While corruption remains a thorny issue at local government level, experts warn that it may not be the only challenge making it difficult for municipalities to deliver proper services.
Experts said at a webinar on the impact of corruption on local government hosted by the Mail & Guardian in partnership with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung that graft was not the only challenge facing the country’s ailing municipalities. The webinar was moderated by TV and radio broadcast journalist Cathy Mohlahlana.
Despite the Auditor-General (AG) having expressed concern that after all the years of reporting shortcomings and making recommendations, municipalities have still not mastered the basics of financial reporting, with only 28% being able to submit quality financial statements for audit purposes in the 2019/2020 financial year.
Among many adverse findings including blowing billions of rands as a result of irregular and unauthorised expenditure, the AG’s report noted that 64% of municipalities did not provide adequate records, appointed consultants too late or did not manage the consultants’ work properly to benefit from their appointment, effectively outsourcing responsibilities.
AG Tsakani Maluleke noted that in spite of all previous messages, actions taken by oversight, initiatives implemented by national and provincial departments, and some municipalities even being placed under administration, 22 municipalities had received disclaimed opinions by 4 June 2021. She further added that another four municipalities that had disclaimed opinions in the previous year had not yet submitted their financial statements for auditing.
“There have been many calls from all quarters of the country to turn around the decline in local government. Barely a day goes by without shocking revelations of fraud and corruption, wastage, infrastructure deterioration, and municipalities that have lost the trust of the communities they serve. The most jarring revelations concern the impact of service delivery failures on the most vulnerable of our citizens: the poor,” Maluleke said in her June report.
The AG’s reports of the last decade have painted a grim picture of deteriorating governance at local government level and have increasingly hammered on the issue of a lack of accountability for misuse of public funds.
Dr Tracy Ledger, senior researcher at the Public Affairs Research Institute, suggested during the webinar that perhaps it is time to review the current framework governing municipalities. Ledger argued that while corruption is a major challenge at municipal level, the situation in municipalities is much more complex and the problems extend beyond graft.
She cited high levels of poverty and the fact that most households can’t afford to pay for services as one of the contributors towards poor service delivery. Ledger highlighted that under the current system, municipalities are expected to raise most of their revenue through selling water, electricity and sanitation services to households.
“It is absolutely vital to understand the problem we are trying to solve; corruption is not the only problem at local government,” she said.
“The dominant narrative in South Africa is that the only reason we have poor service delivery is because of corruption. The narrative is that if we fix corruption, we will fix everything at local government,” said Ledger.
Sumaya Hendricks, dialogue and advocacy acting manager at the Nelson Mandela Foundation noted that the upcoming local government election provides an opportunity to explore the prevailing situation.
She said although many imagine a situation where municipalities have clean audits and the Auditor-General “has everything she desires,” the reality is that this doesn’t mean municipalities will be delivering on their full constitutional mandate.
“Corruption is not the only problem,” she said, adding that there are other problems including a lack of understanding of functions and roles from the three tiers of government.
Rebone Tau, Programme Manager for Political Affairs at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, identified a lack of professional workplace experience among councillors and lack of skills as a major challenge facing municipalities.
He cited revelations by the South African Local Government Authority (SALGA) that 66% of councillors have no post-matric qualifications and that 62% can’t use a computer as major indicators of a sector in trouble.
He added that the fact that some councillors have no work experience meant they also have no understanding of what’s expected of them professionally. Tau said the councillors lack the basic principles of Batho Pele, which means they need to put the people first.
“They tow the party line at the expense of the people,” said Tau, citing as an example the decision by the Eastern Cape provincial government to appeal the landmark judgment ordering it to dissolve the Makana municipality for failing to meet its constitutional mandate to deliver services.
Tau also raised concerns about whether the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) was adequately playing its role to ensure the smooth running of municipalities.
“What is the role of Cogta? We don’t see Cogta taking municipalities to account,” Tau said, adding that councillors and civil servants at local government lack patriotism, which is why they do not seem to appreciate their roles in ensuring the smooth running of the country.
“Some are put there because of political connections, but have no understanding of the role they need to play. Politicians are taking people for granted by placing unqualified people in positions,” Tau said.
Hendricks added that there also appears to be a lack of understanding of the role played by Cogta and Salga, and in many instances, there seemed to be an assumption that these two entities are one and the same thing, meant to play the same role.
She highlighted a point raised by a government official, saying that their biggest fear with regards to corruption was that it could become endemic and ingrained in the system to a point that it makes it difficult to deal with, even if new and skilled people are brought in.
Tau agreed that there needs to be a general change in behaviour and attitude. “You can change the system, but if people who are put there are not patriotic, there also has to be behavioural change, among civil servants and politicians. The ruling party has made its councillors sign a pledge, but will they comply?
“If there’s no behavioural change among people that the people of South Africa come first, we will still have a problem,” Tau said.
One of the audience members, Terence Arendse, called for the ruling party to be prevented from cadre deployment, which he said often resulted in incompetent officials being appointed into key positions such as municipal managers and chief financial officers.
Another member, Alan Wills, suggested that a radical move would be to depoliticise municipal government completely and vote in competent councillors whose political affiliations are irrelevant and who clearly favour those in their constituency above any political agenda.
Audience member Muzi Mkhize suggested that there should be a hybrid approach, a revamping of the system, including a properly integrated government at national, provincial and local levels, while dealing with human issues, including corruption.
While all the suggestions about recruiting skilled people to run municipalities may sound like a way of resolving the prevailing situation, Ledger raised a critical issue regarding convincing such people to take up such positions.
“Good skilled people don’t want to work in municipalities that are a hotbed of political activity,” she said, adding that in addition to this, they fear for the safety of their families in such environments.
She added that while the treasury has regulations for municipalities to follow in terms of filling up such positions, not even half of municipalities comply with these guidelines and that many of them can’t afford to have those skilled people, or pay for them.
“We need a different structure that can deliver; 25 years after apartheid is a good time to go back to drawing board,” she said.