Isaac Mangena
Isaac Mangena

Who sucks? Our municipalities!

If I were doing Auditor-General Terence Nombembe’s job I would be very angry and demoralised about dishing out the same warnings to local governments over the dismal performance of their municipalities every year.

This week was another of those when Nombembe told us how financial management had degenerated over the past three years and irregular expenditure rose from R6 billion in 2010 to R10 billion. He also reminded us how rife corruption is — “beyond tolerable levels”. The reasons for this range from irregular tender processes to poor financial management. Our government led by the ANC should be worried because clearly something is wrong with our local government system if five of our nine provinces (including Gauteng and North West) fail to produce clean audits. Something is wrong if just 13 of our 283 municipalities receive clean audits.

Even worse is when eight metros, including Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, which are considered well-off with resources and the right people to do the job, fail to impress. But why should Nombembe, or even the public, be surprised by these revelations? They just magnify the embedded rot that is known to be there at local government level. It exposes the incompetence, lack of proper skills, lack of oversight by senior provincial and national leaders, lack of accountability by senior managers, corruption and maladministration, most of which have been identified in the government’s monitoring and frequent presidential visits, but nothing was done.

Maybe we need another monitoring unit to monitor the one appointed a few months ago. The truth is that the government cannot start crying now when it’s all written in the service delivery memoranda every day. The ANC should have raised the alarm when it started to get rejected by the electorate at the local government polls. People cannot be fooled forever. It seems these officials are a law unto themselves. Nombembe highlighted that mayors and local councillors in most of the municipalities that didn’t receive clean audits were warned before, and their reluctance or refusal to act on recommendations and intervention strategies from previous audits led to where we are now. But it cannot all be left to the auditor-general alone to deal with.

The government needs to act and enforce these recommendations. The problem of skills which was highlighted is worrying because it’s always overlooked by the government. Actually, it’s cadre deployment by the ANC which feeds municipalities with unskilled officials. The ANC puts people in positions only because they can shout President Jacob Zuma’s name louder and sing better than the rest of their comrades. If running municipalities was a pop show, we sure would have winners. The ANC should get the right people on merit and experience to run our municipalities. Does our government really want to tell us that we don’t have the right people — outside its card-carrying lot — who can run efficient local governments?

The culture of impunity is the primary reason most of those implicated in this easily get away with it. As things stand right now, there are few examples of where incompetency has been punished by the government. Laws against corruption should be strongly enforced and those responsible brought to book. The old culture of public service under which public servants serve the public honestly and efficiently should be re-instilled. Zuma and his ministers and premiers should lead by example.

If they allow corruption to happen at the top, those at the bottom will see it as a way of life. If Zuma doesn’t act against his incompetent ministers, there’s no motivation for councillors to perform well in their duties. I don’t know if we should celebrate now that the government is starting to open its eyes 18 years later to find the “link between bad audit reports and service-delivery protests”. I’m sorry Minister Collins Chabane, but the link has always been there. It’s not the first time the auditor-general has painted this picture.

Task teams that the government sent to regions plagued by service protests came back with the same results. And it shouldn’t be surprising when most municipalities in Nombembe’s report have experienced violent service protests, Mr Minister. A Setsoto municipality, which includes Ficksburg, made famous by the killing of activist Andries Tatane, is one such example. It received a qualified audit in 2009/10, and the audit was not even finalised this time. The cries of people in these municipalities are the same and their grievances are quite legitimate. In 54 municipalities, R3.7 billion meant to provide services to them was not spent. We can only hope things will get better from here. But the government needs to take the auditor-general’s recommendations seriously. Otherwise we might have to watch this important chapter nine institution collapse along with our local governments.

The article first appeared in The Witness.

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