The efforts of the government to manage the Covid-19 pandemic have been applauded locally and internationally by the likes of the World Health Organisation. Friend and foe awoke to the sudden realisation that Covid-19 — the new enemy — is creed, class and colour blind, demanding decisive collective action to prevent large-scale loss of life.
The pandemic has certainly highlighted the deep fault lines in our constitutional democracy. A tale of two cities, where the minority middle class are sheltered, enjoying the fruits of democracy and the poor left scrabbling for the crumbs from the table. The case for equal access to healthcare and education is firmly established.
The Constitution positions local government at the nucleus of development and the delivery of basic service. It is where democracy finds expression through the active participation of citizens in policy-making and monitoring government’s efforts to eradicate poverty, inequality and unemployment. Late in April, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a R500-billion Covid-19 relief fund with R20-billion directly allocated to municipalities to help contain the spread of the virus.
This has raised a number of questions from citizens. Is this not a licence to loot for corrupt municipal officials? Can the leadership of municipalities be trusted to lead the fight against the virus? Do municipalities have the skills and capacity to manage a crisis of this magnitude?
Unsurprisingly, some people have expressed their disdain for local government, accusing councillors of favouritism with the allocation of food parcels and double dipping by some residents because of the ineffective data collection system and intergovernmental duplication.
Others have argued that ward committees (the hands and feet of participatory democracy) are a farce and are not working. In general, citizens seem to have lost confidence in their elected local leadership and officials because they have consistently failed to meet the promise of developmental local government envisaged 20 years ago.
Municipalities are now presented with a rare window of opportunity to reboot and to restore people’s trust and confidence in them. What should they do to achieve this?
Given that in some councils the opposition parties have been reduced to spectators. Mayors need to emulate the president and make sure that there’s a multiparty approach at the local level to Covid-19.
Now is the time to put purpose together and to leave egos at the door. A time to listen and learn. This is not the space for political grandstanding. This demands innovative thinking and stretching collaboration as advocated by Adam Kahane in his book Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work With People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust (2017).
There should be a relook at the Integrated Development Plan and the budget. We know that municipalities do not have a track record of taking people’s input seriously. Now is the time for municipalities to facilitate a citizen-centric approach to budgeting and development. The anticipated revenue streams will not be there, given the devastating economic effect of the virus. Municipalities could very well consider rates and tax relief for small businesses. But the needs of the most vulnerable in society should be prioritised.
All sectors of society need to be mobilised, as the acclaimed academic economist and writer Professor Sampie Terreblanche advocated in his book Lost in Transformation (2014). He argued that we did not succeed in replacing the deeply divided South African society with a society of social solidarity. He was right. Local government is the bridge between “the haves, the have nots and the never hads”. We need to build a sustainable socioeconomic security network to address the deep-rooted crises of access and structural violence. The empty church building today is tomorrow’s field hospital.
Given that food parcels are not sustainable, municipalities should rather invest in infrastructure. They should consider buying gas burners and utensils to support the efforts of the many different organisations already reacting to Covid-19 at ground level. Most of the food parcels are dry goods that still have to be prepared. A more practical approach would be to credit the pre-paid meters for qualifying households.
Municipalities should also follow a data-driven approach. They have big data sets that they are not mining effectively, which leads to partisan and erratic decision-making that is sometimes inconsistent with the reality on the ground. Once the data is interrogated, it has the potential to map the ward reality.
But knowing is not enough. Municipalities should then make evidence-based decisions that could result in better coordinated implementation and traction across all government departments.
To restore trust, municipalities should provide daily updates to residents about how the government is responding to the Covid-19 crisis. This could include flyers, loud-hailing, tapping into the social media networks and media such as community radio and local newspapers
Last, but not least, municipalities need to build local capacity and equip residents and municipal officials with the skills needed to propel local economies and to manage waste better.
As our municipalities try to navigate the Covid-19 crisis, they could do well to heed the words of Nigerian musician Ike Uzondu: “The art of governing is not rocket science. Being honest, knowing that you are here to serve the people; and finding a way to deliver the goods — that is the key.”
Dr Harlan Cloete is an extraordinary lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership. His main research interest is exploring evidence based HRD governance systems in the public sector with a keen interest in local government