Municipal turnaround

2009-10-26 00:00

IF the past week is any indication, the government is intent on sorting out the country’s dysfunctional municipal system.

On Tuesday, President Jacob Zuma met mayors and municipal managers for a frank discussion of the problems. This was followed by a two-day indaba on local government in Boksburg. At the indaba, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka released a report on the state of local government.

The report is based on assessments of municipalities across the nine provinces, carried out between April and August this year. The exercise aimed at helping identify the root causes of problems in many of the country’s municipalities. It will be used to formulate a national turn-around strategy for local government.

The minister said the task is to answer the question: “What must be done to restore the confidence of our people in this sphere of government by 2011 and beyond?”

A perusal of the document shows that it is markedly different from most government reports. What comes across is the honesty in admitting the government’s failings, a trait that was sorely missing during President Thabo Mbeki’s time in office.

However, it is one thing to be honest, and another to act on that honesty. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and the months ahead will reveal government’s resolve on this issue.

An example worth watching is our own Msunduzi Municipality. Here’s why. A key section of the report speaks of party political factionalism and polarisation of interests. It says this has led to the “subsequent creation of new political alliances and elites, which have contributed to the progressive deterioration of municipal functionality”.

The report talks of the inappropriate relationship between party and municipal structures and of the power struggles that result, which can lead to municipalities falling apart.

The local media have been reporting for some time that the Msunduzi Municipality is clearly divided.

Opposition parties in the council allude to the fact that there is a complete breakdown in the relationship between the mayor and the speaker and that councillors are positioned in one or other faction. There are claims that senior officials also take sides.

As to who is in which camp, it is difficult to tell because it seems people’s allegiances shift depending on where they see their fortunes lie. The result, insiders claim, is that very little gets done and while the municipality functions at certain levels, at others where it matters most, nothing moves.

Sources within local government circles will tell you that the current re-opening of the decision on the city’s metro status is a direct result of the divisions within the local ANC. It was re-opened, they say, because the one faction could not abide having Zanele Hlatshwayo as a metro mayor. However, ask for comment on the record and no one is prepared to talk. It is as if there is a large elephant in the room and no one is prepared to acknowledge its presence.

The first direct challenge to this impasse came from a surprising quarter — a former city mayor. Omar Latiff, speaking at last week’s two-day city summit, did not mince his words.

He told delegates that the economic development the city so desperately needs will not happen in a situation where there is no proper governance.

“We can’t have a situation,” he said, “where the mayor is pulling in one direction and the speaker in another, where the municipal manager is off on stress leave every now and then and the chief financial officer is walking around in a daze not knowing what to do. This is not on if you want to position the city for the future.”

Latiff said the only way to get the city moving is for representatives from the business community and civil society to put pressure on the powers that be to resolve the impasse.

Shicelo said government’s turnaround strategy is based on what must be done to restore the confidence of people.

In the case of Msunduzi, Latiff provides an answer on how confidence can be restored in the city. Good governance is required and political leadership has to be shown from within the ANC party structures in this province as well as at local and provincial government levels. It is time for tough choices and even tougher action.

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