/ 9 December 2011

Power, patronage and the provinces


Say what you like about the politics of the national government’s intervention in three provinces, one thing is clear: a scaled-down analogue of the eurozone crisis is unfolding within the borders of South Africa.

Limpopo literally ran out of money three weeks ago, maxing out its overdraft at the Corporation for Public Deposits and exceeding its half-a-billion-rand facility at First National Bank.

The treasury had to move forward its payment on one of the province’s regular tranches of funding so that teachers and nurses could be paid.

The province blames unexpected increases in civil service wages and the implementation of the occupation-specific dispensation for health workers. These were provided for at central level, but seem to have been implemented amid real confusion and, on a charitable interpretation, unexpected wage payments in a context of rampant corruption and mismanagement may have finally tipped the provincial fiscus over the edge.

The treasury effected a hostile takeover of the Limpopo this week, placing five key departments under administration. To all intents and purposes the province has been stripped of its basic functions. Premier Cassel Mathale is now a figurehead, presiding over a shell of a government run from Pretoria.

No doubt the emergency was real and drastic intervention was warranted, but there is no escaping the fact that the move deprives one of President Jacob Zuma’s most important opponents of almost all his power and, crucially, of his patronage machinery.

Supporters of Mathale, Julius Malema and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula are fuming over the coup, which they insist is driven purely by politics. They point to other provinces with large overdrafts and rickety finances that have not suffered the same fate. There is no gainsaying the political advantage secured by Zuma with this move, but Mathale and his government opened themselves up to it by allowing Limpopo’s finances to deteriorate beyond the mere mess we have come to expect into real crisis.

In contrast to the takeover of Limpopo moves to stabilise the finances of Gauteng and the Free State, with their Zuma-aligned premiers, look more like friendly bailouts. Gauteng, despite a health service that the treasury described to Cabinet as being in “disarray”, will be dealt with via an “agreement” between the province and the national government. And in the profligate, but less disastrous, Free State the intervention is limited to the roads department.

Those Gauteng projects that do face major cutbacks date from the tenure as finance MEC of Paul Mashatile, another Zuma opponent. Premier Nomvula Mokonyane, who is at loggerheads with Mashatile, may not be very sorry to see them trimmed or abandoned.

The politics then are real and they are vicious, but so are the impacts of mismanagement, and they stretch deep into other provinces. KwaZulu-Natal and the North West are said by the treasury to be on track for recovery. Meanwhile, in municipalities across the country similar failures are compromising access to clean water, basic infrastructure and housing.

As the treasury warned Cabinet on Monday: “Non-delivery and slow delivery of services poses a security risk for the country.” That is a welcome recognition but, if risk is really to be diminished, interventions from the centre will have to move beyond politics.

Read the second editorial “SA soccer: Crisis? What crisis?