Saving the city

2008-10-20 00:00

It has taken a long time for Msunduzi’s council to acknowledge something that residents see every day: the municipal infrastructure is in serious disrepair. Whether it is falling apart through irretrievable neglect or merely facing a maintenance backlog may be debated. The mayor believes it is the latter, but when her deputy — who chairs the committee responsible for the infrastructure — himself concedes that he avoids visiting certain areas for fear of being questioned about the situation, something is very seriously wrong.

At first glance this may be a depressing admission, but it contains the seeds of a revival. Recognising that a problem exists is the first step towards finding a solution, and until now there has been a marked reluctance on the part of local governments to admit that things are amiss. The Umgungdlovu Municipality has been a case in point, but also a pointer to how things may be put right. Changes in the executive led to the appointment of competent staff and an effective management structure, and a municipality that was virtually dysfunctional is starting to get to grips with its problems.

There are two obvious key factors: competence and accountability. People must be assigned to jobs because they are capable of doing them and, once appointed, must be held accountable for doing them properly. One Msunduzi councillor observed that some roads are repaired and others left unfixed. In similar vein, the deputy municipal manager for infrastructure, facilities and services commented that contractors are not properly monitored and leave jobs unfinished. So have people been fired? Has payment to the offending contractors been withheld? Or did municipal management simply shrug its shoulders and stumble on?

Now that councillors, municipal managers and residents are all in agreement that the problem exists, perhaps there can be joint action to remedy the situation. Fortunately, a recipe for success is close at hand. Cape Town’s Helen Zille, this year’s winner of the World Mayor award, advises building a team by putting the right people in the right place, letting them get on with it and holding them accountable. It seems to work.

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