An issue of mind-set

2010-01-08 00:00

IN December, the Cabinet accepted­ the Department of Co-operative­ Governance and Traditional Affairs’ Turnaround Strategy for local government. Notwithstanding a series of adverse audit reports over several years, mounting municipal debt and the common perception that, generally, local government in South Africa is a disaster, it was the spate of community protests, some violent and shameful, that appears to have prompted urgent action.

Some of these protests, perhaps even all of them, were entirely justified­, I’m sure. Promises of a better life for all have not materialised in marginalised and poverty-stricken communities where patience over 15 years has been characteristic. In almost all cases, the protesters highlighted either corruption or mismanagement, or both, and referred to councillors and officials who were either lining their own pockets or abjectly incompetent in the execution of their duties. As a result of election promises, protesters were short on insight when it comes to appreciating that the delivery of every service costs money, and somebody has to pay.

Even among people who can afford the rates and tariffs, there has developed a reluctance to pay. We want better service, but we are not happy to pay for it. This is understandable in view of wide perceptions that municipal income is being squandered, sometimes into the pockets of councillors or officials, but also on causes which have little to do with the delivery of basic services and the welfare of the municipality’s population. Indeed, there is sometimes little evidence to suggest that municipal leaders are concerned about such welfare until there is some mobilisation to protest.

The Turnaround Strategy lays a strong emphasis on responsiveness to communities and sets out plans to strengthen ward committees and their constructive operation. While this division of municipal affairs into wards representing what are loosely called “communities” may pre-empt outbreaks of protest action, I believe­ that effective municipal governance and management are about a lot more than ward projects.

Indeed, half the councillors are there by virtue of their ranking on the party list and not as a result of voters directly demonstrating their acceptability. The measurement of ward committee success seems to relate to whether the ward’s pet project is accepted or not. It becomes unwholesomely competitive when limited funds and political allegiances join forces­ as determinants.

The new strategy even advocates ward budgets to be controlled by the wards themselves, each of which should have its own “economic development product” and ward development plan. In this paradigm, the councillor is to be the “governor” of the ward and the CDW the CEO. (A CDW is a community development worker, a position which the government is training people to fill. Their task is to liaise between the community and the municipality, which is exactly what might be expected of the ward councillor.)

All this seems to be a theoretical concession to democracy which, in my view, gives little hope for the better performance of municipalities, which are not conglomerates of wards, but holistic entities in which communities are not confined to residential localities alone. The responsibility for delivery has already been devolved, unsuccessfully in the main, to district and local municipalities, and this strategy seems to advocate a further delegation to an even lower level.

It is worth considering, in this context, that citizens are still forming ratepayers’ associations in the belief that these will give them the necessary voice in municipal affairs. It points to the fact that ward committees are not working and enjoy little credibility among those who pay for the city’s maintenance.

Part of the Turnaround Strategy document is devoted to an “Outline of key intervention areas”. My overriding impression of these 12 pages of columns devoted to the planned intervention and whether national, provincial or local government should take responsibility for it, is that it will be up to the national government to ensure success or not.

To my mind, however, apart from a more practical regulatory framework and less emphasis on theoretical compliance, the major interventions need to be effected by political parties and their representatives among the councillors and officials. It is an issue of mind-set; firstly, in the choice of those to be deployed or appointed, and, secondly, in the attitude and competence that these people bring to their responsibilities.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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