Municipalities are constantly in the news for the wrong reasons and are clearly nowhere near playing the developmental role envisaged in the National Development Plan, particularly in reversing the current economic decline and rising unemployment.
There are endless reports of violent protests and litigation because of poor service delivery, of dilapidated infrastructure and the imminent collapse of administrations, and embezzlement and ineptitude are seemingly the order of the day. The recent auditor general report painted a bleak picture of municipal dysfunction, highlighting the growing weaknesses in governance and lacklustre performance. Irregular expenditure is on the rise, contract and procurement practices are poor and late payment of service providers has become the norm.
The public would appear to have become increasingly numbed by municipal impotence and so often ignore the genuine reasons for poor performance and underdevelopment. Few people have any interactions with municipalities other than perhaps to query accounts or participate in community meetings and don’t understand the dynamics of running a local administration, where resources are scarce, economic growth is anaemic and the prospects for development are tenuous.
Without making excuses for graft and incapability, it is clear that many municipalities are overwhelmed by the socioeconomic challenges on the ground, including high levels of unemployment, poverty and economic inequality, as well as a confluence of social ills such as gender-based violence, child-headed households and substance abuse.
South Africa still has many settlements where it is not clear how people sustain themselves and even how they are able to pay for municipal services.
Take the Alfred Nzo district municipality, for example. A tranquil landscape in the remote Eastern Cape, bordering on Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal, it has a rich cultural and political heritage. One cannot help but marvel at the beauty of the rolling hills, deep gorges, valleys and mountain peaks, and the countless villages with colourful houses dotted along the lush grassland slopes. These villages cover thousands of hectares along the N2 corridor, from the northeast near Kokstad to East London and beyond to the south.
But hidden in this serene countryside is extreme social and economic deprivation, marginalisation and spatial inequality, which are regrettably a common experience in many other parts of rural South Africa.
The Alfred Nzo district municipality has surpassed the OR Tambo district as the most impoverished region in the country, where more than 65% of the total 180 000 or so households living below the poverty line.
Almost 70% of the population is not economically active, and unemployment is as high as 48% in some of the local municipalities. Nearly 80% of the households who are fortunate enough to generate an income get no more than R800 a month, much of it from social grants.
These dire socioeconomic conditions are exacerbated by limited access to social services, especially water, healthcare and education. Many still rely on dams, springs and rivers for water, drinking side by side with their livestock.
Notwithstanding improvements in access to schools, the education completion rate is worryingly low, and only 6% of the adult population attain grade 12. As underdevelopment sustains its grip, job-seekers are leaving the region following erstwhile labour migration patterns to the mining towns and urban centres, leaving destitution and hopelessness behind.
To be fair, much of the current rural backwardness throughout South Africa can be attributed to pre-1994 spatial and economic exclusion but there are current material conditions that stem from the post-democratic dispensation that continue to hinder development.
Foremost among these is low economic activity, with no rural industrial base and the bustle of retail and informal trading. People in rural areas are feeding the growth of the urban centres by consuming goods produced there and retailers extract the little circulating income received from remittances and social grants.
Sparse settlement patterns also stagnate development, making universal access to basic services almost impossible.
Another significant constraint to rural development has been a shortage of resources to drive spatial transformation. Municipalities have long complained that the resources channelled to them are insensitive to the historical legacy of underdevelopment in the former homelands.
But, when resources are made available to them, expenditure programmes are marred by poor decisions and mismanagement. Resources are also directed at vanity projects, financing ephemeral initiatives and sustaining failing co-operative schemes.
The development of rural municipalities must not only be premised on the availability of funds. After all, funding can never be enough. Local government authorities must address the social organisation and encourage densification and spatial transformation.
Public housing programmes can be used to stimulate densification of local towns gradually without disturbing rural livelihoods.
A concerted focus on the delivery of key basic services would also yield greater development than many of the utopian economic development plans predicated on superfluous projects such as conference facilities and agro-processing plants that are destined to become white elephants.
Local economic development initiatives should harness existing economic activities, for instance by supporting the collocation of local business in business districts and integrating them into the value chains of big retailers.
Most importantly, rural municipalities need to drop their prevailing complacency in the belief that resources will continue to trickle down into their coffers and start using what is available more effectively.
Without these interventions, rural economies will continue to function as segregated labour-sending dormitories and satellite economies with no prospects for improvement in quality of life and economic wellbeing of the rural folk.
Eddie Rakabe is an economist affiliated to the Financial and Fiscal Commission. These are his own views