William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

The slow and steady drift of Nala to nada

Nala is the Sesotho word for prosperity. It is also the sad choice of name for what is now officially South Africa’s most spectacularly failed municipality, the first to have the National Treasury switch off budgetary life support.

The state pulling the plug on annual transfers in excess of R200 million was an act of mercy. While this is not the only local authority in extremis, Nala has been flat-lining for half a dozen years. None of several emergency interventions has failed to kick-start a pulse.

Though one must marvel that it has taken so long for the stench of putrefaction to permeate to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s office and wonder which hapless municipality will succumb next. In the Free State alone, Nala, with a population of 130 000, is one of three municipalities on government drip-feeds, encompassing increased oversight and managerial interventions.

While Nala’s name is now a bad joke, it was not doomed to failure from the start. At launch, it boasted that with proper development it would be one of the country’s richest local authorities.

For Nala sits smack in the middle of the prosperous Free State mielie belt, centred on Bothaville, SA’s so-called Maize Capital. Since it extracts a large amount of its rates income from farmers – to whom it provides zero electricity, water or sewage services – it should be well placed to achieve its mandate of extending basic services to indigent township dwellers.

Instead Nala failed dismally and hasn’t even produced audited accounts since 2007/8. Its decline into corruption and mismanagement was noted all along the way by provincial and national government departments, by state development agencies, by the Auditor-General, by the National Prosecuting Authority, by the Public Protector, by Parliament, and in a KPMG forensic report. Yet despite everything, including two years under direct provincial administration, the plundering and incompetence continued.

There is a powerful metaphor for inherited deprivation and failed service delivery. It is the bucket system of sewage disposal. So it’s instructive to look at Nala’s inability to do anything with “night soil” buckets other than kick them over.

Since formation, Nala has budgeted around R10 million a year to introduce waterborne sewage. Central government recently contributed another R52 million but then withdrew from the process because of corruption. The first phase, although initially declared a success, has since collapsed because the reticulation piping was stolen.

So to put it bluntly, the shit’s still there. Water affairs reports that though Nala buys pure water, by the time it delivers this domestically the water is teeming with E.coli bacteria – faecal contamination – posing “an unacceptable risk for human consumption”. The unfortunate residents of Nala have little alternative, however.

Nala also spent R6 million on an accounting package that didn’t work and hasn’t collected rates for two years, leaving it R200 million in the dwang. Despite forensic recommendations and parliamentary committees angry over corruption, no municipal official has been criminally charged. One was fired in in response to street protests and is suing for unfair dismissal.

This didn’t happen in a void. National and provincial government watched the unfolding disaster, imbued with good intentions but incapable of intervening effectively.

Dr Andrew Siddle, an expert on local government at the University of Cape Town, says he knows of not a single successful “parachuting in” of a turnaround team. Mostly the highly paid administrators “are not fit to be put in charge of a piggy bank, never mind a multimillion-rand municipality”, says Siddle. “They are subject to 101 pressures that ensure failure, including pressures to dispense financial favours and overlook transgressions.”

In the case of Nala, in February the parliamentary committee was outraged to discover that the MEC tasked by the Free State government with overseeing the administration of the province’s failed municipalities, had in fact presided as the mayor of one of them during its collapse.

This was no aberration. The round robin of officials who leave one state entity under a cloud and then pop up happily employed at another is well documented. Many of Nala’s useless municipal officials now work elsewhere in local government. Such is the African National Congress cadre’s cloak of immunity.

As Siddle puts it “our local government framework is predicated on the unrealistic assumption that every municipality would have a mature, responsive local political leadership which displays accountability towards the electorate and exercises proper oversight of a professional, competent and committed administration. The reality is far different”.

President Jacob Zuma promised that accountability would be the cornerstone of his presidency. Yet this is a concept that remains unknown to the 381 municipal officials and dozens of councillors who with impunity stripped Nala to the husk.

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