Local government: War on graft masks petty feuds
More than three-quarters of provincial and national organs of state either cannot fully account for the money they have spent, or their numbers cannot be trusted – neither the financial numbers nor figures such as how many pupils there are in government schools, how many patients are being treated in government hospitals, or how many government houses have been allocated to the right people.
And, at local government level, efforts to take action against officials, apparently to address such problems, are not going at all well.
"It's not about cleaning up corruption, it's not about some ideological fight," says a lawyer who has acted in defence of many municipal managers who have been suspended amid allegations of malfeasance. "This is always, always about women, money, flash, mag wheels on cars, watches. What you are seeing are guys trying to yank one another's hands out of the cookie jar."
This week, auditor general Terence Nombembe said that much of the country ambulances are slow to respond – if they are available at all – medical waste is not properly disposed of, and schoolbooks that get delivered at all are often delivered late. Those are some of the lowlights of the Consolidated General Report on National and Provincial Audit Outcomes, which showed things were moving from bad to worse in all but a small number of the hundreds of institutions audited.
In his assessment of the annual report, Nombembe adopted an up-beat tone, pointing to a variety of commitments made by the government this year as reasons to hope for better. Among these are the national development plan's focus on an effective public service; Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu's plan to bar civil servants from doing business with the state; and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's promise that a chief procurement officer for the whole of government will clean up supply chains.
But in the formal assessment of the past financial year, in the place of reasons for hope there is instead a long list of broken and unimplemented promises from various organs of state. Aside from a decrease in unauthorised expenditure, the news was all bad: fewer clean audits, more wasted money and less compliance with the rules.
A big part of the problem, Nombembe said, starts right at the top. "The majority of auditees were assessed to have committed and ethical leadership," the report found. "However, instability in political leadership and ineffective administrative leadership have negatively affected the audit outcomes of some auditees."
Among the issues leaders should address, the auditor general said, is the lack of corrective or disciplinary action against key officials who are guilty of misconduct.
"There appear to be no appreciable consequences for officials who fail to comply with the laws and regulations to which departments and public entities are subject, or for officials who fail to discharge their legislated duties," reads a different section of the report.
Although that refers to government departments and provincial institutions ranging from gambling boards to cultural organisations, such comments apply just as much to the state of local government institutions, where the same trend is, if anything, even clearer.
The major difference is that some local authorities, unlike their national and provincial counterparts, do try to take action against officials. Try – and very often fail.
A review of cases before the Labour Court shows that municipalities and their managers are regularly at odds, so regularly as to annoy judges.
Internal political squabble
In a judgment delivered in the middle of last year, there is a distinct tone of weariness from Labour Court Judge Anton Steenkamp.
"This is yet another of those cases where it appears that an internal political squabble between a former municipal manager, on the one hand, and a newly elected mayor and newly appointed municipal manager, on the other hand, may well be at the heart of the dispute," he found.
The case, which resulted in the reinstatement of a manager suspended from the municipality covering Sutherland, Williston and Fraserburg in the Northern Cape, is not particularly unusual: the manager got his job back, with costs awarded against the municipality that had alleged mismanagement of funds and cronyism, among other breaches.
Steenkamp had noticed a trend in such cases some time before. In November 2011 he wrote of another case: "This urgent application arises, like so many others before this court, from the suspension of a senior manager by a municipality."
In that case, too, a senior manager, of the district council in the Kokstad area of KwaZulu-Natal, was reinstated after the municipality failed to follow some of the most basic rules of suspending an officer accused of gross misconduct.
Not everyone is so lucky. In a judgment delivered in January, Labour Court Judge Edwin Molahlehi briefly considered evidence that whistle-blowing to the Scorpions and a suspicious land deal had been behind the dismissal of a Polokwane municipal staffer – and rejected it.
"The picture that emerges … [is that the employee's] dismissal was motivated by ulterior motives," Molahlehi writes. "The converse, however, emerges on closer reading."
In that case the staffer, who at one point wrestled with a police officer over a laptop, remained fired. But that is rare. In dozens of such cases in recent years, municipalities have been forced to reinstate managers accused of malfeasance. Even if, in at least some of those cases, the accusers themselves were on shaky ethical ground.
Even some of the lawyers who have become adept at defending such managers have long since given up trying to figure out who is at fault in these kinds of disputes, saying that those clients who are not actually engaged in dirty dealings have made grievous administrative mistakes for which they can be legitimately disciplined by anyone with sufficient motivation.
One lawyer who spoke to the Mail & Guardian said that, instead of fighting the merits of accusations, he uses the tangle of laws, regulations and provision of service contracts to find technical reasons for the reinstatement of his clients. Then he waits for the wheels to turn, because invariably there will be another falling-out within the municipality.
"It is getting to the point where legal fees and settlements will be the biggest item of expenditure for municipalities, if it isn't already," said the lawyer. And as for whether the number of such cases will start to decline as administration is cleaned up? He considered this a ludicrous suggestion.
"The money to buy people out of their five-year contracts is starting to dry up as the resources generally shrink. You'll be seeing more of these; the growth is still to come."