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Auditor general’s hand grenade fizzles and splutters

Auditor general Terence Nombembe has lobbed his annual hand grenade into the laps of the politicians, the local government audit report. As always, it is packed with explosive material.

Sadly, however, the incendiary fizzles and splutters but never explodes. While the collapse of local government annually excites ritualistic consternation and lamentation, nothing much is done to prevent it continuing.

This despite a growing awareness within the ANC that voter disillusionment correlates with failed service delivery, in which the critical factor is the slide of local government into a morass of corruption and incompetence. 
It is a critical factor in the growth of opposition parties, especially the Democratic Alliance, which makes much of its civic competence.

It’s in local government that the cost of ANC cadre deployment and nepotism can best be quantified. In 72% of municipalities the AG identifies incompetent officialdom as a critical factor in the failure to meet financial governance standards. 

Mayors and councillors can’t or won’t exercise oversight, laments Nombembe, and some 84% of municipal accounting officers fail to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent non-compliance. 

Only 5% of municipalities, not one a metro, got completely unqualified audits. Irregular expenditure reached R10-billion, up from R6-billion last year.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg. The AG audited only 768 municipal contracts and 6 587 quotations, a tiny fraction of the tender-related expenditure by local government. 

Nombembe specifically attributed the bleak audit result to a lack of performance management and accountability, noting that ‘only when the leadership has set a tone of decisively dealing with … malpractice’ will matters improve. 

Government of course knows this. President Jacob Zuma started his term promising that the watchwords of his administration would be service delivery, made possible by rigorous performance management and accountability.

 So Zuma will no doubt fire the minister of local government, as well as that of co-operative governance and traditional affairs. Not likely in Zuma’s presidential party nomination year. 

Instead we are supposed to be placated by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s promises of better treasury oversight of procurement, since without oversight and punishments, ‘a level of impunity’ develops [and] at the moment, those consequences are not there.’

On the other hand, there is not that much for the DA to crow about either. After successive years of unqualified audits, Cape Town failed to achieved one, mainly because of the award of contracts to councillors, officials, and their friends and family.

It was a faintly muted Western Cape Premier Helen Zille who this week promised various interventions from her DA administration in response to the stagnating standards of local government in the province There was no mention of the deterioration in performance by the jewel-in-the-crown, Cape Town.

In fact, of the five municipalites nationwide – Baviaans in the Eastern Cape, Mossel Bay, Overstrand, Swartland and Theewaterskloof municipalities in the Western Cape and Midvaal in Gauteng – that the DA have controlled for more than five years and in 2011 showed off as ‘model municipalities’ in terms in terms of service delivery criteria, only Swartland achieved an entirely unqualified financial audit.

Pressed by Eyewitness News, Zille said that the provincial government would certainly oversee Cape Town now that it knew there was a problem and that the mayor and chief financial officer ‘must give us answers’. But just to prove that municipal impudence knows no party political boundaries, Cape Town initial response was that the audit outcome was ‘old news’ and, in any case, it viewed the irregularities as ‘minor’. 

Unlike the ANC, DA councillors and officials squander and steal only small amounts of money? Well, that’s okay then.

Since then deputy-mayor, Ian Neilson, has responded with a more detailed analysis of the audit and the corrective measures that Cape Town has taken. The other 300 or so errant municipalities and civic institutions remain tjoepstil, many of them so incompetent that they are probably still unaware that the AG has reported.


  • William Saunderson-Meyer

    This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.