All hands on board for the act of balls in the air
Nowhere has the ANC been faltering more visibly than in local government, writes Susan Booysen of its legislature and governance policy documents.
So much of the country’s development depends on getting things right in the subject matter areas of this paper – a fully functional and well performing local and provincial government, clean governance and accountability in the legislatures.
Yet nowhere has the ANC in government been faltering more visibly and pervasively than in local government (with national government responsibility-complicity). The ANC’s political predominance in the vast majority of councils spells success, yet this achievement is porous.
This document’s proposals – in essence, its procedural policy that deals with institution and process building to carry substantive policy outcomes – this time around just had to buttress turnarounds. In many respects the ANC and ANC-in-government have entered a now-or-never zone: improved performance now or decline forever.
The document is good at putting its finger on the fault-lines that beg for correction. Of course, one needs to pardon the words “corruption” and “mismanagement” being exorcised in favour of the euphemisms “poor governance” and “weak financial management”.
But the document also offers partial and mismatched solutions to destructive problems. The proposals almost invariably fall short of matching the prevailing policy gaps. If this is the foundation of the second transition, Charles Dickens’s “season of darkness” is looming. The type of solutions outlined in the legislature and governance paper included balls in the air, long-terms, the reinvention of the wheel, mismatches and silences. Some appropriate solutions and directions do emerge, such as the party’s intention to revisit district municipalities, revise funding formulae for local government and devolve more functions to strong municipalities. But they get humbled by either being long-term by design – where they are not intended to bring rapid solutions – or by default, whereby going the don’t-step-on-political-toes route of implementation.
The ANC has perfected the act of showing it is working on problems. Across the policy areas, whether it is the ANC in relation to local government, health care, education or job creation, there is almost always ample evidence of ANC and government strategies, commissions, panels of experts, summits, high-level ANC lekgotlas and the implementation of plans. The balls are in the air and the ANC demonstrates continuous work. Citizens just need to suspend judgment, leave more time for ‘Rome to be built’ and sustain trust in the ANC.
This goes hand-in-hand with the document’s unnecessarily long-terms. Such is the case on proposals for the often-problematic district municipalities. Despite recognising the scope and urgency of the problem, the most crucial proposals will deliver at best years down the line – judged by the complexity of the issue, internal and inter-party politics, and the ANC-in-government’s reputation to procrastinate on policy implementation. The policy wheel turns slowly indeed. Roughly a year after the promulgating the Municipal Systems Amendment Act, the policy document now urges the ANC to “develop guidelines for the implementation” of the legislation. The Act prohibits office bearers of political parties from occupying municipal management positions.
Continuous reinventions of the wheel closely define national government interventions on local government. In the time of the Zuma administration, the Mbeki government’s reviews – not perfect but without improvement from the new administration – were discredited, and the same processes with corresponding findings were effectively repeated. Several 2012 proposals are reinventions of Mbeki’s ancièn regime offerings.
Mismatched solutions seem to be the name of much of the policy discussion document’s game. Many of the problems with local government relate to service and life quality issues in the urban and metropolitan township and informal settlement areas, with a lot of overlap between of the two. Yet the weak and rural municipalities capture the bulk of the attention.
The silences in the document are deafening. The large elephant in the room – local government corruption – is subdued in the references to weak financial management, poor governance and need for accountability. The document is scrawny on the ANC’s role in leveraging clean, honest, accountable local governance, also in as far as its own cadre-councillors fuse public and private assets.
The legislature and governance document comes across as confused. It seamlessly blends the ANC’s assortment of hats. When is it government, political party and governing party? The document testifies to knowing what is expected and how the governing party needs to draw the party-state line. It issues reassurances on accountability to the people and offers extended ward committees to fill in the slack on public participation and community-connected government.
The alter ego knows the extent to which the implementation of legislation for separation of the executive (de facto ANC) and legislative powers will sabotage the ANC’s contemporary project of consolidating or retaining power. Calls for greater accountability in and by the legislatures are paltry.
The broad brush strokes of the proposals for the reorganisation of local and provincial government contrast with the document’s minutiae of vote counting and continued separation of local and national-provincial elections. Given the balance of advantages accruing to the ANC, it recommends the retention of separate elections, mostly for inducing mid-term assessments and ANC leaders’ community outreach. It notes that the party’s provincial groups lead in the determination of local candidates. It is thus impractical for all levels of ANC legislature positions to become vacant concurrently.
The document frowns on the prevailing method for seat calculation in local election results. The system advantages micro- or small parties. This irks the ANC, especially in the small councils where these parties hold the ANC to ransom. Should the ANC proposals prevail, this will be history. The proposals for (further consideration of) problematic current provincial boundaries will struggle to surmount suspicions of gerrymandering.
The lasting impression the document leaves is the mismatch between acknowledged needs for action to fill the gaps and the deficits in current legislature and governance practice, especially in correcting the crucial local level people-government interface. On this front, the ANC just is not doing enough to regenerate its existing power.