Municipal dysfunction can be cured

Municipal dysfunction has so many different faces that it’s a rare day when it doesn’t make the news. Indeed, the bad news is so prolific and overwhelming that it has given birth to good news.

The good news is that the government no longer attempts to disguise the bad news. To be sure, the government continues to make public its robust analyses, including the report “The State of Local Government in South Africa — October 2009” and the Local Government Turnaround Strategy of November 2009. It is also prepared to take bold remedial actions such as the Municipal Systems Amendment Act of 2010. But nothing seems to change; the delinquent deteriorates, if anything.

What is it about local government that makes it so stubborn a problem? There is no good reason to doubt the government’s good intentions, and no one who knows the deputy minister of local government, Yunus Carrim, has cause to doubt either his ability or his selfless commitment. So what is going on?

Deep in the municipal quagmire lies what is often called a struggle for the soul of the ANC — the government’s genuine desire to improve municipal service delivery is trumped by other economic and political forces. These moulding influences ensure that service-delivery priorities are no longer to provide the highest-quality public services to everyone.

Two hegemonic tendencies create and sustain this backward transformation. The first is neoliberalism and the second is South Africa’s particular response to neoliberalism.

At a time when corporate capital accumulation far outstrips investment in the “real” economy, public services offer an enormous (and enormously lucrative) ready-made market for an ever-increasing amount of available money not finding investment elsewhere. Privatisation is the neoliberal solution to this business frustration — allow private business to own or provide public services.

Implicit in this transformation of the public provision of public services to the private provision of public services are a number of other fundamental changes. Services now have a commercial value. This money-based value has a deep effect on the way people see public services. From being a service that is required if human needs are to be met, they have become a commodity — something bought and sold like anything at a supermarket. Human rights give way to money and people with human needs are turned into “consumers”.

Pay for what you get
The now manufactured expectation is that everything must be paid for (at the point of use), and the further expectation is that you pay for what you get — the more you pay, the better service you get. Pre-payment meters and disconnections are the price paid by the poor for this neoliberal logic.

The specifically South African aspect of neoliberalism is also a key feature here. Neoliberalism came to South Africa at an enormously beneficial moment for black business and its twin, the black middle class. This is the second of the two forces acting against government’s good intentions.

The privatisation of municipal services offers a boom opportunity to black business. For black businesspeople, the struggle for political freedom has not led to the desired economic power. What black businesspeople can do instead is to draw on their political power to promote their business interests (and thereby also strengthen black political power in general). Privatisation enables black political power to use the business opportunities created by the outsourcing of municipal services to promote black business.

Neoliberalism and black business incestuously intertwine with each other to ensure that providing a service becomes increasingly secondary to the prime objective of supplying contracts for black business.

The result, according to the minister of public works, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, is that “contracts are given to people who don’t have a clue what they are supposed to do”.

One outcome of this cluelessness is shoddy RDP houses that cost R58-billion to fix, to say nothing of the non-monetary cost of the pain and disappointment of the people who move into the new but defective houses, often after very long waiting periods. Another outcome is the mass transfer of professional municipal staff to the private sector. This exodus has left municipalities all but denuded of essential workers, who now sell their services back to municipalities — but this time for suitably lucrative consultancy fees.

The transition of political power into commensurate economic power creates a dilemma. How to become capitalists without capital? How to be rich without money?

For it is the dream of being rich capitalists that drives the black bourgeoisie. In the words of former president Thabo Mbeki, speaking in 2006: “With every passing second, the demons — that stalk us every minute — advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity, get rich! get rich! get rich! — In these circumstances, personal wealth — becomes — the means by which we communicate the message that we are worthy citizens — the very exemplars of what defines the product of a liberated South Africa — [T]he meaning of freedom has [thus] come to be defined not by the — gift of liberty but by the designer labels on the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the spaciousness of our houses — their geographic location — It is perfectly obvious that many in our society, having absorbed the value system of the capitalist market, have come to the conclusion that — personal success and fulfilment means personal enrichment at all costs, and the most theatrical and striking public display of that wealth.”

These issues are not unique to South Africa or even to Africa. Nor are they unique to the present. The problem goes as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was faced by Britain’s first would-be capitalists — who acquired their capital through slavery.

‘Robber Barons’
The American capitalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries got their capital in ways that earned them the title of “robber barons”. The Russian oligarchs of the 1990s more or less openly stole entire state enterprises. The current South African answer to the problem is corruption — fraud, tenderpreneurship, nepotism, cronyism, patronage, money-laundering, price collusion and all the multiple manifestations of these practices.

Legislation, ironically, adds to municipal dysfunction. Affirmative action and the (ab)use of the Employment Equity Act make nepotism and patronage in the filling of municipal posts remarkably easy. The problem of incompetent managers is now openly acknowledged. Yet the whole issue hides behind the convenient mask of “political deployment”. What needs far more open acknowledgment is the enormous pressure to appoint black African staff (as opposed to black as defined in the Act). This makes it necessary — and easy — to appoint people who lack what the Municipal Systems Amendment Act describes as “the skills, expertise, competencies and qualifications” required.

Making the effect of such inappropriate appointments even worse, a complex of nationalist and psychological factors make it very difficult for either the misplaced employees or those who appointed them to acknowledge weaknesses. Without such acknowledgement, there is no chance of improvement — all this, too, while senior municipal managers pay themselves exorbitant salaries, in circumstances when just having a secure job is a privilege.

These issues combine in another way to guarantee municipal dysfunction. The private provision of public services inevitably destroys the public service ethos. Calls for such an ethos can never be more than self-satisfying noise for as long as public services are mainly business opportunities seized upon by an army of avaricious councillors and managers bent on privatising municipal coffers as the source of their wealth.

Workers are not stupid. They hear and see; they sometimes even take strike action against what has become the real municipal ethos.

The point that needs emphasis is that it does not matter who makes the appeal for ethical behaviour, or how often it is made, or the forms in which it is made. Such calls are delusional when faced by the unholy alliance of global neoliberalism, South Africa’s major corporations and black business. Black business provides the essential protection for the rest of the private sector and helps legitimise neoliberalism. Furthermore, as though this alliance wasn’t sufficiently formidable, there is a fourth partner — black nationalism.

The first three partners are more than happy to promote their interests by using the mask of colour and “race” — still South Africa’s defining characteristic, despite the formal demise of apartheid. Colour confuses workers and the poor. It feeds into still-intact apartheid identities. It makes it easy to present elite black advancement as general black advancement and thereby take the sting from the poison that is black poverty, increasing inequality and despair.

Diagnosing the municipal illness is relatively easy; so, too, is prescribing the cure. The real challenge lies in implementing the prescription. Municipal dysfunction is but a symptom of a wider disorder linking South Africa to the rest of the neoliberal world. Changing this world also means reforming the South African alliance between neoliberalism, transnational corporations, black business and black nationalism, an alliance obstructing any meaningful municipal turnaround. The one change implies the other, and thereby gives strength to both.

But this does diminish the enormity of the task. In Albert Einstein’s ­memorable words: “If at first an idea does not sound absurd, there is no hope for it.”

This is an edited version of a paper written for the One Million Climate Jobs Campaign. Jeff Rudin is a board member of the Alternative Information and Development Centre

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