Sphamandla Brian Mhlongo, Senior Programmes Officer at the DDP
This three-part Mail & Guardian webinar series was sponsored by the Democracy Development Program (DDP). The first webinar featured Aubrey Matshiqi, Independent Political Analyst; Kavisha Pillay, Head of Stakeholder Relations and Campaigns at Corruption Watch; and Sphamandla Brian Mhlongo, Senior Programmes Officer at the DDP. It was moderated by Dr Dirk Brand, Extraordinary Senior Lecturer at the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University.
Corruption at local government level is a direct attack on South African communities and it violates their constitutional rights to decent services. The speakers in this three-part webinar series unpacked a variety of issues that may help to address endemic corruption and lack of service delivery, such as really listening to what communities need, really enforcing anti-corruption legislation, protecting whistle-blowers at local level, and learning from the lessons of Covid-19 and lockdown.
We are all affected by the failures of local government (LG), and it is clear what its role is, so why are so many LGs failing in their tasks, as evidenced by the auditor-general’s reports, asked Dr Dirk Brand? He then introduced Aubrey Matshiqi and Kavisha Pillay.
Matshiqi said that in 1984 some councillors were killed by members of the community in the Vaal Triangle, and six of their killers were sentenced to death. MK launched an attack on the Urban Bantu Council in Soweto some years later. This was because there was a lot of resistance to LG under apartheid rule, and the people involved in it were seen as sell-outs. There were many inequalities in LGs regarding white and black communities, and some communities did not have LGs at all. Today’s LGs are supposed to deliver the antithesis of apartheid LGs.
LGs are supposed to promote non-racial development, in a decentralised manner. According to their policy framework, they should deliver, but the reality does not match up; LGs are failing to live up to the promises of development outlined in the constitution. Perhaps we were idealistic, and did not take into account the local conditions and the economy of many areas, which lack an economic base, or it is too narrow. Perhaps there is a need to recalibrate the state of local and provincial developmental programmes, so there is no mismatch between what is expected and what is possible. Is there a sufficiently strong economic base? When citizens vote next year, they must raise this issue.
The corruption that is happening at local government level is the same occurring at higher levels and in state-owned enterprises, said Pillay. LGs were regarded as the second-most corrupt institutions after the police in a recent survey, the Global Corruption Barometer. Corruption in LGs is a direct attack on the people; it prevents development from happening and from systemic inequality being addressed. There have been over 31 000 complaints received by Corruption Watch, about half at local level. Whistle-blowers have indicated there is embezzlement at local municipal level, bribery of officials regarding issuing licences, “sextortion” of women who want to receive RDP houses, etcetera.
Corruption directly affects communities, for instance when Eskom cuts off people who have paid electricity, but it was actually the local council that stole their money. There were many reports of food parcels being stolen or distributed on a system of patronage during lockdown. Corruption usually occurs at local level because there is no accountability; officials act with a sense of impunity.
People must participate in democracy beyond just casting a vote; they must keep councillors accountable. Information must be open to comment and feedback. Municipalities must have an open-door policy and create environments that enable whistle-blowing. Citizens should be vigilant and aware and initiatives should be put in place for them to help to overcome corruption, such as citizen report cards.
Is there sufficient anti-corruption legislation? Pillay said that there is, but there is not enough will or capacity to enforce it. The Local Government Anti-Corruption Forum was recently formed to help in this regard. Citizens must become more involved, so Corruption Watch is scaling up making the information they need available. Matshiqi said there are many policies but little implementation; and the state must bridge the gap between words and action.
Those doing monitoring and evaluation rely mainly on reports sent to them. The state must be able to monitor and intervene almost in real time, using modern technology. The model must be recalibrated — there is a mismatch between what is expected of municipalities and what they are able to deliver — they must be more aligned with their available resources.
Corruption has become endemic and systemic; our biggest problem in South Africa is inequality, which makes it difficult to prevent or reduce corruption. Poor people are far more likely to engage in corruption because they have no other choice; it is one way for the vulnerable to access services. We need to have more nuanced discussions about corruption.
Matshiqi said we must ensure that citizens can take part, and civil society has a big role to play here. Pillay agreed, and said tools must be developed to hold local official accountable. There must be more investigations at LG level and ensure that there are consequences. The culture of impunity must end.
Sphamandla Brian Mhlongo said that citizens must be empowered to hold LG officials to account. Social auditing tools are useful in this regard. This comment came from audience member Mdu Mkhonza: “Until such time that we implement community-based planning and monitoring, the status quo will remain.”