Local government needs major surgery

It is policy conference time for the ANC in June and the performance and role of local government will once again be up for discussion and solutions to its problems proposed.

But previous interventions that were supposedly intended to cure local government’s ills have yielded disappointing results. For example, Project Consolidate was presented as a mechanism aimed at addressing the day-to-day challenges that affect municipalities, but it achieved little. The widely trumpeted Local Government Strategy of 2009, ill designed in its conception and unenthusiastically applied, has all but collapsed. Outcome 9, the local government component of the presidential co-ordinating committee’s project for key work intended “to turn the tide in local government”, seems similarly to have come adrift.

The deputy minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs admitted in August 2009 that “local government just ain’t working”. Nearly three years later, it is still the case. Will the ANC policy conference give hope for improvement and provide meaningful solutions when other interventions have failed so signally?

Sadly, if the ANC’s policy discussion document on legislature and governance is anything to go by, the answer must be a resounding “no”. The document is one of several on various topics released by the ANC in March and serves as the basis for discussion on the topic of local government at the conference.

It is a profoundly disappointing and wholly inadequate document. On a superficial level, it smacks of amateurism in its compilation and editing. If an organisation wishes to have a policy statement taken seriously, surely it should ensure that it is at least articulated clearly. The document’s turbidity and disorder greatly reduce its utility and credibility.

A dysfunctional system
At another level, the “problem statement” contained in the discussion document is fairly accurate as far as it goes, which is to set out a litany of the symptoms of a dysfunctional system. It fails completely, however, to get to grips with the causes that underlie these symptoms.

We have all long known that “a significant number of municipalities are still in deep distress and municipal service delivery is poor”;  that “poor governance and accountability, weak financial management, skills gaps, high vacancies in critical senior management posts and a lack of informed and co-ordinated planning” have resulted in the “inability of some municipalities to deliver even a core set of basic municipal services”.

How many times do we have to be told that the “one-size-fits-all approach to improving local government has not worked”? And why is there a continuing preoccupation with problems associated with district municipalities? All these problems are merely symptoms of a deeper malaise. What the discussion document steadfastly avoids addressing is the cause of that malaise.

It is therefore unsurprising that, at a third level, the discussion document disappoints yet again with the recommendations it proposes. It is here that the utter detachment of policymakers from the realities of local government becomes apparent.

For example, recommendations to address problems of service delivery include putting in place a differentiated approach to municipal planning, financing and support, an increase in transfers from central government, increasing revenue collection and spending capacity and enhancing the administrative and financial capacities of municipalities. To address issues of political governance, it recommends that the oversight roles of municipal councils be enhanced by strengthening the role of the speaker and “strengthening the separation of powers between the executive and council”.

Applying governance band-aids
It recommends the further devolution of powers to cities, implementing different infrastructure funding models for cities and rural municipalities, applying differentiated capacity interventions, introducing new revenue-raising powers for some municipalities and providing for differentiation in regulations, and removing stronger local municipalities from district municipalities so that the latter will support only those areas with weak local councils.

All but a few of these recommendations amount to nothing more than applying governance “band-aids” to deep-seated problems that the discussion document does not come even close to addressing. These problems are many and include a central government that is distracted, overwhelmed, inertia-bound and lacking the will to get to grips with the problems of local government. They include incompetent, self-serving political leadership at all levels that has caused untold damage to the cause of good local governance.

They include corruption, the capture of local governments by powerful local elites, clientelism, capacity constraints and a local government framework that is far too sophisticated, complex and demanding for an inescapably less-developed country such as South Africa to have any prospect of implementing it successfully.

These factors combine to ensure certain disaster and are the root causes of the crisis in which South African local government undeniably finds itself today.

It seems that the ANC and the government have run out of ideas. Witness, for example, an offshoot of the turnaround strategy, the “business adopt-a-municipality” scheme, one of five “flagship projects”. The aim is “to put all the … municipalities in South Africa up for adoption by private companies and state-owned enterprises”, the object being to “improve infrastructure development, deal with governance challenges and address issues of local economic development”, among other things. If ever proof was needed that government has lost the plot, this is it, and the discussion document provides more of the same.

Excessively complex
What is to be done about this state of affairs? The problems that beset local government lie not merely in processes, but in the fundamental structure of the framework. In addition to being excessively complex, it is predicated on the unrealistic assumption that there exists in local government a mature, responsive local political leadership that displays accountability towards its electorate and applies proper oversight over a professional, competent and committed administration.

This idealised conception of local governance simply does not exist in many municipalities and notions of what constitutes good local governance in South Africa are now so inadequate at all levels that our local government framework has little prospect of being properly applied.  Furthermore, throwing money and other resources at the problem will not help either, because it is obvious that the recipients of such largesse have neither the skills nor the inclination to manage such a resource properly. Political factors such as poor leadership require political responses and throwing technocratic administrative cures at them will not help.

This is where the political corrective provided by the ballot box would normally come into play, but in South Africa it has been largely ineffectual to date. This ineffectualness cannot be legislated against and only the will of the electorate will change the situation.

Until it happens, the best that can be done is to undertake a complete review of the role, structure and capability of local government and  reconfigure the framework accordingly. It involves reassessing the role of municipalities as agents for implementing the objects of the developmental state and deciding whether they are capable of performing the many administrative and operational functions they now have.

It will require structural changes that go far beyond mere process adjustments and probably involve significant changes to the Constitution. It may require differentiation between municipalities at a fundamental structural level (as opposed to the kind of differentiation contemplated in the discussion document) and as such it may involve a diminishment of the autonomy of many municipalities and a reduction of their functions. Other spheres of government or agencies may have to assume some or even all these functions, leaving many municipal councils as little more than advisory bodies.

A kneejerk reaction
It is a drastic approach and one that is likely to attract much opposition from certain quarters, including opposition parties that are likely to show a kneejerk reaction to any proposed changes to the Constitution, and local elites who face the loss of status, influence and material benefits. Last but not least, it will be opposed by the government and the ANC, for despite its assertion that “there are no holy cows when the ANC discusses and assesses its policies”, we suspect that it lacks the backbone and the political will to make fundamental, meaningful changes. The limp recommendations contained in the discussion document bear this out.

We are running out of time and patience has already been exhausted in some quarters. We cannot afford to dicker around with half-baked recommendations of the kind contained in the policy discussion document. Drastic though the alternative approach may be and difficult though it may be to implement, it provides hope for a far more palatable outcome than that which would surely follow if the present course is pursued.

Dr Andrew Siddle and Professor Tom Koelble are the authors of The Failure of Decentralisation in South African Local Government: Complexity and Unanticipated Consequences, which is due to be published by UCT Press in July.

The ANC policy conference will take place next month at Gallagher Estate in Gauteng


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