Apartheid alive in far-flung, marginalised communities
Local government has faced a gruelling year. Communities have taken to the streets across the country (but most especially in townships in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Mpumalanga) to protest against perceived maladministration, corruption and ineptitude in their local councils.
The national government, led by a vibrant new minister, has laid bare the sorry state of many municipalities’ finances, and even prosperous councils such as Tshwane have been humiliated by an inability to pay their creditors on time.
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To this extent, local government’s perceived failure is an indictment of all spheres of government and the failure of the very ambitious intent to deliver services through “co-operative” spheres.
Of course, this does not excuse local government failure, where it occurs. With babies dying of contaminated water last year, or sewage flowing through the streets of rural towns, what is to be done?
Here too the president’s address provides a source of analysis: “Can municipalities with vastly different capacities be expected to perform the same functions? We may have imposed a one-size-fits-all arrangement when a differentiated approach is called for.”
This differentiated approach is a concept that has taken hold in policy circles — with the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs engaging hundreds of stakeholders at a local government indaba last week to further a local government turn- around strategy, which is expected to reach the Cabinet by year’s end.
The question then arises, how should local government be differentiated? Make no mistake, differentiation is an ugly process — it says that some are good, some are bad but should be good, and some fatally flawed. There appears to be growing consensus in government that this last category needs to be identified and in some way “fixed”, without undermining local government’s hard-fought battle for constitutional autonomy as an equal sphere of government.
But the measurement of inherent capacity needs to be fair, and to this extent, invariably complex. Municipal IQ’s third set of annual rankings on our municipal productivity index (MPI) points to some of the issues that need to be built into a “differentiation” exercise.
From the outset, it must be stated that the MPI reflects on how efficiently economic agents within a particular municipality can function — put differently, how productive a resident of a municipality can be.
The index considers levels of social and economic infrastructure, the extent of poverty and access to basic municipal services, in combination with multiyear measures of financial governance, as well as organisational capacity levels.
The MPI does not purport to measure the performance of individual municipalities’ service delivery directly. Rather, it reflects on the context in which this takes place.
Obviously this is an iterative process; where municipalities are situated in attractive and productive localities, they can piggy- back off and reinforce economies of agglomeration by raising revenue, rolling out capital projects, supporting free basic service delivery and drawing in skilled employees.
A virtuous context is most evident in the case of the Western Cape and Gauteng — the top-scoring provinces on the MPI, respectively. But where poverty is grinding and backlogs remain stubbornly high due to the inequities of the past, service delivery challenges are profound, compounded by the reality that there is little economic infrastructure for marginalised local councils to leverage off, very little or no revenue base, and great difficulty in attracting and retaining skilled staff.
The spatial injustices of the past are evident in much of Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal (the worst performing provinces on the MPI, respectively), where all the variables on the MPI act in concert to pull down the average scores.
In fact, the 2009 MPI results reveal less than 2% of local municipalities with either a rural or a former homeland classification manage to score in the top 60% of MPI local municipal scores, while almost all rural former homeland municipalities continue to languish in the bottom 40% of the MPI.
In effect, apartheid lives on in these far- flung, marginalised communities. Put brutally, the results suggest that only municipalities with urban areas or cities, outside of former homelands, offer productive environments for residents and investors. In economic terms, there are no economies of agglomeration in the poorest rural and former homeland areas to attract and concentrate investment in productive areas.
This is a disheartening conclusion for the champions of local government, who assumed that government closest to the people would inevitably deliver the best possible set of basic services. But, as has been suggested by the president, perhaps a different system is necessary. This could conceivably take the form of a regionalised administration that delivers to rural and former homeland areas using economies of scale.
But here one must be careful — while rural development strategies are becoming increasingly important to stem the tide of migration to desperate informal living conditions, with all their associated social hardship, there needs to be a case by case assessment to enable capable municipalities to continue to forge their own destinies, as envisaged by the constitution, before being lumped into an amorphous rural or former homeland category.
Despite municipalities’ poor popularity, before condemning local government as a whole, it should be noted that there is a small upward trend in MPI scores for this year — improvements in living conditions of the average South African are evident, and part of this is due to the work of local councils.
While many municipalities are experiencing financial hardship — in part self-imposed by poor billing and revenue collecting systems, and in part due to nonpaying customers, ironically one of the larger being other spheres of government — they are not all the basket-case scenario that the worst performers (or service delivery protests) might suggest. There are many well-managed, high-spending and sustainable top tier municipalities that should be commended for their progress in eradicating the service delivery backlogs of the past, and within this number there are a handful of outperformers in the least attractive regions of the country, excelling quietly against the odds.
To understand individual progress, one needs to weigh up the contexts of delivery — demographic changes, revenue collection, expenditure plans and capacity levels — as well as the concrete outputs.
To this end, it is welcome that there is recognition of the need to rethink the clearly idealistic “one-size-fits-all” strategy for local government, but this will also require a careful assessment of both the functioning of individual municipalities as well as the context within which municipalities function.