Can Cape Town survive another change of guard?

Another regime change and the Cape Town city administration will collapse: that is the judgement of many people who work there. Off the record, it’s no less dire and compelling.

In the civic centre, a senior city-council official confides across his desk that the municipal administration cannot withstand another political transition.
“The wheels had come off, we were driving on the rims,” he says, having weathered the latest restructuring. “We are only working out now how much on the rims we are.”

This view comes up frequently among past and present officials, mostly off the record. The repeated restructuring of the staff with its exodus of skilled employees over the past decade has ground the city down; morale is in freefall.

Since 1996, the city council has spent millions of rands exploring new city designs and ridding itself of senior civil servants to facilitate politically palatable bureaucracies for new incumbents.

The skill shedding comes at a time when challenges for the city have rapidly escalated, as it battles to accommodate an expanding population and huge demands on service delivery. It has also to gear up for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Yet its human resources policies have destabilised its workforce. It’s been losing engineers, planners, firefighters, inspectors and electricians monthly for years.

Untold story

The story of Cape Town’s restructuring has never fully been told. Fragmented glimpses of hiring and firing, jumping and pushing, redeployment and realignment have been reported piecemeal. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, the negotiations around the restructuring involved so many secret golden handshakes that few departing civil servants wanted to speak out. Confidentiality clauses hid the true extent of what was a massive and ongoing human resources bungle in an organisation of 23 000 people, tasked to utilise a budget of about R17-billion for the greater good of one of South Africa’s most important cities.

Another reason is the complexity of the interrupted restructuring processes. An official observes that documents detailing city restructuring stand 1,5m high in his office, representing millions of rands of unfinished business.

The frequent changing of the political guard happened in parallel to structural changes in the city as it consolidated from 35 municipalities to seven administrations to a single centralised unicity over the past decade. National policy, including affirmative action, overlaid municipal transformation. The politics of Cape Town, reflecting its racially divided communities, added its own poison.

Each new political party in power wanted its own people on top. This is understandable because politicians need to choose managers who are inspired to implement their policies. But as the DA and the ANC have shuffled in and out of government, there have been far-reaching consequences to this drive, which has spiralled out of control. It started small but developed into a trend that destabilises service delivery.

An ANC victory

When the ANC first won the city in 1996, the city manager of the formerly white administration, Keith Nicol, lost out on a job to ANC activist Andrew Boraine in the course of the municipal amalgamation. A frustrated Nicol continued to earn his salary for almost two years, while at home gardening, until he successfully agitated for a severance package through the courts.

While Boraine was city manager, Cape Town limbered up to becoming a unicity. But the newly formed DA won the city from the ANC and he was sent packing.

“There were no negotiations about whether you wanted to stay on. It was simply: you are out of here, and in fact, your whole team is out of here. It wasn’t just me,” Boraine recalls. The remaining 11 months of his contract was paid out to facilitate his departure.

Former businessman Robert Maydon took the reins and established a new team of 10 executive managers, nicknamed Maydon United. Maydon had had little experience in local government, but his mainly white, male team had. They started the unicity’s first formal process of organisational design, which failed, and moved on to a second, cheaper version. But by October 2002, the DA was cracking and the New National Party walked over to the ANC, handing the unicity to its new political boss. The ANC was only too happy to ditch Maydon with a hefty retrenchment package and dismantle his legacy.

Advocate Wallace Mgoqi took over as city manager. He oversaw two more restructuring processes, which saw off more skills to facilitate transformation. Through this process he created his own dream team, nicknamed Ikhwezi.

The first process was driven by an Australian change expert, Susan Law. She laboured on a complex and, by all accounts, revolutionary new city design with 10 officials. Extraordinarily, they were instructed to draft in secret. By this time, many officials were working in “an acting capacity” and unsure of their future. But leaks to city employees caused dissension. Many senior directors saw the new structure as a serious threat to service delivery, and possibly their positions. By the time Law’s team presented its strategy to the executive mayor, Nomaindia Mfeketo, in September 2004, it was dead in the water.

By then new consultants were at work. Mgoqi had seconded Makgane Thobejane from the Johannesburg city council to devise yet another new structure. While Thobejane says replacing white managers with black was only one element of the transformation plan, officials feared that it was the guiding principle.

‘African city’

During this time, Mfeketo was defining Cape Town as an “African city”, and racial tension around the definition of who was really “black” was seeping through council corridors. The commentary by the mayor’s strategic adviser, Blackman Ngoro, denigrating coloureds on his website, raised the temperature. Council staff became embroiled in the political tension in the Western Cape between black and coloured, with white insecurities added to the mix.

In January 2005, senior officials were asked to reapply for their jobs. Many white experienced officials were not shortlisted or interviewed. Thobejane’s multimillion-rand restructuring yielded about 200 “displaced” people in top management. He said they did not fit into his design. Engineers were told that they were dispensable as managers.

Senior officials were dispatched to new offices with no jobs, on full pay, to sit it out until they were ready to resign. They were euphemistically referred to in official memoranda as “internally stranded resources”. While some were emotionally broken by it, others saw the opportunity. Altogether 100 took voluntary packages costing the city, according to Thobejane, R45-million. New officials were parachuted in from other regions.

Mgoqi defends the process saying it was necessary to transform the council into an “African” administration, underpinned by values of ubuntu. Certainly affirmative action had been lagging behind.

“I think the people we brought in had a fair amount of skills. And what happened then was that there were guys below who could not just countenance reporting to a black executive director, and for that reason they left,” he reflects. Although he acknowledges that productivity dropped, he anticipated that it would rise again, once the new staff were settled.

Farewell parties

What happened after that is less clear: it appears that new managers then started restructuring their own divisions, making changes of staff in an ad hoc manner. Middle management left in droves, the worst exodus taking place between May and August last year.

“I was going to farewell parties every fortnight,” says one long-serving official. According to him, 70 civil engineers worked for the metropolitan council of 1996. Now there are about 40 in total for double that area, with two or three leaving per month. The city has one transport engineer left.

By then the atmosphere was poisonous. Long years of insecurity and interventions by competing political parties had polarised staff and undermined the work ethic. Some officials testify to arriving at work daily to do nothing but build puzzles and play cards. Some shrunk into corners to avoid being labelled pro or against the bosses. Equity, patronage and politics became blurred.

“It was as we were in the Cold War,” says one who is still fighting for compensation through her lawyers for the collapse of her career after a bruising clash with a councillor. “You were either perceived to be in or to be out, with or against.” Her health has been compromised by the experience. She was “displaced” with no job on full pay in an empty office for more than a year.

“Since 2002, because of suspicion, fear, worry about political change, there has been extreme defensiveness, both politically and administratively. It’s a mess. There are no firm boundaries between politicians and civil servants,” says another veteran official.

It is with a sense of bitter irony that many of those officials watched Mgoqi’s fight and subsequent failure to cling to his contract when the DA took power in March.

“He was destroying the organisation’s capacity to deliver, like chopping off somebody’s arms and legs at the same time … You can’t have a restructuring process more than once in five years. It’s an indictment against him that he had two under one government,” says a highly qualified engineer who lost his job but not his salary, and then, after months of professional paralysis, left for greener pastures.

Bloated administration

The DA has made much of the staffing disaster, partly because it is overwhelming and partly, no doubt, because it reflects poorly on the ANC.

Belinda Walker, DA councillor in charge of corporate services, complains that the administration is now bloated, in part with unqualified personnel.

“In the previous financial year, the council shed 1 000 staff members and yet the staff budget went up by R270-million, which gives you a feel for what we lost and what we replaced,” she says.

“We know that the bottom is full of holes because people have left without being replaced, and we know that we have massive gaps in the system, and we know that we have total overload at the top, like having four lawyers when we only need one because they are all doing substantially the same work.”

The DA calls its shake-out a realignment. Again officials are sceptical, calling it a fifth redesign. The ANC has already accused the DA of engaging in a racially motivated “purge” on the grounds that senior black managers are quitting in droves.

Now, with attempts by the provincial government to change the balance of power in the council, there are questions about what will happen if power shifts again, back to the ANC. The restructuring has left a legacy of wasted opportunities and collapsed idealism. The greatest irony of all is that as a result of all the political interruptions brought out by elections and floor-crossing, Cape Town has not concluded its internal amalgamation into a functioning unicity. Many officials are still receiving unequal pay for doing the same jobs in different suburban areas, a source of great unhappiness.

Challenge

A former acting city manager, Dave Daniels, believes there is no point raging against too great a challenge. “I just think that people do not appreciate the magnitude of the unicity as a management challenge ... It’s a form of government that has arrived before it’s time; I don’t think I ever believed that we were really ready for it,” he says.

However, it is unlikely with so much invested in the unicity model that the government would want to reduce it. And while it is sustained, attention needs to be paid to find ways to create staff stability, regardless of politics. Charles Kadalie, a director in the electricity service, has warned that city workers are at breaking point.

“How tiresome are the references made by either ruling or opposition parties to wasteful use of ratepayers’ money. Their protestations lose credibility when as public servants we see the hypocrisy ... and when faced with perfectly predictable challenges, logic and common sense give way to destructive power play,” he wrote recently in an open letter.

Essentially, those who have kept the city running through the past tumultuous decade are now tempted to switch off the lights. Kadalie’s outburst has not gone unnoticed; he too is now under investigation.

This article was funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa through a media fellowship for the author

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