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Towards a functional local government: Tools to end a crisis


By Commissioner Philile Ntuli:

30 April 2023

Having inherited systemic fragmentation, deep racial divides, massive socio-economic and service delivery inequalities – the local government sphere has faced great challenges in promoting human rights, addressing past backlogs and spatial distortions, and planning for a sustainable future, writes Philile Ntuli.

Across all locales of South African society, there is a general sense of discontent regarding service delivery in general, and the performance of municipal institutions specifically.

Having inherited systemic fragmentation, deep racial divides, massive socio-economic and service delivery inequalities – the local government sphere has faced great challenges in promoting human rights and meeting human needs, addressing past backlogs and spatial distortions, and planning for a sustainable future.

Testament to the national discontent, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) continues to receive high numbers of complaints detailing various deprivations of human rights. Service delivery-related complaints have been consistently in the top five human rights complaints lodged with the Commission in the last few years. The complaints include poor provision of community services such as water and housing, sewage spills, wastewater treatment challenges, non-collection of refuse, and unattended road potholes.

It was on the backdrop of these complaints and challenges that the Commission recently hosted a national conference on local government accountability, service delivery and human rights.  

Salient areas of concern emerged from the conference, and several recommendations were made in the subsequent report.

    State of Dysfunction

The capacity of municipalities to implement government policies and programmes, and deliver services and manage finances, has gradually and tremendously been weakened by inefficient leadership in strategic management, including corporate governance, political interference in appointments of senior managers without required qualifications, and a shortage of skills to implement financial management.

The 2022 State of Local Government Report by the National Department of Cooperative Governance (DCoG) states that 66 out of 257 municipalities across the country were dysfunctional, with 107 at medium risk. Only 30 were stable.

Attesting to this, the Auditor-General’s (AGSA) 2020/2021 report of the audit outcomes for local government showed that only 16% of municipalities had received clean audits, despite R1.26 billion having been spent on financial consultants. Moreover, the balance of irregular expenditure that accumulated over many years totalled R119.07 billion, unauthorised expenditure was R86.46 billion, while fruitless and wasteful expenditure amounted to R11.04 billion.

Further, the KwaZulu Natal Provincial Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs 2022 skills audit found that 298 of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN)’s 1944 councillors cannot read or write, and others have no formal education.

The lack of skilled personnel has resulted in a high dependency on expensive consultants. The AGSA reported that over the past five years, South African municipalities spent about R5.3 billion on consultancies, with 70% of municipalities using consultants every year.

Conversely, irregular expenditure not addressed in 2020/2021 amounted to R119 billion, unauthorised expenditure was R86 billion, and fruitless and wasteful expenditure was R11 billion. AGSA identified breaches and fraud that resulted in significant financial losses estimated at R3.9 billion, causing significant harm to both municipalities and the public.

The pace and rate of dysfunction is exacerbated by the rising coalition governments, many of which were formed after the 2016 local government elections, and have become unstable. The municipal councils of some municipalities operate under contexts of sustained deadlocks, which make it difficult for the council to pass decisions, adopt budgets, and appoint office bearers and municipal managers. Inadvertently, adverse effects are felt by communities.

    Monitoring for better performance

One of the key challenges plaguing oversight and accountability at local level include weak state monitoring and supervision of the operations of local government activities. Strong supervision involves a mixture of incentives, rewards, and sanctions to ensure proper consequence management, particularly for significant and persistent failures.

To be effective, monitoring institutions need accurate and credible information. The use of inconsistent monitoring and assessment methods leads to poor diagnosis and inconsistent outcomes and undermines the acquisition of a solid evidence base for planning, decision-making, and budget allocation. Therefore, the development and implementation of an integrated monitoring system will strengthen accountability at the local government level.

In this regard, there is greater scope for the SAHRC and other institutions to assist the Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation department (DPME) in fulfilling its monitoring mandate. The SAHRC is currently developing an integrated human rights monitoring framework that aims to strengthen the Commission's monitoring function, thereby sharpening local government accountability mechanisms.

    Pitiable Consequence management Systems

A critical recurring challenge is that of consequence management, which is currently pitiable, leading to a culture of poor performance. Key amendments were made to the Public Audit Act in 2019 (PAA), that are of paramount significance in enhancing accountability. The AGSA, unlike previously, may now hold the municipal manager personally liable if the individual is found to be in breach of their fiduciary duty during the audit.

Some, however, viewed the amendments as addressing mismanagement but not the root causes. This is because although the AGSA now has the power to issue a certificate of debt to local managers or accountants after a determination of a material or financial loss, misuse, or loss of public funds, the AGSA cannot, however, hold the National Minister of COGTA, provincial MECs, and others who exercised an oversight role accountable.

Tools to address the Local Government Crisis

    Professionalising Local Government

The lack of minimum qualifications for public officials will mean that critical public officials in decision-making positions cannot meaningfully perform their duties. As a result, a review of the recruitment selection process at local government, wherein minimum educational qualification for public office holders (mayors and councillors), is urgent and critical.

    Community Participation

Citizens must be encouraged to take an active role in the affairs and governance of their local government, especially during Integrated Development Planning process (IDPs) consultations and imbizos. Such participation will help address community frustrations with service delivery and increase citizen confidence, government accountability, and cooperation.

    Empower communities through community media

Community media is a powerful vehicle to communicate and empower communities more actively. The use of local languages in community media will assist local governments in engaging with communities in languages that they understand about the IDPs.

    The Role of academics and researchers  

A wealth of resources exists in the form of academia and research expertise. These resources, however, ought to adopt a practical orientation and be part of the building of solutions beyond the production of academic material.

    Dealing with Climate Change  

Recent erratic weather patterns and natural disasters such as the 2022 floods demonstrated that the sphere of local government is generally ill-equipped and incapacitated to deal with a multitude of human rights impacts that are triggered by disaster, particularly in the context of climate change. Local municipalities must develop disaster management strategies to respond more effectively to weather changes

In the final analysis, the sphere of local government is at the epicentre of delivery of human rights. A functional local sphere of government is needed for a healthy, competitive nation.

- Philile Ntuli is a SAHRC Commissioner

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