base.

Their financial situations were compounded by the continued devolution of “unfunded mandates” by national departments that were themselves shedding responsibilities to escape the austerity.

Ten years on, there is consensus that the prospect of most municipalities generating their own revenue is an illusion, with transfers constituting 90% of some poorer municipalities’ budgets.

Any hope of improving the performance of municipalities needs to urgently review their financing, create predictable service delivery and seriously curb the pursuit of power, patronage and nepotism.

Manor highlighted the fact that the country “faces a serious shortage of high-quality technocrats”.

Needlessly, we went ahead to insist, both in the Systems Act of 2000 and the Municipal Finance Management Act of 2003, that municipalities perform a plethora of functions beyond their means.

With limited technical and financial capability it is unlikely these functions, including the municipality’s own development plans, can be executed.

Also, while national bureaucrats require municipalities to provide performance reports, it is not clear what purposes they serve, since nothing is ever made of them.

They are not the basis on which government or communities base their assessment of municipalities.

This supports Manor’s assertion that “ ... even the poor and unlettered citizens do not require elaborate sets of indicators to form shrewd, accurate judgments about the performance of elected bodies. Such indicators are unnecessary”.

Recent community uprisings ­attest to this.

While the production of annual performance reports is not inherently bad, they must add value to the work of municipalities and be given the required recognition (to include and substitute the findings of the A-G) as indicative of the performance status of each municipality, and where necessary, the basis for support or intervention.

The other area supporting Manor’s critique is with regard to the allocation of functions.

In most community protests, services for which local politicians are made subjects of community imprecation include social services, with housing being the most in demand.

Interestingly, none of these is a municipal function.

Since these tasks are closely bound up with the legal requirements for municipalities to produce IDPs (integrated development plans), why are these functions not devolved to municipalities?

Manor ascribed this to the distrust of local authorities by higher- level government policymakers.

Ten years on, experience confirms that proper integration at municipal level will be highly assisted by the efficacious distribution of functions.

The distrust of councillors is self-serving for policymakers.

On the one hand there is a reluctance to prescribe minimum competencies for councillors.

On the other, they are projected as the types who cannot be trusted with certain ­responsibilities.

Based on global experience, however, Manor argued that the more power a government devolves to local authorities, the more likely that skilled persons will seek election to them.

Much has been made of lack of administrative capacity, with no attention paid to representative capacity.

Responding to a criticism by the the Centre for Development and Enterprise’s Ann Bernstein, who characterised districts as “a fourth, unaccountable tier of government ...” the then minister for local government argued that districts would perform “a redistributive” function and “capacity building for category B municipalities”.

Almost 10 years on, districts have not demonstrated any ability to generate revenue to “redistribute”.

On the subject of a single electoral system, such a system will invariably lead to a single financial year, and herein lies the problem.

At the end of each financial year the AG audits more than 100 national and provincial institutions.

Added to this are requests by ­parliamentary committees and legislatures for the AG to conduct forensic investigations.

» Africa is a former MEC for local government and an expert on local government matters

» Mosiane is former municipal manager and director for intergovernmental relations in the former Department of Provincial and Local Government and took part in the development of some local government policies

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