Makana municipal mess up has lessons for local government

I chair the Grahamstown Residents’ Association and that already requires explanation — why not the Makhanda Residents’ Association? The official name change has been challenged in court and appeals are not yet exhausted, but when the dust settles, we will get there.

And there is a lot of dust to settle. What follows is not strictly in chronological order as I try to link common events.

I do not go into much detail of past government attempts to fix the municipality including appointing Pam Yako as administrator in 2014 (but without dissolving the council). These attempts, in typical government style, resulted in beautifully-written reports that were not acted on.

On January 14 this year Judge Igna Stretch blew local government politics apart with a judgment in favour of the Unemployed People’s Movement, ordering that the Makana council (the municipality’s name has a different spelling to the town, Makhanda) be dissolved and an administrator appointed.

READ MORE: Court dissolves local municipality

Background

To outsiders, this may seem a bombshell out of nowhere and government is trying to paint the judgment as judicial overreach. But this case has been long in the building and is really more about government underreach.

Backtrack to September 2015. A group of locals gets fed up with the health and safety hazards of the unmanaged Makhanda landfill site and takes on the municipality under the name Makana Unity League in the high court. The Grahamstown Residents’ Association assists them with gathering evidence. The municipality loses yet the landfill site remains a disgrace and regularly catches fire, spewing toxic smoke. A contempt order is wending its way through the high court.

In early 2017, Tim Bull, the secretary of the Grahamstown Residents’ Association, starts sounding warnings that the dam is dangerously low. But nothing is done until early 2019, when there is a serious risk that Rhodes University will not be able to function. All stops are pulled out to route water from the other water plant on the other side of town, the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works. The water situation is another sorry story and points to government dysfunction in awarding tenders: the situation would have been avoided had a tender to upgrade the water treatment plant not failed to deliver. Although the situation today is better, government has reneged on the promise to fast-track major upgrades to the water treatment plant and I last heard that the tender had not even been awarded.

 In mid-2017, the Concerned Citizens Committee to Save Makana was formed and the Grahamstown Residents’ Association joined it. The committee lobbied government to appoint a turnaround specialist because previous interventions by government had yielded no results and the municipality was limping along with acting municipal managers each appointed for three months. Government responded by seconding Ted Pillay from the Sarah Baartman district municipality for the first half of 2018. Under his watch, things started to happen. Corrupt managers were forced out, at least one corruptly-awarded tender was stopped and one of the numerous roads in bad need of overhaul was resurfaced. But, with the appointment of a permanent municipal manager, Moppo Mene, things start to stall again, despite the subsequent appointment of a competent chief financial officer, Gerard Goliath, and a well-qualified water and sanitation manager, Gubevu Maduna.

In November 2018, the Unemployed People’s Movement, in conjunction with one of the leading local estate agents, collects 22 000 signatures in a petition demanding dissolution of the council and placing the municipality under administration under section 139(1)c of the Constitution. To put this in context, the signatures number about 90% of the votes cast here last municipal election. 

The Grahamstown Residents’ Association supports this petition; I speak at a rally outside the city hall and some of our members helped deliver it to Bisho. Government does not ever formally acknowledge this petition. But, early in 2019, it replaced mayor Nomhle Gaga with Mzukisi Mpahlwa. The new mayor is a vast improvement but there is just so much a single person can do with a largely dysfunctional council.

It is against this backdrop that the Unemployed People’s Movement decided to launch a court action demanding the dissolution of the council and the appointment of an administrator. Numerous attempts by citizens to call government to account and asking no more than that it do its job had failed. The Grahamstown Residents’ Association, as with the Makana Unity League court action, put a lot of work into gathering evidence to support the case while still maintaining a positive working relationship with the municipality and the council. We see no contradiction in this because it is our fervent desire that our local government is successful.

The next big shock is a notice on March 14 2019 that Eskom intends to cut Makhanda electricity for up to 14 hours a day because the municipality was behind on its backlog repayment plan. The business sector reacted rapidly: two leading business owners backed the Grahamstown Business Forum in taking urgent court action and the Grahamstown Residents’ Association joined this action. We forced the municipality and Eskom into a settlement that is still holding up. Had we not done so, Rhodes University and most other major employers would have struggled to keep going.

I could add more but the point I want to make is that we have worked hard to make the system work the way it is designed to. The puzzle is why government is resisting this so hard, to the extent of talking about appealing the January 14 judgment. 

Making SA governable

Having watched local government in action (or lack thereof) I see two key areas where improvement is possible.

The first is in awarding infrastructure tenders. Government requires that 30% be awarded to local contractors to build local skills and create jobs. This sounds admirable but it does not work. The problem is that this 30% becomes the patronage slice and removes the focus from awarding the contract to someone who will get the job done to a contractor who will be most willing to grease local patronage networks. Worse, if the project fails, the patronage networks get rewarded a second time — in other words, rewarding failure. Even worse, as infrastructure decays, patronage becomes more powerful as it becomes the only game in town.

The solution? Provide a separate budget for local skills development and job creation that is not part of the project. And police essential infrastructure projects closely so any wrongdoing is thwarted.

The second is the undue complexity of financial administration. I am told by an expert on local government that a lot of detail in “qualified audits” is minor technicalities that have no bearing on corruption or misspending. The morass of trivial errors buries the serious errors. And there are seldom consequences for wrongdoing. The unnecessary complication slows down those trying to do the job properly and doesn’t stop the corrupt.

This one can also be solved: government can simplify administrative processes and ensure that there are consequences for wrongdoing.

Our government has a clear mandate to govern. The ANC played a major role in creating the Constitution and passed the laws that apply to municipal finance and infrastructure. They have it in their power to fix these problems. Until they do, citizens have it in their power to force government to comply. To reverse the apartheid era protest mantra of making the country ungovernable, we can force it to be governable.

What the Makhanda experience shows is that diverse constituencies can work together. If I compare political views of Ayanda Kota of the Unemployed People’s Movement with some of the business people he works with, they could be from different planets. But when they find common cause, they work together very effectively. This is inspiring and cause for hope for South Africa’s future. We may not be at the ideal of the rainbow nation proclaimed in 1994, but we can get there.

Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University and chairs the Grahamstown Residents’ Association

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Philip Machanick
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University
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