Despite several interventions, local government is regressing due to a lack of accountability and a culture of tolerance for transgressions and the transgressors, writes Nontando Ngamlana.
This year marks 20 years of local government and the 8-11 September was the 8th annual Local Government week.
This is a collaboration of the South African Local Government Association (Salga) and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).
Interestingly, this year's theme for the local government week was 'Ensuring Capable and Financially Sound Municipalities'.
This is a particularly interesting theme because, in all its 20 years of existence, financial management is the one area in which local government has performed dismally.
Efficient management of resources is one of the key indicators of good governance and local government has not demonstrated sound governance in this regard.
Reports on the local government audit outcomes for the last three financial years paint a picture of weak financial controls in municipalities, of lack of accountability and of a culture of tolerance for transgressions and the transgressors.
There is something in the interventions over the years that seem to not have worked and, despite all the slogans, policy positions, technical support, etc over the years, local government still finds itself where it is, in the manner in which it manages the resources it has.
In the entire system of government, local government - just like state-owned enterprises (SOEs) - are like ill-behaving stepchildren.
When Municipal Public Account Committees (MPACs) were introduced around 2012-2013, it led to the belief of an attainment of clean audits, which was dubbed "operation clean audits" at the time. There was indeed a strong belief in local government that an institutional arrangement was crafted, which would facilitate the separation of powers between council and the executive, and strengthen oversight.
The audit outcomes of municipalities since then have largely regressed, instead of improving, and many more municipalities have had to be placed under administration.
Then the powers of the Auditor-General (AG) were increased through amendments in the Public Audit Act in the hope that, in allowing the AG to play a hands-on role in ensuring that municipal councils implemented the recommendations the office make as part of the audit process, do not seem to have fazed nefarious activities in municipalities.
So we need to ask why none of these and other interventions, as brilliant as they seem, do not work.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between the intended goals, the mechanism established towards their attainment, the activities planned and resourced, and ultimately the results that get achieved.
Well-intended interventionist programmes, such as back to basics, operation clean audit, siyenza manje, and many others that have been there in the past, also failed to achieve the intended goals.
The problem does not seem to lie in the creative and strategic planning ability in local government, nor is it in the capacity to implement these plans, it runs deep in the assumptions upon which all of these plans are based.
Sadly, if we do not engage and reflect on the assumptions that we make in local government and the extent to which they influence the success or failure of many of our interventions, no amount of themed local government weeks will achieve the change that we want to see in local government.
The VBS saga remains a key moment in local government, in that it shone a spotlight on the calibre of leaders we have in local government across many municipalities and across different provinces.
Before then, whenever discussions on corruption in local government were held, they were localised to certain local municipalities, the worst of the bunch.
The VBS saga created an opportunity for the public a sector-wide view of the depth of the crisis. VBS and many other incidences of unauthorised, irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure happen because there are weak mechanisms for oversight in local government and because many of the local government leaders would very easily abandon the service to the public for personal or party-political gain.
Currently, there are no mechanisms to hold political office bearers to account for the decisions they make, other than the integrity and disciplinary processes of their own political parties, which are not accessible to the general public.
There is very little recourse, in the years between elections, for the public.
A major fragility in the local government system lies in its design; in the fact that political parties are allowed the greatest influence over decision-making through concurrence.
I guess what was thought at the time to have been a necessity to guide the developmental mandate of local government, which at the time was a relatively new democratic institution, turned into an open door for undue influence and control.
Sadly, political party influence in local government has been far more destructive over the years than it has been helpful.
But the public has no mechanisms to hold political parties to account for their destructive role in local government, outside of elections, and neither does it have any mechanisms to hold political deployees to account.
Time for a public conversation
Unfortunately, this is not a matter that can be fixed through a regulation or an institutional arrangement. It is not in the financial interest of any political party at the moment to take itself out of local government - that role rests with the public.
Perhaps it is time that a public conversation ensued on what it means to claim back local government, where local government will be about service delivery and socio-economic transformation and less about party politics.
The chaos that embattled many of the cities where there were coalition governments, post-2016 local government elections, paints a picture of political parties that care less about service delivery, who are not willing to work together for the common good, but rather are consumed with control of municipal resources for personal and political party interests.
And currently, we cannot hold them to account for this.
I have nothing against political parties, I understand and appreciate their role in a multi-party democracy.
But their role and influence in local government have to be limited, in that it detracts the institution from its socio-economic and transformation goals and that cannot be allowed to continue unabated.
We also cannot run away from the fact that political parties in South Africa today have turned into cults, where the majority of members worship the leaders and fail to hold them to account.
We saw too many examples of this in the nine years of Zuma's presidency and in many other stories laid bare in numerous books in the last couple of years.
This is not to say that only one or a few political parties are cults; South African politics in general has taken on a cult-like nature.
Our accountability systems were never designed for this.
So any attempt at "ensuring capable and financially sound municipalities", that fail to deal decisively with the elephant in the room, are just cosmetic exercises and noise, devoid of any hope of success.
The invisible hand of political parties that control senior appointments, procurement, cost recovery measures, disciplinary processes and investigations, council decision-making, etc. is a huge elephant that undermines whatever cosmetic reforms government makes.
This is the nature of the conversations that we should be having about local government, especially now, as the 2021 local government elections draw nearer.
- Nontando Ngamlana is the executive director at Afesis-Corplan