Challenges of the municipalities

2019-02-21 16:40
KZN’s South African Local Government Association (Salga) chairperson and mayor for the Harry Gwala District, Mluleki Ndobe.

KZN’s South African Local Government Association (Salga) chairperson and mayor for the Harry Gwala District, Mluleki Ndobe. (Nokuthula Ntuli)

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The culture of non-payment for services is not only crippling municipalities financially but also threatens council-funded service-delivery programmes.

This is the sentiment shared by KZN’s South African Local Government Association (Salga) chairperson Mluleki Ndobe in an interview with The Witness.

Ndobe is also the mayor of the Harry Gwala District, which encompasses four local municipalities, including Kokstad and Umzimkhulu.

He said that while municipalities receive grants from national and provincial government, they cannot fund all the functions of the council from these grants as they come with conditions on what the money should be used for.

He said what most people do not understand is that the national and provincial budgetary allocations are based on the income of the institutions and the population of the municipalities. This disadvantages rural municipalities as people migrate to cities for economic reasons, so the rural municipalities end up getting a lesser allocation.

“What is also compounding the challenge for municipalities like ours is the ageing infrastructure. Many of our towns were designed for fewer people but now that we are extending access to sanitation and water to more people, the infrastructure that we have is not coping.”

He said many towns are still using asbestos pipes and billions of rands are needed to replace them. When the Harry Gwala District did its calculations for the backlog and maintenance of infrastructure, the total came to around R2 billion and Ndobe said the problem is the same across most of KZN’s 11 districts. He said the challenge in most parts of the province and in his own municipality, is expanding the revenue base as there are many people who can afford to but do not pay for services.

“People need to understand that the revenue collected is the same money that we invest back into infrastructure development.”

Ndobe said municipalities across the province are owed large sums of money for services and sometimes attempts to recover those debts are unsuccessful.

Sharing a bit of history about the culture of non-payment for services, Ndobe said it stems from the late eighties and early nineties, when people boycotted paying for services in order to collapse the then government. He said that unfortunately this has continued in the democratic dispensation and people think it is acceptable not to pay.

“It’s simply not sustainable for municipalities … We must do more, as authorities, to educate people about the importance of paying.”

He said what is also frustrating is that some of those who owe the municipalities are businesses that continue to make profits.

“When it comes to businesses you don’t expect them not to pay so we must enforce our bylaws and cut the services where we have to. But we must make them aware of the implications of not paying.”

He said it is easier for local municipalities that are electricity service providers to cut off power but the district municipalities are not allowed to disconnect water because it is a basic service.

Ndobe said that he understands that one of the reasons some people do not pay is unaffordability, so the indigent registers, especially in the rural areas, are long. This puts pressure on municipalities to update their data regularly to ensure that they are billing the right people.

“The problem that you find is that some of those who are indigent don’t want to come forward so that they can be registered, but this is another challenge on its own.”

WATER LOSSES

Municipalities must not let up on the war on water leaks and must continue to ensure the reduction of non-revenue water. Ndobe said with the drought persisting, every drop of water counts.

“We have dams that are drying up and where there is water, the levels are too low. Even in rivers the water levels are down. It’s even worse in the areas where we are using boreholes because water tables are down so they dry up and those [water] schemes become dysfunctional.”

He said the issue of water supply has sparked several protests around KwaZulu-Natal and some of the shortages have been caused by drought.

“The other factor that contributes to that of course, is that as we approach elections you will see a lot of protests because people become a lot more impatient and they know, correctly, that they will receive attention.”

On dealing with the water leaks, he said officials should spend less time in the office and be out in the field so that they can deal with these and other service-delivery issues.

SERVICE DELIVERY SHOULD NOT BE NEGOTIABLE

A former school teacher, Ndobe believes that quality service delivery to the people “is a must”.

He said now, even more than before, people are observant and they know how the government works.

He said those who were given the responsibility to lead and deliver services must take it seriously.

“You cannot justify, if you go to a certain community, why after 25 years of freedom and democracy, there are still no roads, no water, no electricity, and so on.”

He said he is proud of the work that the Harry Gwala District has done over the years to change the lives of the people living in its four local municipalities, but they are not where they want to be.

“But because of what we’ve inherited and the challenge of limited resources, the speed that we are going is not an ideal one that we would have wanted, because of the backlog and the issue of financial resources, like I’ve mentioned.”

Public participation and other engagements with the electorate on service-delivery issues should be encouraged, Ndobe believes. He said the Integrated Development Plans and budget imbizos are some of the platforms that give the public an opportunity to have a say on the direction they want their cities and towns to take.

“Besides that, there is also nothing stopping the people from inviting the councillor or even the mayor to their area to come and explain.”

He said public representatives should be accessible to the electorate so that they do not end up frustrated, which sometimes leads to protests.

“We’ve even had people in-boxing us on Facebook and we respond because that’s how it should be.”

THE POLITICAL CLIMATE AHEAD OF THE POLLS

As the country gets closer to elections, Ndobe said, service-delivery issues are politicised as those contesting try to score brownie points. This sometimes breeds unnecessary intolerance among communities. Ndobe said this is worse during local government elections but “you will see cheap political point scoring even with national and provincial elections”.

He said councils are made up of different political parties so all the members know the platforms to report service-delivery issues but they deliberately ignore them.

“They will sit in the same council that makes decisions and not raise their issues there but for political reasons they will go out, during this time, and raise all sorts of issues as if they are not aware of what’s happening. It’s like they forget that as leaders, they are also supposed to provide solutions for the people.”

He said councillors —irrespective of their political affiliation — must take full responsibility for council resolutions that they were part of making.

STABILITY IN MUNICIPALITIES

Political stability is crucial for municipalities to be able to carry out their core functions.

“There will never be progress as long as there is instability in our areas, and where there are differences either internally — in parties across the spectrum, because it’s not just in the ANC — or externally, we must sit down and talk about them,” said Ndobe.

He said even in councils, representatives of political parties should learn to engage on difficult issues without resorting to threats or violence.

He said Salga welcomes the various national and provincial government interventions to curb political violence in the province, including the Moerane Commission of Inquiry.

“Right now, we are busy with the implementation of the recommendations of the commission.”

He said they are starting to see the results of those interventions, including arrests, even though the matter has not been finalised.

“We respect the rights of individuals with regard to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, but the fact that there is some progress on the issue, it gives hope, even to the communities in general.

“You must remember that this was not affecting only the councillors. In a number of areas, in Richmond for example, even officials were threatened and even killed.”

On the transition after the May general elections, Ndobe said Salga is anticipating a loss of some of the practitioners in the local government sector who might be deployed to provincial or national government.

He said managing the period is crucial for the continuity of municipal programmes as there will be new people coming in.

“Whatever transition we are doing it must not negatively affect the electorate.”

CORRUPTION

Ndobe believes that corruption can only be tackled if those who have information report it to the relevant authorities.

He said graft compromises the financial viability of municipalities and as a result, communities are deprived of speedy service delivery.

He said the challenge of dealing with allegations of misconduct includes the element of witch-hunting.

“Those who come forward must have evidence to assist the law-enforcement agencies who will be investigating those allegations.”

He conceded that the culture of keeping quiet after witnessing a crime, from the days of apartheid government, is still prevalent. Back then, police informants who reported on the work of the anti-apartheid activists were severely punished for their actions.

“We need to educate ourselves on the differences between a whistle-blower who is lifting the lid on corruption and someone who compromised the noble cause of fighting oppression.

“If you were to side, at that time, with the oppressors, society was going to be agitated so we must learn that it is a noble act to report corruption today because all of us should be committed to clean governance.”

He said it is concerning that some of the people who lifted the lid on the VBS Bank corruption in Limpopo have since been killed.

“That could be a deterrent to other people in other parts of the country who may be sitting on valuable information that could assist some of the investigations that are under way.”


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