Action needed against municipalities


A text message from a family member moments before I started writing this column gave me a glimmer of hope that maybe the rot in our municipalities will begin to be addressed.

Apparently the Hawks (the police’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation) is swooping down on the Kai !

Garib municipality’s head office in Keimoes in the Northern Cape to make arrests for tender fraud. 

Earlier in February, the Hawks also arrested Buti Piet Molupi, the municipal manager of the Nala municipality (Bothaville) in the Free State for alleged irregularities surrounding the appointment of a security company, according to news reports.

These are welcome actions by the police as many citizens living under the burden of inefficient and self-serving municipal councils are suffering a lack of basic service delivery, including the supply of water, refuse removal and sanitation.

These police actions are also necessary to address the rot at the bottom. With the Zondo Commission of Inquiry probing the free-for-all graft that went unchecked for years during President Jacob Zuma’s administration, criminal action now needs to be taken at the lowest level of government too, namely the municipalities.

It stands to reason that graft at the level of municipalities disproportionately impacts South Africans. 

This is especially true for the poorest of the poor who cannot afford to partake in the parallel economy – where those with the means can buy from private companies those basic services denied to them by their local municipal councils.

Graft in municipalities has a feedback mechanism that strengthens a vicious and criminal loop of events. Where infrastructure in smaller towns fail – such as potholed roads, leaking water pipes and undermaintained electricity networks – businesses tend to get out. 

And it is not only businesses, but also professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants. 

This flight of professionals and large businesses erodes the municipality’s property tax base and, in many instances, leaves it with a larger proportion of indigent households. 

As the businesses leave, unemployment escalates and the inability to pay for municipal services increases.

Couple this increase in joblessness to the perceived – and most of the time the actual – criminal activity of those elected to serve the people in the local government, and it is a tinder box for protests. 

This is evidenced by the number of service delivery protests across the country. 

In 2018, these protests totalled 237 and in 2019 they stood at 218, according to Municipal IQ – a consultancy collecting intelligence on local government affairs and finances. Suffice to say that before 2018, the highest annual recording of protests was in 2014 at 191. 

It is noteworthy that a large shift in protests happened in 2009 – the advent of Zuma’s presidency – when protests jumped above 100 per year for the first time: from 27 in 2008 to 107 in 2009.

The effect of persistent service delivery protests on a local community mainly entails the destruction of infrastructure. 

Municipal councils can ill-afford new builds, not to mention replace destroyed infrastructure. Subsequently, service delivery falls back further and community despair increases. It’s an unbreakable loop.

To clear out the rot and break the vicious cycle of impunity at local level, the top echelons of this country must flex their muscles. In President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent State of the Nation address the words “local government” featured once. 

Only once.This is not enough and it’s not fair to those people living in our beautiful country’s most rural parts, far from the potential that large urban centres, such as Johannesburg, holds. 

Thus, we need action from the top.Firstly, the Presidency should set up commissions of inquiry – with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in close attendance – in each province. 

Such commissions, led by retired judges, should invite residents and businesspeople to testify as to what they’ve seen and experienced in their local communities.

Secondly, the police should set up – either within the Hawks or separately – a unit of investigators (based in Pretoria and at arms’ length from the to-be-investigated municipalities) that are only focused on the probing of municipal councillors and officials. 

Thirdly, the NPA should work at lightning speed to bring accused municipal councillors and officials to the stand. 

The immediacy of such action will serve an important moral and psychological imperative: Suffering residents will witness that corruption and maladministration don’t pay.

And finally, someone needs to investigate the administrations of provincial political heads responsible for local government – whether it is the province-based commissions of inquiry or a separate legal structure. 

The buck stops with them. And they have allowed this rot to continue for too long, whether it was due to party loyalty between the members of the executive council and the mayors of the province or any other reasons. 

The social contract between the state and the individual is not only relevant at national level. It is also a contract between a local government and an individual residing there. Where individuals – especially large numbers of them – view the contract as broken, it spells trouble for municipalities. 

Ask those towns that are already burning. 

This article originally appeared in the 5 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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