Ten things that need to happen to local government now

Local government has not survived the glare of electioneering very well with unenclosed toilets and ugly service delivery protests seared in the public imagination. 

South Africans as canvassed by IDASA and other institutions generally have a dim view of local government’s delivery record and correctly so in many instances.

So what are the 10 things that need to be done now to fix local government?

» Get a new cooperative governance minister. 

Minister Sicelo Shiceka’s health is unfortunate not only for his personal career (given the vast number of allegations of misspending during his tenure which have still to be resolved) but also for local government during the highly charged and sensitive time of electioneering.

To ensure that the broad and generous promises made during elections strong vibrant and focused leadership is crucial. 

A ministerial appointment is required as of May 19 to begin urgent interventions to arrest some of the crises exposed by election campaigns.

» Leaders must ensure that local government is professionalised and depoliticised by means of the Municipal Systems Amendment Bill. 

As this paper reported earlier this month and last week the amendment aims to ensure competent professionals are appointed into top managerial positions in local government effectively bringing to an end the era of cadre deployment. 

Newly elected politicians must encourage the intent and implement the details of the legislation; focusing on delivery and not narrow party interests which can be so divisive to local government. 

» Policy must prioritise rural municipalities and former homeland areas to ensure basic service delivery and lessen inequality. 

Sadly those areas of South Africa where backlogs in basic service delivery are typically greatest continue to languish behind the rest of the country no doubt contributing to rapid in-migration to our largest cities.

Stats SA’s 2007 Community Survey data shows that in metros on average 1.3% of households did not have access to clean potable water while the figure in rural municipalities and former homeland areas is a staggering 36%. 

And there is little sign of this being reversed. Average metro spending over the last four years has been at least R4 500 per resident per year matched by similar levels in top-spending local municipalities but 92 municipalities making up the bottom 40% of local municipalities spent on average less than R400 per resident per year.

» A new model for delivery in these municipalities must be developed where necessary. Already there is talk of merging “vulnerable” municipalities or “special purpose vehicles” to ensure the delivery of basic services. 

While there needs to be some negotiations around the constitutional implications of such measures the necessity of basic service delivery now needs to supersede these inter-governmental concerns. 

Socioeconomic rights cannot continue to be neglected for the concept of decentralised government where it is blatantly failing to deliver. 

» Empower cities. 

Cities albeit with some difficulties and patchiness by and large are delivering services well especially considering that their communities typically continue to grow rapidly. 

Granting authority to cities to deliver houses is an important step in the right direction to ensure better planning outcomes without tying cities up in inter-governmental processes. 

» Finances must be overseen more keenly by competent provincial officials.

Programmes like those between Gauteng’s provincial government and the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants bolstering capacity and financial governance in municipalities are not only critical to local government but also in strengthening the quality of oversight by provincial officials. 

» Everyone must stop blaming financial resources as the source of local governments’ ills. 

The argument that national government has not made enough money available to support municipalities while possibly true in the past is no longer valid. Grant funding to municipalities has increased fivefold in the last seven years from R12.6?billion in 2004 to R46?billion last year. 

Grants as a proportion of revenue in municipalities has doubled over the last seven years as municipalities have begun to rely increasingly on grants and less on their own revenue. 

» Municipalities must listen to communities and communities must engage with their councillors. 

It is intriguing that the number of service-delivery protests has dropped in the run up to elections. 

This may reflect that communities feel that their grievances are being listened to. 

Top-level leaders along with ward councillors must continue to visit communities. 

On the other side of the coin an ethos of public service is the only solution to the vast array of local government problems and this must be demanded by communities. 

While it may be difficult to work out the correct channels for engagement demand that your ward councillor takes your concerns to your council. 

» Corrupt and inept officials and politicians must go. It is critical that corruption in local government is arrested and that incompetence is exposed and punished. 

Where officials and politicians transcend regulations they must be censored and dismissed. 

The legal framework for this is in place; what is necessary is commitment from the highest political level with no-one perceived to be “untouchable”. 

» If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Finally local government has experienced considerable change over the last 17 years and transformation has taken its toll. 

While intervention is clearly necessary in the case of failing municipalities and keener oversight is crucial where municipalities do good work they should be allowed to continue to do this without being hindered by new regulations and structures.