ANALYSIS: Can Ramaphosa's new service delivery plan get local government going again?

VBS clients who are mostly the elderly keep vigil at the bank waiting to withdraw whatever is possible. Picture: Armando Chikhudo
VBS clients who are mostly the elderly keep vigil at the bank waiting to withdraw whatever is possible. Picture: Armando Chikhudo

President Cyril Ramaphosa has finally launched his first initiative on service delivery, giving the nation an indicator to assess his performance. Khawuleza (to speed up) was launched in the OR Tambo District of the Eastern Cape amid fanfare to ensure all spheres of government worked together.

The coordination of the national, provincial and local government will be undertaken at a district level around the country. Through the Khawuleza model, service delivery and economic development will be fast-tracked, even in the poorest parts of the country.

But the history of such initiatives calls for healthy scepticism on the part of citizens and extraordinary ingenuity on the side of government. In 2004, a decade after the inception of South Africa's democracy, the administration of President Thabo Mbeki launched Project Consolidate to improve delivery of basic services by municipalities.

As the name suggested, it was meant to consolidate the newly established structures that were at the coalface of service delivery. Project Consolidate was also a response by the ANC-led government to frustrations voters expressed during the 2004 national election campaign.

Although the ANC won it by a two-thirds majority, discontentment was brewing over municipal failures. The experience of citizens was not entirely in line with the promise of a better life "for all". Project Consolidate was going to fix this by ensuring all spheres of government worked together. There would be legislative changes for allocation of budgets and to enforce collaboration between local, provincial and national spheres of government.

In the next 10 years, we were told, there would be "compassionate government service to the people", municipal councillors would reduce "social distance" between themselves and the people, accountability would be enhanced and senior officials from national spheres of government would deployed to bolster the capacity of municipalities.

The concept of "developmental local government" was also conceived. Municipalities, being the closest government link to the people, would coordinate local economic development. All these and other plans to ensure coordination across government made sense then. Like Khawuleza does today.

In 2009, President Jacob Zuma's administration conducted an assessment that concluded that, although there had been improvements in access to basic services since 2000, municipalities were showing signs of distress. The government was determined to find the root causes of municipal troubles.

The assessment on "the state of Local Government in South Africa", came to some worrying conclusions. The assessment report raised concerns about poor coordination between different spheres of government, lack of adequate skills in municipalities, poor political oversight by provinces and national governments, corruption, patronage, weak revenue base, fraudulent activities and so on.

The solution was to initiate a turn-around strategy. The then Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka would oversee it. He came up with the concept of a choir conductor who would synchronise the work of all spheres of government so that they could sing coherently from the same hymn sheet to elicit a positive response for their performance.

Shiceka's analogy was indeed very rich, if not melodramatic. On the role of the national government as a choir conductor (he was indirectly referring to himself), he would determine what was expected of the choristers in government and civil society; consider risks that could create disharmony and discord; determine how to deal with choristers who were not keeping tune; indicate when singing should be at full volume; how to get feedback from the audience; and how the audience could continue to enjoy the melodious music in their homes, schools, places of work and social clubs.

This overly elaborated analogy, contained in a speech to Parliament, was meant to emphasise government's commitment to ensure smooth coordination across all spheres of government in the interest of the people. Shiceka died in 2012, while discordant voices across government sang louder in the background. To spice things up, state capture had taken root.

Pravin Gordhan took over the portfolio and launched a Back to Basics campaign in a bid to boost governance. His might have been slightly different to Minister Sydney Mufamadi's Project Consolidate and Shiceka's Choir Model, but Gordhan's Back to Basics envisaged similar ends.

Recent developments across all spheres suggest very little has been achieved. VBS happened: municipalities diverted taxpayers' money to be looted in the great bank heist, in contempt of National Treasury's prescripts. In some areas, municipal councillors walk around with a throng of bodyguards. Service delivery is either in slow motion or non-existent.

Notwithstanding the supposed supervisory role of provincial and national governments, a number of municipalities are in distress. Usually the supervising spheres themselves need supervision. And the Auditor General's reports on municipalities read like cases of how not to run a government.

Against this background, the Khawuleza model, led by Ramaphosa and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was launched. The most important challenge for Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma is to prove Khawuleza is not one of the many we have seen before.

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