Action on weak local councils should be consistent

THE past week has elevated local government to a top news story with the arrest of senior Buffalo City brass for misappropriation of funds and the dismissal of several Limpopo mayors for nonperformance. While decisive action on the abuse of power or dereliction of duty is necessary in local government to incentivise better performance and accountability some commentators have questioned its motives.

Is it the new broom implied by President Jacob Zuma in addressing corruption in local government? Or is it a token set of high-level scapegoats? Or is it political fall-out after the elections? While only time will tell it is important that the motivation behind dismissals is clearly linked to poor performance.

Last week began with the dramatic arrest of Buffalo City mayor Zukiswa Ncitha; her deputy Temba Tinta; and speaker Luleka Simon-Ndzele for alleged fraud — especially unpalatable considering it involved Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. The Eastern Cape’s local government and traditional affairs department and the Hawks are investigating charges of fraud corruption and money laundering relating to the costs of transporting mourners a story dug up by the Daily Dispatch.

A day later four Limpopo mayors were dismissed after an African National Congress (ANC) provincial executive committee decision to act on "the weaknesses and challenges of the different municipalities … to strengthen our performance in municipalities for better service delivery". Axed mayors include those from the Capricorn and Mopani districts and Elias Motsoaledi and Greater Tubatse local municipalities.

There is good reason for the ANC to take action in a province where backlogs remain a stubborn problem along with underdevelopment. Poor voter turnout in the province is also of concern. But clouding the removal of the officials were allegations that they were linked to Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema and former premier Cassel Mathale.

In assessing whether the municipalities are any worse off than others in the province it is instructive to consider a number of indicators — performance on the Municipal IQ compliance and governance index (CGI) which benchmarks compliance with legislative processes audit outcomes and capacity backlogs in basic municipal services and expenditure per resident.

While Mopani district and Elias Motsoaledi show poor scores on the CGI Capricorn and Greater Tubatse do not although the latter’s performance on improving significant backlogs was lacklustre and Capricorn’s performance on expenditure is below the district average. Taken together there appear to be bona fide reasons to be concerned about the performance of these municipalities although it will also need to be assessed why the worst performers on the CGI — Waterberg Vhembe Thulamela — were not subject to the same treatment.

It is possible that the Buffalo City investigation had to run its course before the arrests were made this month but it is curious that the allegations go back almost six months. It might be asked why the scandal was kept under wraps before the elections or did a shake-up after the elections remove indemnity for certain political factions?

It is critical that malfeasance in local government is addressed so that corruption and poor performance are seen to have consequences and it is made clear to elected leaders that they have a responsibility to perform at an acceptable level or be removed.

Indeed a key problem with local government is that corruption and poor performance are often ignored by the provincial and national government. But it is equally important that intervention in municipalities is done in a consistent and transparent way so that it cannot simply be dismissed as "political".

First such Machiavellian motivations mitigate and potentially excuse ill-doing (if this is proven) and second the incentive is distorted. If there is a perception that action is taken only when politicians fall foul of ruling interest groups and factions rather than focusing on performance their primary incentive becomes to align themselves in political agendas.

It is crucial that arrests in cases such as those in Buffalo City continue when necessary in a nonpartisan fashion and that the dismissal or redeployment of elected officials be justified by clear and comparable evidence of nonperformance.