Let the locals lead

2012-04-05 00:00

BRIEFING journalists in Cape Town on the Local Government Budgets and Spending Review in 2012, Pravin Gordhan warned officials and politicians to ease up on the gravy, so that the national fiscus could weather the global economic storms.

This sounds like an understatement, coming as it does from no less a personality than the Finance Minister.

Local authorities have neither the financial capability nor the administrative capacity to rise to the requirements of the Constitution of South Africa. Politicians, dissatisfied residents, commissions of inquiry, press reports and the auditor-general have all commented that public administration has not lived up to the ethos of the South African Institute of Public Administration.

Instead, local authorities have, in the main, become a haven for officials who are not career driven and have neither the experience nor the background to perform or meet the requirements of the demanding public. The practice of progressing through the ranks to gain experience has become alien to the public sector. One of the winning ways of the private sector is the adoption of the succession policy that is the foremost criterion in appointing staff, including the issue of qualified capacity that does not necessarily mean academic qualifications.

In South Africa, politics has by and large assumed a preferential role in the appointment of officials. If sound public administration is absent, municipalities will not be administered in sound financial practice and this has had many negative spiral effects.

Having identified the void in the administration capacity of our municipalities, it brings to the fore the second area of grave concern, which is their financial capacity. Local authorities have become permanently dependent on central government for financial support. Without grant funding, local authorities would not be able to function. In the past, the basis for financial ability of local authorities to discharge their obligations to the communities was derived from, among others, property tax.

With the advent of so-called wall-to-wall municipalities, municipal areas have become a lot larger, yet the tax base has remained the same. In his book, Local Government Law, Johan Meyer has alluded to the heavy shadow that both central and provincial government have cast on the local scene. Both have compromised a municipality’s duty or right to perform its functions. This has not only pushed the boundaries of local authorities further away from the city or town hall, it has also brought central and provincial government closer to them.

Public health, slum clearance, housing, planning, urban transport, electricity, water affairs, produce markets and abattoirs have now become the functions of provincial and central government, as have public protection and education. Township establishment, town planning, traffic affairs, crematoria, licences, internal affairs of local government as well as methods of levying local rates have become heavily regulated by provincial ordinances.

Central and provincial government have become involved in local affairs to such a degree that the local political community, and in many instances, local authorities turn to central and provincial government to solve local problems. With such a diversity of functions to be performed with limited resources and with more than one statutory body being responsible for service delivery, it is a wonder that it takes place at all.

It is a confused situation, which is why we saw that great trek of about a dozen central government ministers to mount an intervention in Limpopo. Citizens have not seen the last of the Minister of Basic Education, with the president in tow, paying an unannounced visit to the Eastern Cape to quell school riots there. Sometimes we see on television cabinet members and others spending valuable time debating such issues as uncovered toilets in the Western Cape and Free State. On top of all this confusion, central government still believes it can run a modern and growing economy, fix local government, build infrastructure, feed a growing population, combat crime and corruption, tackle poverty and inequality, finance a welfare state, create jobs and generate electricity.

These tasks are meaningless without fixing basic education, without exploiting fully available skills in this country, without liberalising immigration, without professionalising the civil service, without making South Africa friendlier for business.

It is time to shift the paradigm. Local authorities should either perform the functions traditionally performed by local authorities or not at all. Those local authorities that have performed should be capacitated. Where local authorities are unable to perform, the district municipality should step in until such time that the local municipality has been groomed to fulfil its function.

It is either that, or all our municipalities will continue to exist in a state of chronic bankruptcy. The tragic part of this state of affairs is that local officials become the first victims when residents vent their anger due to no service delivery. And it is a known fact that provincial and central government officials hardly suffer these sometimes-fatal consequences when our townships erupt in protest.

• Edgar Dhlomo is a business-person and retired teacher.

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