Editorial: Political leadership matters

Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu has once again released a depressing report on the performance of the country’s municipalities, one that paints a bleak picture of deteriorating audit outcomes. The report deals with local government audit outcomes for the financial year ended June 30 last year.

Makwetu said the year under review had the highest level of noncompliance with key governance laws since the 2011/12 financial year. Only 8% of the municipalities received clean audits in 2017/18, compared with 14% in 2016/17.

This, he said, showed that various local government role players – mayors, councillors and municipal managers – have been slow in implementing his recommendations and, in many instances, even disregarded them.

The Auditor-General, the president and the media beat this drum every year. But, instead of improving, the situation is getting worse.

There is now hope that the Auditor-General has been given some teeth to hold municipal officials accountable for noncompliance with governance laws. But the truth is that clean governance will only be possible when there is a willingness and a commitment to do it. It should not be left to the Auditor-General to behave like an old-style teacher with a cane, whipping everyone into line.

The political parties that appoint the councillors and mayors – who in turn appoint officials to run councils – are the ones who should be driving this process.

They should be electing competent and duly qualified people to these positions. But the ANC and the other parties have tended to use these positions to reward friends and fellow party members who have no clue of what is expected of them once in office.

In the few instances where professionals are appointed, they often do not last due to the embedded culture of laziness, bending the rules and employees ingratiating themselves with bosses. These rare competent officials are often ostracised and effectively worked out of the system.

But the worst phenomenon to emerge over the past few years is that of corrupt officials being reshuffled. Instead of being fired, they are simply moved from one municipality to the next. This is born out of a political culture of “looking after our own”, but the culture should rather be driven by commitment to delivering excellent services to the communities that they serve.

Makwetu underscored the importance of political leadership in ensuring clean and effective governance, or else creating conditions for administrative collapse and malfeasance.

“The leadership sets the tone at any organisation. If the leaders are unethical; have a disregard for governance, compliance and control; and are not committed to transparency and accountability, it will filter through to the lower levels. Inevitably, a culture of poor discipline, impunity and non-delivery will develop, leading to the collapse of the organisation,” Makwetu said.

Two key examples of this are the Free State province and the eThekwini municipality. The Free State, where former premier Ace Magashule micromanaged local government for his own ends and made sure his cronies were installed, has the largest concentration of poorly performing municipalities in the country.

eThekwini, run by the warlord-like Zandile Gumede for the past three years, has gone from being a star performer to one of the country’s most poorly run metros.

There is also a growing tendency among politicians to argue that “they will not chase clean audits, but will instead focus on service delivery”. This might sound sensible on paper, but, in reality, most of those with the worst audit outcomes also fare the poorest in terms of service delivery. The two do not have to cancel each other out. There is no reason an organ of government should not be able to demonstrate service to the people, and produce all the relevant documents and outline the processes followed in doing so. It is yet another attempt to create false dichotomies and hide behind excuses.

The picture painted by Makwetu of municipalities is just as true of state-owned enterprises, which are the backbone of the country’s infrastructure. When political leaders deemed these a feeding trough and deployed enablers of the Gupta empire to run them, they created the rot that drove many of them, such as Denel and Eskom, to financial ruin.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his administration have promised much for the next five to 10 years. They have to begin by making sure that those who lead local governments and state institutions are of the highest calibre in terms of skills, probity and dedication.

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