With a few exceptions, the multiple failures across municipal government in South Africa reflect the worst of what is wrong in the country. It also reflects arguably the biggest failure of the ANC since 1994 when it assumed the role and responsibilities of being this country’s government.
Instead of municipalities being the coalface of effective administration, development, growth and prosperity, they have in many instances become the political and economic cesspools of South Africa. The most debilitating albatross around this country’s neck, and the weakest link in the state’s delivery chain.
Local government is supposed to be the frontline of delivery to the people and the most direct point of contact between citizens and the state. In a special dual electoral system that differs from the purely proportional representation system at national and provincial level, it is also the level at which elected political representatives have been rendered the most directly accountable to the public by means of ward councillors.
Yet despite this, it is also the tier of government that has performed the worst of all three tiers.
So bad is it, that in 2018 it triggered a “service delivery” protest in some or other community every one-and-a-half days. And that excludes many other related protests in communities that are not counted under the narrow definition of service delivery protests as monitored by Municipal IQ. The number in 2019 was only slightly less. But the high “voter turnout” on the streets certainly is indicative of a serious political problem.
This is one of South Africa’s biggest failures and requires a concerted national effort of rescue and revival that may even have to exceed the current national effort to combat Covid-19. The alternative is that before long, instead of knocking on the doors of local municipal offices, enraged mobs will be tearing down the doors of the Union Buildings.
Who’s to blame?
Yes, this negative state of local government in South Africa is perhaps in many respects testimony to the lingering legacies of apartheid. But we have had a quarter of a century in which to fix much of that – which we haven’t.
So, in large part it is also testimony to the political and policy failures of the governing ANC, but also to the overlapping and/or resultant weakening of the state’s capacity for delivery and development under an ANC government, most notably under the infamous administration of one Jacob Zuma.
Since coming to power, the ANC has undeniably improved the lives of many in areas such as housing, water, sanitation, electricity provision, building of clinics, or access to education, among other things. But it simultaneously failed and continues to fail millions of people with the tangible impacts of this failure being concentrated at local government level. While the government provides material benefits and restores the dignity of people with one hand, it withholds all of this with the other.
Neglect and subversion
This picture of neglect and subversion is manifest in the many sprawling informal, crowded and unhygienic shack settlements; a stagnant economy with extremely high unemployment levels that impacts most excessively at local level; lack of basic municipal services like electricity, water, sanitation or refuse removal in many local areas (despite advances in others); corruption with housing allocation; potholed roads and other crumbling infrastructure; lack of local development and jobs; nepotism and political patronage in municipalities; corruption, tender irregularities, inefficiency and theft of public money in municipalities; and high crime levels in poorly policed, unsafe neighbourhoods.
Of course, going hand in hand with all of this are things like high dropout rates in schools, serious malnutrition, drug abuse, other health issues, the proliferation of criminal youth gangs, alcohol abuse, and family violence, among many other social ills.
Due to a lack of efficient political and administrative authority and effective law enforcement, local development in service of the citizens is undermined further as local politicians, businessmen and gangsters collaborate in criminal enterprises. Just ask any of the many construction contractors busy building houses or roads in townships who have had their equipment hijacked or have themselves been held hostage by these criminal mafia groups for a slice of the business profits.
And often, when communal tempers flare over this or that political or other issue, it is public schools, libraries, clinics, municipal offices, or the houses of politicians that are destroyed. It is because these have ironically become the symbols of official neglect and corruption, the nearest or only tangible assets representing a system that has failed the people, and thus the target for their frustrations and anger.
Land and housing
On another level, as the governing party engages in protracted debates with opposition parties and lobby groups over land reform premised mostly around the emotive demands for farm and rural land, the most pressing land requirement is the need for urban housing land.
In this respect the state – mostly municipalities – owns vast unutilised parcels of urban land. But instead of freeing these up for housing purposes, much of the land remains unutilised until it is invaded and illegal shacks are erected, law enforcement and demolishers eventually move in, and new, highly tense conflict zones are created between the government and the people.
This is not to say that no land is being freed up or no housing is being constructed. In fact, at the national level the Department of Human Settlements, in cooperation with other tiers of government, has a number of major projects in various stages of completion. But demand still far outstrips provision, and it is especially local governments that are not doing enough.
And local administrations often fail completely when it comes to handing over completed houses to those legitimately on waiting lists as criminal and unauthorised local political elements take over control, or the socio-economically disenfranchised practice self-entitlement. There are many sad stories of legitimate receivers of new homes being denied occupation of their homes by such elements, with local authorities seemingly helpless or unwilling to step in.
Yes, local authorities, politicians, officials and other political administrations will be quick to point to legal impediments, lack of funding, backlogs, cumbersome administrative processes and the likes, but it’s far easier to hide behind a wall of bureaucratic red tape and excuses instead of owning up to their own incompetence and failures. Or doing something constructive about it.
If any more proof is required of the dreadful state of local government in South Africa, one need look no further than outgoing Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu’s municipal audit results report for 2018-19 released on July 1. It makes for shocking reading with a mere 20 of SA’s 257 municipalities receiving clean audits for the 2018/2019 financial year.
As more municipalities regressed in the period under audit, irregular expenditure exceeded a staggering R32 billion, millions of rands simply disappeared without trace, corruption seems to be everywhere, and delivery and development was as elusive as a snowstorm in the Sahara. R32 billion – just think how many houses, clinics, libraries or even hospitals and schools could have been built with that.
As with the 2016 local government elections, next year’s elections – still scheduled at this stage to take place in August 2021 – will prove a tough battleground for political parties, and the state of local government will naturally be a major factor. Of course, a complicating factor will be the impacts – not yet fully known – of the current coronavirus crisis and South Africa’s national lockdown. Arguably the responses and eventual outcomes in this sphere too could have been far better, had a facilitating network of efficient and capable municipalities existed to be a functional part of the battle.
Making matters worse was the advent of coalition governments in metros and local municipalities. These are subject to constant power struggles among apolitical parties that seriously hamper or even prevent service delivery and other essential functions.
When Cyril Ramaphosa came to power as South Africa’s new president, he promised to root out corruption and bring the guilty to book. But looking at the AG’s audits and the state of local government, and despite a handful of high-profile arrests and cases in a few municipalities, this promise remains unfulfilled in the majority of municipalities badly affected by this scourge.
Breeding ground for revolt
In their current state, the majority of South African municipalities are also ideal breeding grounds for popular dissent that could easily boil over on a large scale. Or be abused by unscrupulous political operators. We have already witnessed the escalation of community protests; it could get much worse quite easily. All the ingredients that potentially could contribute to a popular revolt in any country, are collectively concentrated within many of South Africa’s municipalities.
Those are included in the ills already listed above, to which can be added high levels of youth unemployment; lack of access to jobs, training, skills or further education; extreme poverty; poor public transport; corrupt politicians and law enforcers; political violence and incitement; and in general the feeling of having been excluded and forgotten when it comes to the “better life for all” promised by the ANC post-1994. That poses a huge risk for this country.
What to do?
There is no one quick and easy fix-it-all solution. It will require integrated planning applied and implemented holistically and at the same time specifically. The politics of the governing party, including its current internal turf and ideological wars, government policies, implementation and delivery mechanisms, funding and financial controls, socio-economic issues, strengthening the weak state capacity, driving the clear and concise aims of the developmental state, drastically improving law and order, and a host of other things will all have to receive results-focused attention.
A good start would be to do away with the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment – where political loyalty overrides capability – in favour of establishing a capable, professional and politically neutral civil service. Various high-ranking ANC members have in the past themselves noted the need for this, and while the ANC pays lip service to doing so, in practice, especially at the local level, it continues as part of a political patronage system. It is crippling efficient service delivery and encouraging corruption.
Important areas that require a complete overhaul to underpin any renewal, developmental and growth initiatives at local level would be integrated spatial development and urbanisation policies and planning. With well over 60% of South Africans already living in urban areas and projections being that the number will rise to 71% or more by 2030, the country will be in deep trouble if it does not urgently address these issues. Inner-city renewals, improved public transport systems, freeing up land for housing provision, improved and corruption-free policing, easily accessible places of education and work, and local healthcare systems, all form part of this.
Additionally, the ANC should reach some pact with its alliance partner COSATU to ease the stranglehold of unions on municipalities. Improving the lives of people and delivering basic services to them, should not be a terrain of selfish labour battles to the absolute detriment of other citizens.
It is not that government is not trying; it just has not been very successful so far. Policies and plans there are many of, some less feasible than others, but when it comes to implementation, or the political will to enforce, that is where the paralysis and subsequent decay set in.
For instance, Treasury recently published its much-anticipated municipal cost containment regulations effective from July 1, the same time that the AG published his shocking report. These new regulations aim to ensure that municipal resources are used effectively, efficiently and economically and will apply to all officials and political office bearers, addressing the worst excesses at local government level. But to be effective they will have to overcome a long-entrenched political and institutional culture of entitlement and abuse. And Treasury will have to have the will and the tools to enforce it.
Equally, there has recently been much discussion in the media of alleged government plans for a permanent structure along the lines of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) to plan, oversee, coordinate and implement development at especially the local level. Correctly set up and controlled with proper accountability, it could be a good thing. But the apparent architect of the plan and high levels of public suspicion towards the NCCC, has made this idea suspect even long before it might get off the ground. But something needs to be done, or the high levels of disarray and distress at local level could well end in disaster.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist. He provides political risk analyses to corporate, research, diplomatic and other clients for over three decades. He writes for DDP in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of the organization.