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Time for a Radical Change in Local Authority Governance

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radical change in local authority governance
According to the country’s Auditor General, most of South Africa’s 257 municipalities are in a disastrous financial position.

The Auditor General’s Report further accentuates the fact that only 33 (13%) of our municipalities are in full compliance with the relevant legal requirements and produced quality financial statements and performance reports.

Despite several governance interventions since the establishment of the local government some 20 years ago, local government is regressing due to the lack of accountability and a culture of tolerance for transgressions and the transgressors. The one area of serious concern is the failure of effective and efficient management of financial resources. Indeed it is a sad indictment for local government – they have failed the country miserably.

Effective and efficient management of service delivery is the key to good governance and the local government sector has not demonstrated sound governance principles in this regard. Financial disciplines in terms of control and accountability has been by far from acceptable, especially in terms of governance norms and standards. In some instances accountability has been nonexistent. The Auditor General’s Management Reports for the past three decades draws a bleak picture relating to the mismanagement of local government funds. Interventions through policy changes have simply not worked.

Despite violent civil society protest actions, which sometimes border on insurrection, local government still finds itself where it is – nothing changes and financial and other resources are depleted either through wholesale mismanagement or corruption.  

The introduction of stringent audit interventions such has the Municipal Public Account Committees (MPAC) around 2012/2013, which dubbed as a’ watchdog’ to ensure clean audits in municipalities has done very little to change the depressing scenario. The functioning of this committee was seen as an institutional instrument in municipalities that would facilitate the separation of powers between the council, the executive and legislature and strengthen oversight in the financial management. The negative financial situation has not abated, and problems now seem to have become almost intractable.

Due to the serious financial mismanagement of local government which has reached unacceptable levels, municipalities are unable to deliver basic services such as housing, refuse removal, clean water, electricity and sanitation to the South African citizenry. This also leads to the lack of maintenance of the current infrastructure in almost every municipality. Despite the Constitution of 1996 and the various other pieces of legislation such as the Municipal Finance Management Act of 2003, Municipal Systems Act of 2000, and Municipal Structures Act of 1998 which empower the legislative and executive arms of municipalities to ensure accountability in the areas of financial management and the provision of services, the malady continues.

According to the Auditor General, the disastrous affairs in the mismanagement of finances and the non-delivery of basic service at local government level is as a result of lack of financial and management skills, political interference and infighting between councilors and the failure to fill key strategic positions. Recent indictments of key municipal officers in the eThekwheni Municipality for alleged corruption bear adequate testimony to the Auditor General’s claims. 

Given this disastrous situation, the critical question which arises is “How do we fix the Problem”?

Firstly, and most importantly local government must accept its failures in the areas of management financial resources and the delivery of basic services. Once this has been accepted then they need to understand their Constitutional roles to eradicate the problems.

As per the various local government legislations provision is made for co-operation between the three spheres of government. This will ensure that local government is supported both by the national and provincial government to perform their fiduciary responsibilities. The appointment of key officials should be based on merit and those who are qualified and have the necessary experience and skills and competencies should be employed. This is non-negotiable. It should become compulsory for senior management officials to attend strategic training and development programmes, especially in matters pertaining to the implementation of policies, rules, regulations, and governance. This will strengthen the capacity issues in terms of better performance.  On-going evaluation and monitoring especially in the financial and service delivery performance of municipalities, this will help to ensure gaps are identified dealt with immediately.

More and better externally based monitoring and evaluation units need to be appointed. In this respect the functions of the audit committee should expand its role to include other duties beyond financial control. Ratepayer Associations should be brought in to be part of this monitoring and evaluation role. They are after all those who pay for the services rendered by the municipality. A special court to deal with minor transgressions of compliance should be set up to deal with these offences on a speedy basis. Municipal malpractices have to be curtailed for service delivery to become the norm and not the outcome of the role of a dice or whom you know in the municipal office. Justice has to be meted out swiftly in order that other violators of the law become aware that their misdeeds will not be buried in bureaucracy and that they are not beyond the long arm of the law.

As much as the State has legislated some extremely important pieces of legislation and instituted co-operative structures to assist municipalities to combat corruption that leads to the mismanagement of financial resources and non -delivery of essential services, sadly this seems insufficient. It is time to seriously engage with civil society and the broader public in order to get back to grass roots discussion to establish the proper bona fides of a municipal office. We have to be reminded that the municipal office was set up to serve the people and not the other way around. Municipalities are legally obliged to provide sustainable services to the citizens that they were mandated constitutionally to do when they was established. For after all, we live in a democracy.

Finally we need to heed the words of the former Secretary General of the United Nations when he so rightly pointed out “Building sustainable cities – and a sustainable future – will need open dialogue among all branches of national, regional and local government. And it will need the engagement of all stakeholders – including the private sector and civil society, and especially the poor and marginalized”.

Daniel Govender is an Academic at REGENT Business School and writes in his personal capacity.

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