Newsmaker – Xolile George: The man to make local government work

2014-08-03 15:00

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When Xolile George took the reins at the SA Local Government Association (Salga) in 2007, municipalities didn’t take the organisation seriously.

Salga kept getting adverse audit results, which made it difficult for George and his team even to get municipalities to sign up as members.

Only 144 of the 384 municipalities at the time paid Salga their membership fees – this is not a legal requirement for municipalities.

“I walked into an organisation with a long his-tory of bad administration, bad audits and stakeholders who had no confidence in Salga.

“I asked the Salga executive to give me a chance and not to write off the R184?million we were owed,” said George.

Three months later, 90% of the municipalities had paid their levies. Today, 98% pay their levies on time.

The association has received clean audits for two years in a row.

With his own house swept clean, George – a former director of economic development for the City of Johannesburg – has spent the past seven years pleading with politicians to commit themselves to monitoring how their municipalities spend taxpayers’ money.

He spoke to City Press shortly after the launch of the latest local government turnaround pro-ject, the Municipal Audit Support Programme.

The project is a response to Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu’s presentation of a damning set of municipal audit results this week.

Makwetu and his team gave 79 municipalities disclaimed audits, which meant they could not show how they spent taxpayers’ money in the 2012/13 financial year.

But George said unless politicians really committed themselves to making it work, the programme would be a damp squib like so many before it.

He said politicians had constantly failed to sanction underperforming municipal officials or even set up committees to monitor how they spent money.

Makwetu was unimpressed with municipalities’ preparation and performance.

He said in his report that, had it not been a legal requirement for his office to audit all municipalities, it would have withdrawn entirely from the process.

Only 22 of the country’s 278 municipalities and eight of 41 municipal entities achieved clean audits.

This was a 5% improvement from the previous year when just nine municipalities and eight entities got a clean bill of health.

George echoed Makwetu’s main concern: even though the law is clear about what steps should be taken against officials who fail to comply with the law when spending money, this is not done.

“The more people see consequences, the more [they] will push for this kind of vigilance and ­accountability across the board.

“So investment in oversight is critical for ­political leadership.

“I’d say we’re halfway through getting municipalities’ finances in order, and come 2016 we could move local government to the desired state. But that means there must be consequences when there are problems,” George said.

“For a developing country that suffers a lack of skills, South African municipalities have ­progressed fairly well and they are less than 20 years old.

“All we need to do is to act decisively on wrongdoing and that doesn’t require 15 years.

“We can act on these transgressions now.”

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