What local services?

2009-06-04 00:00

NEWLY appointed KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Local Government and Traditional Affairs Willies Mchunu has admitted that municipalities are unable to deliver services faster and more efficiently because of lack of capacity.

Speaking at a media briefing in Durban recently, Mchunu said that the 61 municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal are not running as smoothly as intended. Therefore, it is no surprise that the new MEC’s first order of business is to visit the municipalities, get first-hand information on the challenges they face and come up with remedies to get them back on track.

Unfortunately, Mchunu inherits municipalities that are either unable to manage their finances or are unable to meet their service delivery mandates. Five years ago, more than 55% of the municipalities in the province were unable to provide formal housing, electricity or water. Providing sanitation services was also a problem for most of them.

During the period 2000 to 2004, the finances of smaller municipalities were in dire straits. A number of them received “qualified” (read “poor”) audits and it has taken many of the municipalities years to turn their financial position around. Some are still stuck in the quagmire.

All municipalities have had to tussle with the demons of corruption and fraud. Internal squabbles around accusations of financial maladministration have frequently resulted in fingers being pointed by communities at either the councillors or municipal officials.

The problem of financial maladministration affects district as well as local municipalities. An example close to home is the uMgungundlovu District Municipality which made headlines in the recent past under its former mayor, Bongi Sithole. The municipality had the dubious distinction of running out of money to buy basics like toilet paper and printing paper. Reasons cited for the crisis included the awarding of a R1,3 million donation to businessman and alleged mayoral boyfriend Lucky Moloi. The municipality is still recovering from the maladministration that took place before Sithole was relieved of her duties.

Moving on … Let’s talk about wasteful expenditure for which municipalities have built up a notorious reputation. In the Umvoti (Greytown) Municipality, councillors spent almost R40 000 to hold a meeting in a hotel because the councillors said they couldn’t “concentrate” in the municipal chambers. The same municipality spent more than R50 000 on 100 calendars and 100 executive diaries. These examples are more than likely only the tip of the iceberg. Wastefulness seems to have become the norm in most municipalities.

High salaries for municipal officials have also had a role to play in financial instability. Last week in uMngeni (Howick) Municipality, councillors voted to increase the annual salary package of municipal manager Dumisani Vilakazi to R1,3 million. The startling decision comes against the backdrop of a worldwide economic recession that has threatened the livelihoods of citizens around the world and already resulted in millions of job losses. On top of this excess, it is usual for officials to receive large bonuses year on year for doing jobs they were simply employed to do.

In all of this we need to remind ourselves that financial maladministration of this sort happens under the “watchful eye” of councillors who are tasked with ensuring that service delivery and development mandates are carried out.

While it can’t be said for every councillor, instead of selflessly putting the needs of the communities they represent before their own, many are either active or passive participants in the politics of “self-enrichment”.

Municipalities are a critical tier of government in South Africa and councillors have a mammoth and important role to play in how municipalities conduct themselves. But in so many instances, they choose to disregard their oversight roles and act surprised when community members speculate about why, all of a sudden, their councillors appear to have become rich. They need to be trained to understand why they are there and what is expected of them.

In underperforming municipalities, cracking the whip on councillors, holding them to account for their performance and replacing those with poor track records has to be one of the options considered to put municipalities back on track.

Councillors and officials are not there for their own benefit. They are there for the benefit of ratepayers and residents. And political parties have to start putting pressure on the municipalities they control to perform. Otherwise, come 2011, when local government elections are held, they will find themselves sitting in the opposition trenches, having been voted out by a people fed up with waiting for the service delivery to which they are entitled

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