Humility needed from local leaders to fix towns

There is little doubt that this year will prove to be a challenging one for local government; with elections looming and a continuation of service delivery protests likely focus on service delivery will be heightened. What then are the priorities to fulfil not only the developmental mandate of local government but also rising community expectations?

Local government’s reputation is poor. Last year’s South African Reconciliation Barometer found that local government had the poorest levels of public confidence of all state institutions. This resonates with the fact that service delivery protests tallied a record high on Municipal IQ’s Municipal Hotspots Monitor last year.

Finding a solution is important for all South Africans given the scope of local government’s reach. It is also a timely issue for politicians who have turned their attention to next year’s local government elections — a focus that is welcome for many communities feeling neglected.

The single most important shift for municipalities to make is a realignment of focus to ensure delivery. This conclusion may sound glib but it requires fundamental humility from elected leaders and officials to ensure that municipalities are dedicated to public service not career building or remuneration.

It is also nothing new and is very much suggested by the Back to Basics campaign but to work it needs to become a personal commitment by all involved in local government and one that should be institutionalised and incentivised by a number of measures including:

• Supporting legislation (the Municipal Systems Amendment Act) and key political messages need to be implemented to ensure a professional government and the appointment of qualified personnel.

There is now widespread recognition that nepotism can destroy delivery in municipalities but it is likely that in the short term appointments on merit will prove difficult with elections looming and factionalism rampant. For officials it remains as ever a critical precondition for delivery by enabling a nonpartisan focus when rolling out projects regardless of election timetables and the need for ribbon-cutting projects.

Political maturity is required on the part of all political parties. In the long term there will be an alignment of interests — more competent local government will allow for a focus and debate on political agendas rather than crises.

• Interpretation of Back to Basics is required by each municipality to ensure efficient delivery of much-needed core services. A new ethos has been implied by the Back to Basics engineer Co-operative Governance Minister Pravin Gordhan — a stripping down of nonessential spending and a focus on the needs of communities at the core of municipal operations. This adjustment is fundamentally important to win the support of disenchanted communities as well as to ensure the optimal allocation of resources.

While progress may have been made over the past 20 years in delivering basic services backlogs have yet to be universally closed and they continue in fast-growing areas while new challenges (such as maintenance and quality service provision) remain pronounced for all local government administrations. Underspending on capital grants and budgets suggest that Back to Basics need not necessarily imply austerity but rather frugality and developmental focus.

• Tackling debt which is inching towards R100bn remains an essential priority for local government. Work by the Treasury to better understand the nature of this debt is important and should be engaged in by all municipalities.

• It is important that municipalities build institutional responses to service delivery protests. While they are unlikely to recede significantly (if at all) their intensity can be managed by better forms of communication. Offering alternative forms of engagement (that ensure feedback) such as petitions processes better informed ward committees and competent community development workers should be bolstered in all municipalities. Procedures for organising protests should be widely disseminated and protests should be facilitated to mitigate against violence.

• Finally it is imperative that municipalities be seen to overcome corruption — responding to allegations rooting out corrupt practices and officials laying charges and suspending officials.

While these measures are weighty they are all necessary to restore local government’s reputation.