Local is not lekker with stressed councils in a vacuum

Local government was famously dubbed "the hands and feet of the Reconstruction and Development Programme" by Jay Naidoo when he was minister in the office of the president. Tasked with delivering basic services the sector is fundamentally important to all South Africans.

More than two decades later local government has no hands and feet and is on its knees. Municipalities are in the unenviable position of intense demands for delivery from increasingly and understandably impatient communities while being hobbled with shrinking resources in a recessionary environment.

As of the end of September our Municipal Hotspots Monitor recorded about 152 municipal service delivery protests. If they continue at the same rate as the first three quarters of 2017 the year’s total number of service delivery protests will eclipse all other years since 2004 when we began recording protests staged against municipalities.

After an unprecedented rash of protests in the second quarter protests have shown a downward trend which suggests a new record is not necessarily inevitable. Nonetheless 2017 will be remembered for sustained protest activity in several communities especially in Gauteng.

One of the interesting features of these protests was the demand for better employment prospects and job opportunities — which is well beyond the mandate and capacity of local government. And yet the shift from demands for basic services and housing came as no surprise to local officials who had heard a growing number of pleas for permanent employment from Expanded Public Works Programme beneficiaries in communities buckling under high unemployment levels and shrinking opportunities.

Desperation to secure a well-paid public sector career and potentially leverage business opportunities has been attributed as one of the motives behind the odious killing of councillors especially in KwaZulu-Natal.

According to the South African Local Government Association (Salga) 43 councillors have been killed since 2011. Officials have also been in the firing line often those who had tried to curb corrupt practices. Submissions to the Moerane commission show that this wave of killing in the jostling for employment and power has gone unchecked for a long time. Despite some tough talk at the time of Sindiso Magaqa’s heartbreaking funeral in September hired guns appear to still have the upper hand.

A consequence is that local government has become an especially unattractive place for public sector professionals to work with Salga estimating that municipal managers see out an average term of 3.3 years.

This is hopelessly inadequate in a sector with such complex technical delivery challenges and financial pressures. It also creates institutional instability in municipalities that operate in five-year cycles. Competence and professionalism should be the only consideration in appointing officials in the sector and once in these positions ensuring service delivery with a nonpartisan focus should be supported by council leaders.

To make matters more complex for beleaguered officials several key municipalities are governed by delicate coalition arrangements. After a turbulent patch the EFF appears to have ironed out differences with the DA and United Democratic Movement making it clear that these arrangements are of an ad hoc nature and should not be taken for granted.

Boycotting EFF councillors have demonstrated in Johannesburg that they can grind council procedures to a halt – a precarious political arrangement for the country’s fiscally largest municipality.

Even within ANC-run councils politics casts a long shadow over many municipalities in the run-up to the party’s leadership contest in December.

The more politicised the council appointments the more vulnerable municipalities are to factionalism with delivery becoming the victim in local proxy battles.

Intergovernmental tensions have also surfaced as a complexity in delivery. Consider the case of the inflamed Sicelo informal settlement in Meyerton which falls under DA-run Midvaal. Protesters are said to be demanding housing — a competence of the provincial ANC-run government and are almost permanently obstructing the important arterial route R59.

Midvaal has complained that the (national) policing response to this situation has been poor with the infamous Red Ants security company called in. A disabled man was killed during the protests.

Accelerating delivery has become increasingly difficult too with municipalities unable to arrest rising consumer debt. While recessionary conditions inevitably imply weakened rates bases and rising debt from hard-pressed consumers they also require augmented access to free basic services as the number of indigent residents swell.

Eskom’s above-inflation proposed price hikes will put local governments in a difficult position as they pass this on to consumers and they will find the opportunity for cross-subsidy chipped away. Even worse wealthier consumers and industrialists are looking to off-grid solutions which will permanently strip local coffers of electricity surpluses.

What do all these pressures mean? Local government requires two fundamental forms of support. First it needs oversight by national and provincial structures to ensure assistance and where necessary intervention in municipalities failing to live up to their mandate.

It also needs insulation as much as possible from politics. Competence and professionalism should be the only consideration in appointing officials in the sector and once in these positions ensuring service delivery with a nonpartisan focus should be supported by council leaders.

There’s a good deal that also needs to happen in the sector as a whole. Examples of successful "war-room" strategies should be institutionalised at all municipalities to ensure communities are meaningfully heard when they take to the streets to protest against poor service delivery and that intergovernmental obstacles are unblocked.

The policing of protests remains profoundly worrying. While not a local government protest the picture of a Hout Bay teenager sheltering from police in an incident that left his mouth severely injured is one of the more disturbing images of 2017.

Many community members complain that the police do little other than clear main roads with protest activity turning inward to communities resulting in spaza shops and business often foreign-owned being torched and looted.

Acts of vigilantism are becoming more common along with audacious crimes of opportunism. During a recent protest near Tzaneen passing motorists were forced to pay a toll to be allowed to continue their journey past a protest site.

When police do move into protesting communities — beyond the transport routes that communities have learnt to shut down to ensure attention and publicity — their responses are escalated to violence which frays the fabric of marginalised communities even further.

Better public policing is needed to restore authority in communities as well as a relationship of trust.

In areas where there are political assassinations it is imperative that police investigate and the perpetrators both the assassins and those who hire them are brought to book. The law of the gun cannot be allowed to take hold of some of the country’s poorest regions.

All of these strands collectively tie into a worrying policy vacuum that is required to deal with the multiple and complex crises facing the country’s local government systems.

Accountability — from errant and criminal protesters to corrupt officials and incompetent councillors — needs to become a central priority.

The current conditions allow no room for error or waste if local service delivery is to balance the complex demands facing the sector.