Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa couldn’t have said it better when he delivered the opening address at the fifth national conference of the SA Local Government Association (Salga).
Speaking at a packed Sandton Convention Centre last week, he said: “You are our leaders in the sphere of government that is closest to the people of our country, but also closest to their challenges, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations, their societal well-being and also their futures.”
It was a fitting and pivotal point to a speech that, almost to the word, echoed the expressions of Mohammed Valli Moosa when he addressed an inaugural summit of local leaders as minister of provincial affairs and constitutional development.
That was back in 1996, when a galvanised gathering of councillors, eager to carve a consolidated path for a visionary future, laid the foundation for the formation of Salga in eThekwini, KwaZulu-Natal.
To think that it has already been 20 years since that august assembly agreed on aspirations and aims is almost too hard to believe.
Even harder to fathom are the challenges that still face municipal officials. Challenges that Ramaphosa’s speech succinctly highlighted: continuing transformation; community safety and general societal well-being; job creation; the rooting out of corruption; and, last but certainly not least, with a special emphasis on its global import, the eradication of HIV and Aids by 2030.
Looking out over the expansive hall of councillors, numbering 901 officials from 225 councils when the conference got going on Tuesday, Ramaphosa said: “Many of you present here were elected into office soon after South Africa hosted the 21st International Aids Conference in Durban.”
On the eve of World Aids Day last Thursday, and referring to the work of the National Aids Council, Ramaphosa emphasised the “critical role” municipalities have to play in the fight against “the global pandemic”.
“It is at the municipal level where there has to be a deliberate effort and direct action that we need to see progress in stemming the tide of HIV and Aids.”
According to Ramaphosa, some of the biggest hurdles local councils face in enabling the National Aids Council’s efforts are barriers that block access to information and healthcare.
“We need to ensure that all our people have access to healthcare, including people who live in informal settlements,” he said.
Unafraid to put a fine point to it, Ramaphosa also stressed that overcoming socioeconomic obstacles
was essential if “we are to succeed in eradicating HIV and Aids by 2030”.
“A greater effort is needed in the prevention of new infections, especially among adolescent girls and women, where the increase is getting out of control. We will only succeed in our efforts if immediate action, in a sustained fashion, is taken in every municipality and in every ward.”
But for municipalities to rise to the needs of the National Aids Council, Ramaphosa reiterated that “local councils need to function effectively” and, for that to happen, “they need to be led from the front by our mayors”.
It wasn’t the only time Ramaphosa’s words were met by resounding applause during the conference, and certainly not the only time he touched on the urgency of community care, particularly regarding curbing violence against women and children.
Coincidentally, we’re also in the midst of one of this country’s most important efforts to secure the sanctity of our nurturers and our young – the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign began on November 25 and continues until Saturday.
Earlier in his speech, Ramaphosa referred to women and children when, in speaking about the fight against crime, he said: “With a partner like Salga, we will ensure that women and children do not have to risk violence and rape because of inadequate street lightning or having to use communal toilets.”
It was a profound sentiment considering that Salga is a body that oversees and calls into abeyance the important work of local government, and his words recalled the opening statements of Gauteng Premier David Makhura.
Addressing the audience just before Ramaphosa did, Makhura didn’t mince his words when he said that “every single municipality should be under Salga, a most important organisation”.
It was a thinly veiled admonition, clearly aimed at the walkout of several opposition-led councils on the eve of the conference. The walk-out prompted Makhura to add that those councils not under Salga “shouldn’t expect any support from us”.
Ramaphosa, of course, was far more conciliatory, but with brevity and getting down to brass tacks, the country’s acting president – he was standing in for President Jacob Zuma, who was attending Fidel Castro’s funeral in Cuba – took the cue from Makhura and spoke from the heart.
Reflecting on the past two decades of local government, Ramaphosa said: “In many ways, we have seen where local government doesn’t work. We have seen municipalities destabilised by factionalism, mismanagement and the scramble for resources.
“But we have also, in the course of this, heard and seen stories of councillors who are committed to their work and to advancing the interests of our people.”
Ramaphosa expressed concern that there were still “councillors who are detached from their communities, are negligent of their duties and wasteful of their resources. They give local government a bad name. But we must hasten to add that these councillors are in the minority.”
To perhaps the loudest applause of all, he added that what organised local government in South Africa needed most were “councillors who are accountable – councillors who are going to be responsive, who will find no task too trivial and who will uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour”.
However, as if putting his finger on an exposed nerve, Ramaphosa gave unequivocal voice to his dismay at the “default reaction” of the country’s citizens, who see “the face of corruption” in their councillors.
“We should change that narrative,” he said.
“That type of reference should be completely obliterated from South African language.”
The convention centre echoed with unitary applause.
It makes it all the more meaningful when someone such as Ramaphosa, a principal architect of our Constitution, says: “We look to Salga to lead our communities, and to reclaim our streets from the terror of drug lords and gangsters, and we look to this conference in part to provide concrete proposals on how all South Africans can contribute to building inclusive, cohesive and successful communities.
“These proposals must lay the foundations of building sustainable local economies. We see municipalities in metros, cities and in rural settings whose central purpose is job creation, building sustainable livelihoods and human settlements.”
The role of stakeholders in ongoing transformation and community building efforts also formed part of Ramaphosa’s assessment of the role of local government.
All of these, he pointed out, namely organised labour, civil society and business, were required “to mobilise resources to ensure that we have maximum collaboration to advance the interests of our people”.
Perhaps from an entrepreneurial point of view, and particularly given the need for job creation as an immediate panacea for poverty, Ramaphosa’s most important point came when he underscored the vital contribution municipalities could make as “incubation centres for our entrepreneurs”.
“They should become the engines of economic growth and they should be creating an environment for faster, greater employment creation in our country.”
Ultimately, it is up to elected leaders to live up to the “faith, trust and confidence” of voters.
“They hope that you will work for an activist cadre of local government leadership that will get out of the council chamber and offices, and walk the difficult and rocky road of progress with them.”
It is from this very “rocky road” that a lot of councillors have lost their way.
“In many ways, we have seen where local government doesn’t work,” Ramaphosa said.
“We have seen municipalities destabilised by factionalism, mismanagement and the scramble for resources.
“But we have also heard and seen stories of how councillors, who have been committed to their work, have advanced the interests of our people.”
There can be no mistake, Ramaphosa said, that for the most part, “local government works, and it works well”.