Don’t blame neoliberalism for local government’s ills

Jeff Rudin’s analysis of the crisis in municipal government (“Municipal dysfunction can be cured“, October 7) contains many important points but the main thesis is incorrect.

The argument is that municipal governance is in the state it is in because it reflects South Africa’s version of a global phenomenon, neoliberalism, which has been a terrific boon to the emerging black bourgeoisie and black business sector but has not benefited the large majority of South African citizens. Neoliberalism is to blame yet again — not the government or public officials or lawmakers. No, the cause is an amorphous force (to use an overused phrase) that allows rapacious capitalists free rein over public resources.

The danger in this argument is that it will become another mantra to be trotted out by its adherents, blithely ignoring the true nature of the beast and thereby deepening the crisis.

The municipal crisis is the result of very different factors. It is rooted in an over-complex system consisting of constitutional provisions, statutes, policy directives and regulations, excessive ambition in terms of developmental goals by the government, and, at the local level, a crucial lack of capacity to discharge the functions with which local government is burdened.

Municipalities have functions that in many other systems are those of national departments — they are seen to be the engine of local economic growth and democratic participation at the very same time.

The institutional design underlying the present system of local government is not well suited to the conditions in much of South Africa. Municipalities, unless they are affluent enough to have stocks of economic and social or intellectual capital to draw on, are not equipped to handle the enormous tasks heaped on them. In many of these municipalities, it is clear that there are not even enough well-trained individuals to develop a routine budget without the assistance of armies of consultants, who cost the taxpayer an arm and a leg.

The fact that local government is given such tasks means that national and provincial government can take a back seat, arguing that it is not their sphere of responsibility when it comes to delivering services such as electricity, water, sanitation, refuse removal and a host of other tasks that make life bearable for citizens.

On top of this multitude of functions, there is a pervasive inability and unwillingness, based on party loyalties, to bring to book those who misuse public funds for their own purposes.

On that score, Rudin is surely correct. But this has less to do with rapacious capitalists raiding public funds than it does with political entrepreneurs taking advantage of a situation where oversight institutions are too weak to make a difference.

For years, the auditor general has drawn attention to the lack of oversight in municipal government and the disastrous lack of financial control — this despite several sophisticated Acts of Parliament regulating municipal finances and administration.

It is high time that the government looked at itself as a cause of the crisis instead of blaming “neoliberalism”. Much money has been wasted on commissions of inquiry and on lunches and dinners for consulting companies and their political allies.

In any event, what Rudin seems to have in mind as the object of his ire is the doctrine of managerialism or “new public management”. The South African local-government framework fairly bristles with managerialist concepts, such as unbundling, corporatisation, contracting out, performance management, “pay for what you use”, and so on.

Despite its Thatcherite provenance, it is not a political ideology and it is by no means the preserve of neoliberals. It is politically neutral and has been applied around the world as enthusiastically by social-democratic as by conservative governments.

Whether it is an effective and desirable doctrine is certainly open to question, especially in South Africa, not because of its supposed neoliberal links, but because, among other reasons, its application requires the skills and conditions lacking in this context and because some of its elements appear to contradict developmental objectives.

The cause of the malaise in local government is not neoliberalism — it lies in the government and its lack of willingness to grasp a homegrown nettle and root it out.

Rudin’s entirely evidence-free assertion that “municipal dys­function is but a symptom of a wider disorder linking South Africa to the rest of the neoliberal world” serves only to divert attention from that cause.

Thomas A Koelble and Andrew Siddle teach in the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town

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