A constitutional amendment won’t make taps flow

2014-02-26 10:00

Mike Muller (“Constitutional crisis”, City Press, February 2 2014) highlights serious concerns over failed water and sanitation services, and the resultant widespread service-delivery protests.

These protests are a symptom of the many challenges we face in building the society envisaged in our Constitution.

How do we address these challenges?

Muller proposes amending the Constitution because it “gives municipalities an extreme level of autonomy”.

However, this sharply contrasts with the constitutional framework within which the government needs to govern – where the central principle guiding intergovernmental relations is cooperative governance.

Clause 41 of the Constitution outlines the principles of cooperative governance.

While the Constitution gives authority to local government to exercise its powers and functions, local government has to do so within the framework of the Constitution and subject to national and provincial legislation, and norms and standards.

Muller highlights one of the principles of cooperation, namely that no sphere of government may “encroach on the geographical, functional or institutional integrity of government in another sphere”.

The intent of this clause is not to prevent the government from taking action, but rather to prevent any form of obstruction or hindrance to a municipality performing its functions.

The clause also does not prevent sustainable interventions – interventions the SA Local Government Association welcomes for distressed municipalities.

The government has a guardian role in the system of cooperative governance – and thus we can’t say national government’s hands are tied.

Section 154 of the Constitution requires the government to “support and strengthen the capacity of municipalities so that they can manage their own affairs, exercise their powers and perform their functions”.

Where local government is failing, the national government has an obligation to intervene.

This obligation exists not only in its responsibility to ensure coherent governance, but also in its oversight role to ensure that norms and standards are followed.

The government is divided into spheres in order to more effectively fulfil its role and responsibilities.

Communities are not interested in which sphere is doing what or whose fault it is that services have failed.

What they care about is the services they receive, and the quality and reliability of those services.

Ultimately, the national government has the legislative and executive authority to ensure that municipalities effectively perform their functions.

The daily job of the government is to systematically transfer skills, build up capacity over time and ensure that municipalities are on a sustainable path.

So what can “intervention” achieve that can’t be achieved now?

Interventions are short term, quick fix in nature and hardly ever achieve results.

Yet problems in the water sector are due to a lack of sustainability – including infrastructure issues and the absence of necessary technical skills.

Interventions are not sustainable. If systematic support is provided, which is curative rather than reactionary, there would not be a need for interventions.

Or is Muller proposing that the purpose of intervention is to take away the water services function from those municipalities that are failing?

Service-delivery failure is inevitable where political interests or corruption interfere with the proper execution of municipal functions.

Since systemic corruption tends to affect more than one municipality, government department or single sector, solutions need to look beyond the municipality to the broader context within which it operates.

Ultimately, support needs to be based on a realistic diagnosis and evaluation of what is required.

De la Harpe is executive director of municipal infrastructure and services at the SA Local Government Association

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