Message clear for local government: fail on basics at your peril

This year will be remembered as a mixed year for local government.

It started off with the worst-case scenario for local government — an ugly water protest in Brits that left several residents dead and exposed supply-chain mismanagement and corruption that had left residents profoundly compromised.

The event was one of many in a protest-filled year driving the total number of protests to a new annual record of 185 on Municipal IQ’s Municipal Hotspots Monitor by the end of November eclipsing 2012’s previous record of 173.

But all is not lost. One of the most encouraging developments was the appointment of the most senior politician ever as minister of co-operative governance — Pravin Gordhan. Not only is he a veteran of the local government environment but he also brings an understanding of the pressing financial issues facing local government as well as an approachable no-nonsense reputation that has reassured stakeholders and the public at large.

Gordhan quickly set about crafting his "Back to Basics" programme through which he seeks to distil the mandate of local government and get compliance with core competencies which vary considerably depending on the "differentiated" context of a municipality.

The concept of differentiation — which municipality should be in charge of what functions at a local level — was introduced several years ago but remains as pertinent as ever in the wake of this year’s provincial and national elections and resonates strongly with the National Development Plan’s vision for local government.

This vision addresses the tension of the present political landscape which is evident not only in terms of a fractious Parliament but in the spatial divisions between the haves and have-nots the urban and the rural the middle and rising middle class and the poor.

Greater levels of conflict and contestation in this environment put especial pressure on urban and metro areas where in elections opposition parties made significant inroads into the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) formerly comfortable majority.

For the ANC-led government there is pressure to deliver not only more rapidly and in a more responsive way to growing and increasingly demanding middle-class communities but also to address backlogs in rural areas that feed already high rates of urbanisation and undermine development.

What does this mean for municipalities? Although towns and cities are some of the better performers in terms of tackling basic service backlogs notwithstanding significant population growth there is a definitive policy thrust to ensure that cities deliver services in a way that addresses spatial inequity rooted in apartheid planning using own resources.

In rural areas the focus is to ensure basic delivery through shared service solutions. "Basic" tasks therefore vary tremendously — from billing accurately to maintaining water infrastructure.

The imperative to ensure these basics are delivered is profound. As service delivery protests continue unabated communities in cities small towns and villages are increasingly voicing their unhappiness with not only the level but also the quality and cost of local government services as well as the accessibility of officials and elected representatives.

A simple RDP "package" of services will not be accepted by many communities without adequate quality cost and democratic representation.

So how is local government faring and where and what should "basics" be? A stark division between larger and smaller towns continues to be etched in economic governance and performance results on newly released results on Municipal IQ performance indices and monitors as revenue contracts (both from the fiscus and consumers) and lingering capacity constraints manifest in underexpenditure.

Generally lower scores by municipalities on Municipal IQ indices and monitors suggest that recessionary pressures are putting a damper on economic prospects with the dual pressures of addressing population growth and spatial inequality in cities and backlogs outside of cities pronounced.

For large urban municipalities revenue management to ensure spending power to support rapidly growing populations while innovatively reshaping the spatial landscape of municipalities is paramount while for smaller municipalities enlisting support to roll out programmes that address backlogs and build internal capacity is crucial.

On the other hand specific results on Municipal IQ’s Compliance and Governance Index which focuses on how well municipalities are meeting basic legislated planning and reporting requirements as well as reflecting on their financial management and capacity show slight but welcome improvement.

There remain a number of provinces where stubbornly poor performance on Municipal IQ indices and monitors is a concern with deterioration in Eastern Cape metros and Limpopo municipalities a particular worry.

While there has been an improvement in outcomes and capacity in these provinces (in most municipalities) this is off a low base and not at the rate that is needed with too many cases of individual underperformance typically in areas that are the most developmentally disadvantaged — former homeland and rural areas.

A further concern is evident in expenditure trends tracked by Municipal IQ’s Municipal Expenditure Monitor — this year showed a deterioration in spending across almost all municipalities and most markedly in North West Free State Mpumalanga the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape worsening patterns of inequity.

Further spending on indigent support remains woefully inadequate in Mpumalanga Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal municipalities.

A stark pattern of advantage and disadvantage is being perpetuated over time. Consider for instance that top-spending Overstrand spent more than R10000 per resident in the past financial year compared to some smaller municipalities that spent less than 5% of this figure per resident.

Decreasing expenditure also negatively affected Municipal IQ’s Municipal Productivity Index which reflects the municipal socioeconomic context and showed a slight deterioration in this year’s scores.

The results as always confirm the dominant position of Gauteng and Western Cape municipalities with Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal municipalities by contrast continuing to lag.

Taken together Municipal IQ’s results confirm what Gordhan no doubt already knows — there is no room to ease off pressure on local government to continue to roll out services in an efficient accelerated and focused way that meets the distinctly different needs of fast-growing urban and backlog-ridden rural contexts.

These results as well as the prevalence of protests this year also suggest that focused intervention is necessary where municipal failure dominates.

Consider the case of the Ngaka Modiri Molema district municipality and the recent ruling by the Constitutional Court which dismissed the municipality’s attempt to resist provincial intervention in its dismal state of service delivery. Councillors’ salaries and indeed the very existence of the municipality were found to be secondary to the profound and pressing needs of residents who have been subjected to sustained delivery failure as a result of years of apparent maladministration and corruption.

This legal guidance and reiteration of local government’s mandate took place at the same time that a concerted rapid intergovernmental response (by national departments and other stakeholders) was under way in North West. The work is already said to be bearing fruit. Basic services including water connections are being restored to communities that have been so woefully neglected by district leadership apparently more intent on securing their own income than services.

For local government the message is clear: fail on the basics at your peril.