Substance is sadly lacking

2014-06-20 00:00

THERE are currently 278 municipalities in South Africa — brought down from 283 as the Demarcation Board has redefined boundaries. Some poorer municipalities have been joined with bigger councils, for example Imbabazane and Umtshezi (Estcourt) in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Given these figures, President Jacob Zuma lauding the performance of 11 out of 278 municipalities is hardly praise, and more of an indictment of local government in South Africa.

The municipalities singled out for praise represent about four percent of the local councils in the country (3,96% to be precise). The uMzinyathi District Municipality was one of the 11. This municipality’s administration was taken over by the KZN Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) last year after it exceeded its budget. Let’s be generous here; it probably learnt some valuable lessons from the intervention.

The president said the 11 stood out for “consistent good performance in audits, expenditure on municipal infrastructure grants and service delivery”.

Still, four percent of municipalities doing what they are supposed to be doing is a shocking figure, and this in the year 2014 — when the government had set a target for municipalities to achieve clean audits. Operation Clean Audit was launched in 2009 — by former minister for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the late Sicelo Shiceka.

In February this year, Business Report said that this target was not going to be achieved. A confidential Cogta report showed that last year only 48% of municipalities and municipal entities had obtained unqualified audits. Rather than underwhelming us with the good performance of 11 municipalities, the president could have given us more detail on how the other 267 municipalities are going to receive a shake-up. We will wait for what the former Finance minister and now head of Cogta, Pravin Gordhan, will have to say about changing the state of municipalities in our country.

The president said that over the next three years, R847 billion will be spent on infrastructure, and several projects are to be started or completed. Yet it is not just about spending the money — there are the issues of price fixing and collusion, lack of maintenance plans, poor budgeting, and over and under-expenditure. While State of the Nation addresses cannot go into detail, there are assurances that a taxpaying public needs and what better forum than when a president is addressing the nation?

One could go on nit-picking at the president’s address but members of the opposition seemed to be making a meal of that in the debate over the past two days. The problem is that they are not faring any better than the president did. The debate has been robust and Julius Malema provided some high entertainment as he pushed parliamentary boundaries of decorum and “brought the house down”. But like the president’s speech, the debate is hot on air and thin on substance.

Even the more serious leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, used his slot to bring up his current pet topic — that the former national chairperson of the IFP was funded by the ANC to start her breakaway National Freedom Party.

Not that the ANC behaved much better. Former Communications minister and current MP Yunus Carrim, called DA leader in Parliament Mmusi Maimane “a black poster boy from the suburbs”.

Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu went further and called Maimane a black “commodity” for “the madam”.

There was Maimane doing his best Barrack Obama impression as he started his speech saying he was “a son from Soweto”. He also threw in his punches, telling the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that wearing berets does not make them revolutionaries.

South Africans watching the broadcast of the debates on television must have wondered what has happened to Parliament — that hallowed ground of democracy. Everybody is still addressed as “honourable”, and the old-fashioned etiquette of the Westminster type has remained the order of the day. Change and robustness are not bad ideas, but the bewildered look of the National Assembly’s deputy speaker Lechesa Tsenoli said it all — that there is a new game in town.

Robust debate is one thing, but it cannot only be about trading insults. Just as we demand more substance from the president, so too do we from our opposition benches.

There are 267 municipalities in the country that need to be overhauled in order to provide services to the poor and the unemployed, who cannot just be fodder for the witty repartee of parliamentary debates — it’s people’s lives we are talking about.

• Nalini Naidoo is a journalist at The Witness.

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