Government needs to re-invigorate municipalities

Sydenhams Lacey Road informal settlement residents are forced to contend with rubbish and raw sewage that flows through their area.

One of the strategies that can reinvigorate our municipalities in order for them to achieve acceptable levels of service delivery is the re-engineering and the re-organisation of the entire local government institution.  This does not suggest that this will be a panacea to all the challenges faced by many municipalities. But our local government will continue in its downward spiral if government fails to pay closer attention to a number of factors that cause poor service delivery. 

It’s well known that most councillors lack adequate education to enable them to function optimally and effectively. This is a glaring barrier not only to effective service delivery but also to good governance.  This can be addressed by requiring every councillor to possess at least a tertiary qualification before they are considered for the position. The purpose is to attract suitable politicians to play an oversight role and administrators to run municipalities.

It’s fallacious to argue against educational qualification as a prerequisite for a municipal role. This argument fails to take into account the fact that we are not living in the Stone Age, but in the 21st century where we have to be part of the global village by adopting and introducing technological innovations in pursuit of a better life for all. This task requires a combination of skills, education and capabilities which many councillors lack. This leaves our communities even poorer because illiterate and uneducated politicians are incapable of understanding complex ideas and cannot make use of various sources to develop concepts that could benefit our communities.

Furthermore the undue influence councillors exert on municipalities especially in the recruitment, hiring and firing of administrators, is another peculiarity that bedevils our municipalities. And this breeds nepotism, bribery and corruption and stifles service delivery initiatives. If government is serious about effective service delivery, it must draw a line between political office bearers and municipal administrators. Councillors must serve their oversight role and allow officials to drive service delivery initiatives, because, among others, officials are appointed, or should be appointed on the basis of their knowledge, skills and experience. This is what sets them apart from politically appointed councillors whose only qualifying criterion is membership of a political party.

Compounding this is the absence of citizen participation in municipalities. This is inconsistent with the Constitution which enjoins local government to facilitate and encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government. 

And the White Paper on Local Government gives practical meaning to this constitutional imperative and notes that municipalities require the active participation by its community, where voters will, among others things, ensure maximum democratic accountability of the elected political leadership for the policies they are empowered to promote, and that communities can express views through different stakeholder associations before and after the policies have been implemented to ensure that such policies benefit the community.

This approach is a departure from apartheid South Africa that was characterised by unilateral decision making processes and systems of government that favoured a less population of the country.  During apartheid administration, key decisions were taken without the majority of citizens being involved, which resulted in skewed delivery of services and a biased system of governing.

And on the contrary, in post-apartheid South Africa community participation has become synonymous with good governance. For example the Municipal Structures Act requires Executive Mayors to annually report on the involvement of community organisations in the affairs of the municipality and ensure that due regard is given to public views and report on the effort of consultation on the decisions of council.

But looking at relationships between local government and communities in post-apartheid South Africa, it’s easy to observe the continuation of apartheid practices, but now pursued within a democratic dispensation, which masks its similarities with apartheid strategies and tactics regarding the exclusion of communities in decision making.  And as a result negative tendencies like nepotism, bribery and corruption manifested and entrenched themselves and became established and acceptable norms in the running of municipal affairs.

And the lack of community participation is not accidental, but a deliberate and well calculated strategy intended to insulate local government from public scrutiny and allow politicians and administrators to engage in questionable dealings and activities with impunity, while abdicating their duties and responsibilities of working with communities in identifying lasting solutions to development challenges.

And numerous studies conducted over the past decade in the area of development communication and public administration all point out glaring indications of a lack of participation and the tendency of local government administrations to over emphasize their bureaucratic control as well as perpetuating the marginalisation of citizens. If the governing is genuine in its concerns about lack of service delivery at Local Government level, it must put people first.

Gay GR Khaile has worked for the various government departments as Director of Communication. During that time, he wrote various opinion pieces as a contribution to newspaper’s as a way to inform and educate our citizens. Gay is currently retired and resides in Johannesburg.