OPINION | Three reasons municipalities fail and why the district model won't solve anything

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Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma
Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma
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Does the district development model entail more than is being let on, asks Cilliers Brink


Government has spoken a lot about the district development model, but has said little about what it would actually entail.

The model is meant to improve cooperation and coordination between different spheres of government – apparently similar to the approach followed in the DA-led Western Cape.

It was going to be piloted in the OR Tambo and Waterberg District Municipalities, as well as the eThekwini metro – presumably to check whether the model could improve governance and services.

But a leaked document on the letterhead of the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) has set a far more ambitious and ominous goal for the district model.

Under the heading South Africa Economic Recovery Plan for Municipalities in Response to Covid-19 and marked "top secret" the document speaks of the macro reorganisation of the state.

It proposes that the district model be repurposed to establish permanent command councils with executive powers, which would of course be unconstitutional.

Not only does the Constitution not provide for such bodies, if they were to be given decision-making powers, they would be accountable to no legislature and no electorate.

But if the top secret document is to be believed, centralised decision-making and policy-making are the panacea to post-Covid economic recovery.

President's reply

While it would have been easy enough for government to disavow the top secret document, I await the president's reply as to whether it in fact reflects government policy.

In the meantime, and without a single report having been released on its successes and failures, the district model has jumped straight from pilot phase to implementation phase.

It now seems to be the ANC's flagship local government policy with District Hubs, One Plans and other initiatives forming part of the model to be rolled out across the country.

Recently, the Eastern Cape government proudly told the portfolio committee that in the OR Tambo Municipality the district model had been "validated" and "institutionalised".

Yet some of the worst abuses of Covid-19 relief funds and outright misgovernment have happened in OR Tambo. This includes the payment of handwritten invoices in the millions of rand for door-to-door Covid-19 "awareness" campaigns.

Let's assume the district model is not a cover for a centralised system of command and control by national government. Even then, improved intergovernmental relations and the sharing of skills and resources are an insufficient response to the collapse of local government in large parts of the country.

The municipalities that are failing and have repeatedly been cited for misgovernment by the Auditor-General, have three fundamental problems in common – besides being mostly ANC-controlled.

The first problem is that for decades these councils have appointed and promoted officials in technical jobs on the basis of politics instead of competence.

Race-based employment equity plans have further narrowed the pool of available expertise, especially in rural areas.

Many qualified professionals of all backgrounds and persuasions no longer apply for local government jobs, repelled by what they believe to be a toxic and politicised work environment.

Cadre deployment

But instead of rejecting the ANC practice of cadre deployment outright, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was recently reported as saying municipalities need only appoint the "right cadres for the job".

"Cadres" refer to deployed ANC members in government, including the civil service and other bodies requiring political impartiality and technical (instead of political) expertise.

Last week, the DA confronted the minister about her apparent endorsement of cadre deployment in the debate on Cogta's budget vote in Parliament. She retorted that "cadres" don't necessarily mean "unprofessional".

So even as she gazes at the wasteland of failed municipalities that have faithfully implemented the ANC's cadre policy for more than 20 years, the minister cannot understand why municipal engineers, planners and managers cannot simply be drawn from the ANC's ranks.

Nevermind that the Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, requires a separation between party and state, as well as a politically impartial civil service.

The second problem is that municipal supply chains have been shattered by corruption and ill-conceived preferential procurement laws.

It's not only that municipalities ignore tender regulations; parts of these regulations discourage them from awarding tenders to companies best able to deliver on their contractual obligations.

Already bereft of internal skills, systems and controls, municipalities now rely even more on tenders that cannot deliver value for money.

Powers of intervention abused

And, lastly, as more municipalities enter the final stage of financial and institutional collapse the national government and most provinces are slow and reluctant to use their constitutional powers to intervene – as in the case of Makana, where residents had to drag government to court, kicking and screaming, to dissolve a recalcitrant and dysfunctional municipal council.

In other instances, Cogta and provinces abuse their powers of intervention – as in the case of Tshwane, where the municipal council was dissolved for apparently political reasons despite the municipality being fully functional.

To rebuild local government, we don't need District Hubs, Command Councils or a new constitutional model. We need to abandon policies and laws that prevent councils from delivering the best possible services to communities.

Judging by her mechanical defence of failed ANC policies, and her morbid fascination with politburo-style systems of command and control, Minister Dlamini-Zuma will only lead local government farther into the land of decline.

- Cilliers Brink is a DA MP.


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