Why are rural municipalities the worst performing?

2016-03-16 08:58

The Good Governance Africa (GGA) published what has become, to some, a controversial Government Performance Index focusing on both local and metropolitan municipalities. This publication came at an apt moment when the country is gearing towards the 2016 Local Government Elections. The report has been subjected to different (mis)interpretations by those who think the report paints them as great champions (the Democratic Alliance) or as villains (the African National Congress) of local governance.

Those who think they are viewed as villains have been eager to label the GGA as carrying a nefarious agenda to influence the discourse towards the local elections. Meanwhile the ‘great champions’ have been too eager to go out and stick it in the face of everyone who cares to listen just how great they are. The casting of aspersions on the publishing organisation is unnecessary. Research outcomes are largely influenced by the methodology utilised during the research process. Therefore, anyone wanting to disagree with the research must provide methodological challenges or come up with a counter-interpretation of the results presented. Beyond the methodology, an Index relies a lot on the indicators (including the number of them) chosen to calculate the final figure that is used to rank the local and metropolitan municipalities.

Any criticism that does not touch on methodology and/or indicators of the study becomes devoid of sound reasoning in order to make the criticism somewhat respectable. I support the publication of the GGA Government Performance Index as it gives us citizens an opportunity to understand what some municipalities are achieving and the quality of life that is found in the various municipalities. Given that the majority (eight out of 15) of the indicators are on service delivery and four others are economic indicators that measure poverty, unemployment rate, work opportunities and individual income; one can proffer the opinion that this Index is more about the quality of life found in our individual municipalities.

Of course the vision, administration processes, economic development and governance in each individual municipality determine significantly the quality of life to be found within a particular municipality. Measuring these can motivate the underperforming municipalities to do more and better. The GGA’s own analysis accepted that “other important factors must be considered when assessing municipalities’ performance”. These important factors include demographic spread between and within municipalities, trends in population growth and the historicity ‘involved in the current state of affairs’, according to GGA. The latter is most important given that the research found “the lowest ranked municipalities in our rankings are also located primarily in a former Bantustan or homeland….”

This is an important revelation because 15 of the top 20 municipalities are found in the Western Cape. This brings me to a demonstration on how people should understand and perhaps subsequently critique the GGA index. Methodologically one can argue that whilst there is focus on continuous indicators, the research did not focus on progress over time, but focused more on the status quo of municipalities, as they are today. This has led some people to erroneously insinuate that the index is about demonstrating how little to no progress has been achieved in ANC governed municipalities. That would be political rhetoric serving fiction at best. In most areas of delivery, there has been greater positive percentage change where the ANC is in government compared to the DA. This is because the ANC mostly leads in areas that suffered differentiated governance and great underdevelopment due to colonialism and apartheid. This led to glaring differences in the inherited foundations of communities. Using 2001 as a baseline and 2011 as the comparison year, one quickly discovers how much progress (not enough) has been made even by the lowest ranked municipality in the Government Performance Index.

I compare the second highest ranked municipality, Hessequa (governed by the DA), with the rock bottom municipality, Mbizana (governed by the ANC). I chose the former because the top ranked municipality is governed by a coalition. It is clear that in the areas of electricity, unemployment, education and formal dwellings, Mbizana municipality has experienced the greatest impact insofar as increasing the number of households with access to electricity and reducing unemployment as well as the number of people aged over 20 years with no schooling, which could have bettered people’s income prospects thus leading to an increase in the number of formal dwellings.

In this respect it is understandable why some people from Mbizana local municipality are peeved by the Government Performance Index, because in their day-to-day lives they have observed some (if not significant) progress and change. Indeed even for those of us who come from the Bizana-Flagstaff-Lusikisiki area of Eastern Mpondoland, we are in agreement that Bizana, the town, has shown significant progress. But the markers of this progress – if we are honest – are modest and very much understating the future we desire for our rural towns. Dependency ratios for these rural towns are extremely shocking, indicative of the high rates of unemployment born from lacking economic productivity to widen employment opportunities and growth in these towns.

If I understand well, the Government Performance Index is to be read as a status quo report and not a tracking and tracer study of progress made throughout the democratic dispensation. Of course partly it does trace progress made in that the status quo is a result of (in part) mismanagement, poor planning and execution of policies, as well as misplaced priorities on the developmental needs of the local areas. There has been no creative imagining of the rural economy and how it should be integrated to the distant urban economic hubs.

It appears this Government Performance Index gives a ranking to inform me which municipality would grant me, as a citizen, a chance at a decent, dignified and quality life with respect to the indicators measured. Of course there are other social (difficult to measure) indicators that determine where we eventually settle as people. Therefore, this performance index should be used to inform decision makers on the focal areas to apply their energies for the development of rural towns. The bottom 20 municipalities are largely in rural areas, a demonstration of the continued neglect of quality service delivery provision in these communities. Whilst these areas now have (almost all) no fee paying schools, improving access and participation rates in education, the quality in those schools (e.g. teachers to pupils ratio, libraries and laboratory facilities, availability and variation of extra curricula activities etc.) remains of appalling standards that are undesirable.

What is also probably missing from the index’s report is disaggregating municipalities according to sources of income to show us how lack of multiple revenue streams affect productivity and prospects for a decent life in some municipalities. Many of the municipalities in rural towns depend on Municipal Infrastructure Grants and other state grants and/or allocations. Unlike most urban municipalities that generate significant revenue from property rates, refuse disposal, traffic fines etc. municipalities in rural towns do not receive any significant (if any) revenue from these sources. This shows how government dependent some municipalities and (by extension) communities are in South Africa. Therefore, when the government tightens its belt due to contraction in the economy, these municipalities would also be hardest hit in terms of income.

The Government Performance Index is very important for us to drive a point home as to which areas of the country should our efforts be directed as citizens along with government. Our development, even in the democratic dispensation, remains spatially skewed and thus continuing to further colonialism’s and apartheid’s underdevelopment of areas in which black people are found in significant numbers. We need to have serious discussions about the state of our rural towns, the levels of dependency and poverty existent in them.

Rural depopulation is no longer desirable; it leads to great urban population influx that leads to peri-urban areas defined by poverty, sickness, shack dwelling and deprivation of opportunities. Rural depopulation is also not desirable because of decreased numbers of people that can be productive in the rural economy. The starting point must be to attend to our now dilapidated rural subsistence farming system that had (some 20 years ago) potential to be partly commercial on selling harvest surplus. Yet the democratic dispensation has been about the erosion of rural agriculture, particularly in Mpondoland, which I am most familiar.

Our need to over defend the areas we come from must not make us miss the opportunities presented to us by the Government Performance Index; an opportunity to ask deep penetrating questions about development and prioritisation of areas that need the greatest intervention from both government and society broadly.

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