Day of judgment

2010-07-26 00:00

WHEN Dr Makhosi Khoza, chairperson of the provincial standing committee on public accounts (Scopa), worked in the field of local government, she visited a municipality in the Free State to find councillors and officials in the middle of a party. Nothing wrong with that because there are often successes in local government worth celebrating. However, the reason for this particular celebration, she was told, was that the municipality had been given a qualified audit. Khoza said they believed that it was better than getting an unqualified audit.

Khoza told this story on Friday after listening to the presentation made by the municipal manager of eDumbe, Thabo Putini. This was at the start of the joint hearings on the nine worst-performing municipalities in the province. The municipalities are appearing before Scopa and the finance and co-operative governance portfolio committees.

Khoza said she had to express her frustration at the absence of an understanding of the basics. “Does the municipal manager understand what constitutes a disclaimer? It means that the financial records are in such disarray that the Auditor-General cannot give an opinion,” she said.

Putini’s presentation started off badly when the IT official he had brought along could not get his Powerpoint presentation to work, even with the assistance of the legislature’s IT staff. A sign of things to come.

The municipal manager acknowledged that his municipality had been getting disclaimers since 2002/03, but said he firmly believed that in the last financial year they should not have been given a disclaimer as they gave in their reports on time. Other reasons for the poor performance, said the municipal manager, who has been in his post since the middle of 2008, is that “some staff employed by the previous regime have no skills”. He also hinted that the issue of colour had played a role in the municipality getting a poor audit.

Khoza picked on this remark, telling Putini that if he harbours such thoughts then he has no idea how the audit process worked and that he should know this, being a municipal manager.

She queried his lack of basic understanding. “If we are still at this stage, then it points to the serious challenges we have here.”

Next to appear was Nongoma municipality, whose previous municipal manager, chief financial officer and mayor were all thrown out. There is a new team at the helm, but the administrator who had been sent by the provincial department to sort out the mess at the municipality had left without so much as a close-out report.

MPL Sipho Gcabashe, a long- time member of both the finance committee and Scopa, sat in the legislature with a sense of deja vu. At one stage he remarked to chairperson Belinda Scott: “Haven’t we heard this all before?” Gcabashe said the municipality was put under administration, but it seems the administrator also did not do his job.

If interventions are made, we expect results.

Msunduzi Municipality, which is currently under administration, will be appearing before the hearing in the first week of August. Unlike eDumbe, which can be classified as a small-town municipality that has difficulty accessing skilled staff, Msunduzi is more fortunate. It had as its municipal manager a former geographer and university lecturer and a CFO with a B. Comm degree. How then does the city find itself in such a pickle? According to the report on Msunduzi before the joint committee, a roads project that cost close to R111 million was funded from the operations budget. It’s basic accounting that capital projects are not paid from an operating budget. There is an even bigger gaffe — spending money you don’t have or haven’t budgeted for. Msunduzi committed to fund a R240 million remote metering system, which was not budgeted for at all.

Previous legislative hearings on municipalities have tended to be benign affairs. Scott is at pains to point out that the hearings are an exercise in co-operative governance. We are here to help you, she tells the municipalities. However, it seems that this time around, the members need to take a tougher stance, especially since some of the municipalities did not even bother to heed the advice given to them when they were last at the legislature.

Who knows what lessons may come out of these hearings. The national government has launched a turnaround strategy for local government. Perhaps more is required, a getting down to basics, a re-education of sorts.

With service delivery protests mounting, no one in government can afford to sit back. As Scott said to the eDumbe mayor, “As political head, you and your councillors should be stepping in. You need to take charge.”

So, too, the joint committee must continue to ask the tough questions.

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