Bringing errant officials up to standard

Local government is to be managed more closely. Reading between the lines of two ministers’ budget votes and media briefings last week expectations of local government to manage itself autonomously have shifted with talk of a "more integrated co-operative governance" system suggesting closer management of municipalities.

It is of little surprise — three years ago the late minister of co-operative governance Sicelo Shiceka announced an ambitious clean-audit goal for the entire sphere with the auditor-general finding since that results had "stagnated": 167 of 278 municipalities received audits that were qualified or worse. No fewer than 10 municipalities are under provincial administration. Even worse perceptions of corruption have led to embarrassing coups such as the recent albeit temporary unseating of Tlokwe’s mayor. Local government has disappointed advocates of devolved governance.

There is clear evidence that the system of decentralisation is being reconsidered. Local councillors tend to be as accountable if not more so to their political parties as they are to communities. This is in no small part due to the proportional representation system and the fact that local government is widely seen as a stepping stone to political careers rather than community-level public service. Public opinion suggests disillusion with local politicians perceived to indulge in rent-seeking but many communities do not express this gripe at the ballot box voting on the basis of historical affiliation and identity.

Unfortunately without an adequately strong link to voters as seen in other countries where local elections are typified by personalities before party alignment self-interest is likely to trump public service requiring greater levels of regulation and oversight of local government to restore community interests as the focus of municipal governance. Unfortunately many mayors need to be instructed on what the acceptable budget is for mayoral vehicles parties and other perks. Common sense does not prevail.

This regulation is on the cards. Co-operative Governance Minister Richard Baloyi has suggested "a more integrated system of local government where the three spheres of government recognise their distinctiveness … but realise their objectives of being active agents of the people’s government". In other words while recognising local government’s autonomy its primary responsibilities as a developmental agent will not be sacrificed for this autonomy implying greater oversight and intervention.

This policy line comes after interventions in Mpumalanga North West the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and suggests a more tightly managed era for errant municipalities along with more targeted assistance and support.

Meanwhile Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has announced that the Public Administration Management Bill will replace the widely feared Single Public Service Bill. According to Sisulu the aim is to set national standards and systems for the public service that will encourage "mobility across different spheres of government and diminish the costly barriers to such seamless and rational mobility". While many fear that the single-public-service concept will roll back the negotiated gains of federal structures that allow for opposition rule in certain municipalities and provinces Sisulu said: "We do not want to run municipalities and provinces. We want them to be run within national standards and regulations."

These standards will bolster the politically sensitive Municipal Systems Amendment Act which was driven by the Cabinet to ensure top managerial capacity and qualifications trump political affiliation. The act was recently used by the South African Municipal Workers Union to halt the appointment of an "unfit" municipal manager — an irony given that the union and the Congress of South African Trade Unions opposed the legislation but appear to have since embraced it as a tool for accountability.

There is a clear focus on getting local government to work better through more attuned co-operative governance national standards and regulations and the enactment of the act. For provincial departments it implies more acute oversight and targeted support. For local government it implies that municipalities need to earn their autonomy and should look forward to an era of greater support where they face difficulties.