Van Rooyen’s priorities in tough local elections year

New Co-operative Governance Minister Desmond van Rooyen faces a challenging year. His entrance into the co-operative governance and traditional affairs portfolio late last year was less than ideal necessitating stakeholders being asked to reserve judgment but this year is going to be particularly trying.

As steward for local government he has five priority areas. The paramount one for the minister is leadership and continuity. Van Rooyen needs to take over the helm of local government with confidence and a sense of purpose.

Crucial to his success will be ensuring continuity and consistency with his predecessor Pravin Gordhan’s back to basics programme — not only because it tackles many of the systemic problems facing local government but also to ensure minimal disruption to the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs which has had five ministers in as many years.

Van Rooyen will want to stamp his personality on the role and he appears to have already (somewhat) done so with a conciliatory tone that changed the South African Municipal Workers’ Union’s "concern" about his appointment to it being welcomed by the union.

A second priority area already being tackled quite correctly by the minister is election readiness. He argued that several "touch-ups" are required before an election date is announced. This year’s local government elections are to be held between May 18 and August 16.

While the Tlokwe by-elections and subsequent ruling by the Constitutional Court have shone some light on the importance of rigorous boundary delimitations it is also important that the date be declared soon rather than later to create confidence and promote accurate and informed planning in the sector....

 

A recent Treasury circular outlined the complexity of municipal budgeting and the at-times conflicting timetables and knock-on effects of local elections.

It is a concern that the later in the year the elections take place the lower the likely turnout will be. Municipal elections are always at risk of poor support compared to national and their provincial counterparts and harsh winter conditions (at the end of the range) would worsen existing lethargy and apathy.

Once elections have been held the next step — which van Rooyen has tremendous insight into as former mayor of Merafong and resident of Khutsong — is ensuring that redrawn boundaries realise the potential for more viable structures as assessed by the Municipal Demarcation Board. Facilitating transition within amalgamated municipalities is therefore his third priority.

Even where boundaries are not contentious — and many are especially in Limpopo’s Vhembe district under which Malamulele falls as well as North West’s Tlokwe/Ventersdorp merger — they will imply institutional pressure where systems need to merge and organisations are required to restructure.

Support and assistance to these municipalities will need to be finely tuned readily available and guided by keen oversight implying an onerous workload for the minister and co-operative governance MECs and their officials.

Stability and transition where leadership shifts occur in the wake of the elections are the fourth focus area for Van Rooyen. Aside from those municipalities that face new boundaries and structures there are likely to be a number of councils that face coalition governance structures.

This will imply a period of horse-trading legal challenges and inevitably institutional stress and instability. Even where this is resolved in the medium term experience of hung councils and the intransigence that this has fostered in a number of KwaZulu-Natal councils is likely to call on van Rooyen’s attention.

In this regard the enactment of the Municipal Systems Amendment Act will assist with institutional stability if organisational management is insulated from political fluctuations.

Finally local government faces a difficult financial context and pressures. With economic growth faltering interest rates rising and consumers stomaching higher inflation (in part due to a feeble rand) revenue-generation in local government is likely to prove to be especially trying over the year ahead putting pressure on the already crippling factor of staggeringly high consumer debt....

 

Furthermore local councils will need to cope with above-inflation bulk electricity and water costs and pressures on wages. For this new leaders will need to apply their minds quickly to the challenge of "doing more with less".

Van Rooyen clearly faces an extremely difficult year requiring a steady and consistent policy course that works at supporting municipalities through varying but inevitable periods of transition and organisational stress implied by new political leadership and in a number of instances organisational structures.

Fortunately for Van Rooyen he has the opportunity to collaborate with probably the most keenly sympathetic finance minister who is well aware of the challenges posed to local government.