Gordhan will set to work on municipal failings

The much-awaited announcement of President Jacob Zuma’s new Cabinet had only a few surprises. It was more of a reshuffle than a new team with the most notable exception — Pravin Gordhan’s redeployment from finance minister to co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister — affecting local government.

While the move has been greeted by the media with surprise and interpreted as a demotion the well-respected minister’s shift could also be read as Zuma homing in on the imperative of addressing local government’s shortcomings not only in support of the National Development Plan but also in the run-up to the 2016 local government elections.

The surprise is that Gordhan was given a "lesser" portfolio notwithstanding that since 2009 he had managed to play a well-balanced role as finance minister winning the approval of the markets without affronting left-leaning partners of the African National Congress (ANC).

His deployment to co-operative governance can either be read as a falling out of favour or an active attempt to address shortcomings in the municipal sector by deploying a hard-hitting minister known for his ability to turn around complex areas such as revenue collection systems at the South African Revenue Service (SARS) where he served as an impressive commissioner before his appointment as finance minister in 2009.

For the local government sector it is likely that the tough-talking frugal Gordhan will be focusing on improved spending outcomes in municipalities as well as increasing accountability through better process management such as increasing the focus on procurement policy and supply chain management. He may well given the tenor of past budget speeches focus some energy on regulating and enforcing standards in the sector that root out waste and corruption.

His familiarity with local government finances will be valuable as the sector faces revisions to intergovernmental transfers. Gordhan’s appointment addresses the widely held view that financial constraints and inequities hinder local government’s ability to deliver services.

It will also be interesting to see what Gordhan’s appointment will mean for the Department of Co-operative Governance. It is likely that a confident technocratically minded minister such as Gordhan may well choose to consolidate the department and bring some of the more unwieldy elements — such as the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agency — under closer control of the centre.

This may mean yet another period of planning and realignment for a department that has seen four new ministers in five years but given Gordhan’s personality it will in all likelihood be carried out with a sense of urgency and with strict cost containment.

Gordhan is also at an advantage of having some background in the sector having played a role in drafting the still-seminal White Paper for Local Government in the late 1990s as chairman of Parliament’s constitutional committee at the time before his departure to SARS. He will also be ably assisted by a relatively new but by now well-acquainted deputy Andries Nel who brings a useful legal background to the team.

The frequent change in leadership and the ensuing instability it would inevitably have caused could not have been good for the Department of Co-operative Governance or indeed the sector generally. This at a time of growing instability and crisis in the sector as service delivery protests become increasingly more entrenched and accepted as the best way of getting one’s message heard. But on the plus side local government has never seen the deployment of as senior or technically skilled a politician.

Local government needs to buckle up for the ride ahead to the next set of elections. There is little doubt that the ANC still recovering from an erosion of support in many metro areas in this month’s national and provincial elections will want to bolster its performance in both fast-growing urban and struggling rural areas and it is hoped the party has chosen decisive leadership for the job.

It is incumbent on the new minister to step up and show leadership on a number of issues in the sector primarily on the issue of service delivery but also on a range of other issues relating to the performance of municipalities.