On April 18, in my capacity as Grahamstown Residents’ Association chairperson, I wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa imploring the government to support an intervention we had championed to turn our little city around. Two days later, Mahikeng was going up in flames.
What’s the connection? Around the country, government dysfunction has been felt most keenly at local level. Service delivery protests have become the new national industry. But things never seem to get better. Something is done about the immediate cause of the protests, then things slide backwards. It is time we started looking at root causes.
In my home municipality, Makana, the problems are easier to see because it is small and different subcommunities are not as geographically isolated as in a big city.
The residents’ association joined a number of other groups in pressing the province to deploy a turnaround specialist for up to two years to fix the deep and systemic problems in the municipality. The pay-off is enormous — as the home of the National Arts Festival, one of the country’s most research-productive universities and many other potential starting points for development and job creation, government dysfunction is a huge hindrance to reducing poverty. Here alone, the potential for investment is in the billions of rand — countrywide, trillions. But no one invests in dysfunction.
After sustained pressure, we managed to get the Sarah Baartman district municipality municipal manager Ted Pillay deployed to Makana for an initial period of three months — far too little to get the job done, hence my letter to Ramaphosa.
Here, the problems are clear and could provide a lesson for the rest of the country.
First, government processes and procedures — procurement most notably — are way too complex. That anyone gets a tender right is the big surprise, not that so many are in various ways irregular. The mistake the government makes is trying to close every loophole with more regulation. Eventually, the complexity of regulation itself becomes the loophole, as the systems become so complex that hardly anyone understands them.
Second, there is no consequence management. If someone is caught with their fingers in the till, the worst that happens is they are redeployed. Government is not a social club to benefit its members — it is meant to benefit society. Forum 4 Service Delivery in the last municipal elections elected 30 councillors mainly in North West; they have subsequently fired 12 for laziness. That is a standard other parties should contemplate.
Third, being in government is treated as a benefit for the well connected. According to Pillay, the national norm for municipal budgets is that 35% should go on salaries. In Makana, the figure is 50%, indicating that 30% of the staffing budget needs to be cut. The consequence is that the municipality cannot afford to pay other running costs such as fuel, spare parts, repairs to vehicles and equipment and maintaining basic infrastructure.
How can all these things be fixed?
At national level, the government needs to take a good hard look at its approach to regulation. Stifling complexity makes it hard to run municipalities by the book and makes it easier to get away with corruption by hiding it behind that complexity.
That problem extends to regulation of the private sector. It is way too hard, for example, for a small organisation to become tax compliant. I helped a local nongovernmental organisation with paperwork and we had to give up and call in an accountant. Those of us working on this had collective work experience of more than 60 years and five degrees between us; if the paperwork was too hard for us, how is a spaza shop trying to upgrade itself into to a more formal business to do it?
Once regulation is simplified and it is clear and easy to see whether a process is compliant, real consequences need to follow for malfeasance, and not just when the perpetrators fall out of political favour.
Finally, municipalities and other government sectors that are overstaffed need to be cut. Although it may seem harsh to lay off in large numbers (in Makana the figure is about 200 people to bring the budget into the norm), generous packages can ease the blow. And once we get things properly functional, we can replace those lost jobs with far, far more. Ramaphosa can be the national cheerleader but, if he is called home for service delivery protests in the midst of telling the world what a great investment prospect South Africa is, that does not exactly amplify the message.
The problems are fixable but it will take a mind-set change away from the deeply ingrained culture of patronage in the ANC. Without that, South Africa will continue down the path of increasing inequality and minimal, if any, growth in employment.